The Documentaries of TIFF

Almost always Toronto’s strongest suit, this year’s docs flex again

The hybrid in-person/virtual Toronto International Film Festival wrapped up last weekend, bringing down the curtain on a vastly reduced event that played to local crowds in socially distanced venues. Its bellweather showcasing of the big award-bait films, such as sci-fi leviathan Dune, Lady Di biopic Spencer, and Kenneth Branagh’s Proustian autofiction Belfast, were for theater-only audiences—no streaming allowed for those titles. So this New York-based reporter hasn’t yet had the chance to see the latest TIFF audience award-winner, which this year went to Belfast. Branagh’s black-and-white evocation of his childhood in Northern Ireland by all accounts plays like a cross between two other acclaimed auteurist recollections: Alfonso Cuaron’s achingly arty Roma and John Boorman’s flinty charmer Hope and Glory. And its TIFF win bodes well for Belfast’s long slog to the Kodak Theater.

Doom and gloom
‘Attica,’ directed by Stanley Nelson, from this year’s TIFF.

How apt that TIFF crowds voted for the reality-based drama, since, as usual, the festival flexed its ever-swole documentary muscle. Among the most jarring selection: Attica, Stanley Nelson’s sober, searing look into the upstate New York inmate uprising best known as a punchline chant from Dog Day Afternoon. Fifty years ago this fall, the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility hosted the country’s longest prison rebellion. More than 500 took 30 guards hostage. Their demands: proper medical care, decent food, fair disciplinary hearings. “We want to be treated like human beings,” said an inmate.

Race was the self-evident source of so much tension: the prison guards were all locals from an overwhelmingly white village community, overseeing an incarcerated population that was 70% black and brown. The rioters’ cries fell on deaf ears—specifically New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s future VP who adopted that president’s Law and Order rhetoric and paid Attica lip service. After five days of mounting tension, national guard stormed the prison with pepper gas and guns, fatally shooting 29 prisoners—and even 10 hostages. As punishment, the prisoners were stripped naked, made to crawl through their own feces and run over broken glass. And Nelson’s indispensable film has the receipts. In an era where minority incarceration rates are still sky-high, Attica rings painfully true and feels tragically urgent.

Looking for more doom and gloom?  Just watch Burning, Eva Orner’s incendiary examination of Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfires. More ominously known as “Black Summer,” the seasonal devastation, which usually lasts a week or two, this time went on for three months and ate through 59 million acres of land—21% of the country’s forests. The smoke from the fires enveloped an area as big as Europe, and turned the morning skies in some cities to pitch black. Pregnant women delivered premature babies with gray placentas that crumbled like a chain smoker’s diseased lung. And the fires, some as high as three stories, created their own weather patterns, even prompting thunderstorms.

“We’re sleepwalking into a catastrophe,” said one ecologist who warned Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government that 2019 would be Australia’s driest and hottest on record. But the coal-friendly climate-change-denying leader shrugged it off as just another Cassandra warning. The result? Three billion animals were killed and prehistoric forests burned for the first time ever.

Emotional rescue
‘The Rescue’

But TIFF wasn’t all devastating stories of humanity’s dark dysfunction. Oscar winners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the duo behind Free Solo, delivered yet another nail-biting inspirational story of against-all-odds derring-do. The Rescue explains in harrowing detail the improbably successful 2018 attempt to save the Thai kids’ soccer team trapped deep inside Mae Sai’s monsoon-flooded cave system. More than 2,000 people from all over the world joined together to help save the boys and their coach.

But the effort really succeeded due to a rag-tag group of amateur British divers. “We’re scruffy-looking middle-aged men,” one of the weekender hobbyists admits. No matter: their unflappable demeanor bested even the Thai Navy SEALS. And it was also their brilliant but highly risky crackpot idea to sedate all the kids and their coach with ketamine, dragging them out one by one—hoping to God that the baker’s dozen didn’t drown due to a leaky mask or prematurely regaining consciousness. Everyone survived, but The Rescue still makes for a gripping adventure, seamlessly blending news coverage and unseen video footage with startling explanatory CGI visuals and you-are-there recreations.

You Oughta Know these music docs are good

Two music docs also made a splash at Toronto, both of them executive produced by protean culture maven Bill Simmons for HBO. Jagged, the flattering documentary about celebrated Canuck Alanis Morrissette, was the higher-profile debut. But it made unexpected waves when the Ottawan native refused to appear—a slight that must have felt like a gut punch to her famously polite fellow countrymen.

At the last minute, Morrisette disavowed the film, which consists almost entirely of her own interview footage. Why the about-face? Among other insights, she explains how, as a bubble-gum teen pop star, she had consenting sex with older men—by definition statutory rape. “There was a lack of hyper-protection, no doubt,” she says of those years where, as a 15-year-old, she was sexualized by the music industry. That’s not a surprise at all to anyone vaguely familiar with her massively confessional 1995 album Jagged Little Pill—33 million copies sold—or its monster banshee hit “You Oughta Know.” But Morrisette feels like her on-camera, in-context remarks were somehow distorted or sensationalized. No backsies, Alanis! It’s a shame, since the film is a fan-friendly valentine to an artist desperate to shirk off a misogynistic monoculture who literally found her own voice in a way that struck a seismic chord in millions.

Speaking words of wisdom, Kenny G.

Also making his own waves is Ken Gorelick, the eager-to-please sax instrumentalist from Seattle otherwise known as Kenny G. Documentarian Penny Lane tackles the Smooth Jazz pioneer with Listening to Kenny G, a surprisingly absorbing look at the most successful instrumentalist of all time. Lane, a shrewd filmmaker whose last film Hail Satan? cleverly followed the modern religious movement surrounding the Antichrist, here takes on another subject that will troll and delight in equal measure. “I don’t know if I love music that much,” says the man who has sold more than 75 million records. “I live in a musical vacuum.”

Lane’s film quickly goes from being a portrait of a perfectionist who practices three hours a day to a deeper examination of who decides what is good or bad. Music critics sneer while sold-out audiences cheer to pablum hits like “Songbird” and “Going Home” (a track that, for thirty years, has played during closing time at stores and malls throughout China). His appeal is multi-racial, international, and intergenerational. And yet his signature move is using circular breathing to sustain a note for up to 45 minutes. Is there really no accounting for taste? Lane does her best, and delivers a fascinating anthropological study of why the heart wants what it wants.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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