The Toronto International Film Festival often presents a curious mix of standard “issue” documentaries and more adventuresome fare. It’s a less-covered but noteworthy element of the festival. While most buzz goes to the future awards contenders, some great nonfiction comes out of TIFF every year. In this vein, Hyperallergic previously covered Patricio Guzmán’s The Cordillera of Dreams out of Cannes, which recently made its North American premiere at TIFF. Here are some of the other great documentaries from this year’s program.
The Romanian film Collective, from director Alexander Nanau, offers a steely case study in observational rigor. Formally straightforward, it accrues weight as it builds its story, following a tragedy which spirals into an indictment of institutional corruption. In 2015, a fire at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv resulted in over 100 injuries and 64 deaths, less than half of which occurred in the building itself; instead, many victims died of preventable infections in hospitals. Investigating the incident, the small newspaper Sports Gazette uncovers a wide-ranging healthcare fraud scheme. Nanau works with an exquisite level of access, accompanying the reporters from the beginning of their investigation, to shadowing government officials as they attempt to wrangle the situation, and following a survivor of the fire as she recuperates. The result grants a multi-dimensional look at the story in a way that couldn’t be easily replicated with a simple newspaper article or even a book.
Another director to note is Ukraine’s Sergei Loznitsa, who’s been prolific this decade, averaging a film every year. His latest is State Funeral, which assembles out of previously lost and/or suppressed footage a meticulous tour of the mourning ceremonies put on by the Soviet Union after the 1953 death of its longtime leader, Joseph Stalin. The work of multiple journalists and filmmakers is skillfully blended together into one coherent narrative, to the point where even abrupt transitions from black-and-white to color and back flow smoothly. Despite the specificity of time and place, there’s a widely applicable reading to glean, concerning the collective construction of icons and the parasocial connections people form to them.
There’s a certain amount of cultural chauvinism built into the movie, or at least in how it’s been framed for Western audiences — an underlying idea of “God forbid it happen here.” Stalinism is shuffled into a safe box so that any parallels to our own society feel only hypothetical. And it’s clear where we’re meant to see the parallels — the TIFF program ridiculously calls Stalin “the originator of Fake News.” (“Remember the Maine,” anyone?) Western viewers may be better served by pondering the outrageous plans Britain has for whenever the queen finally dies.
I have a special love for movies about craft and skill, ones that simply drink it in as people run through every step of their work. So Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Those That, At a Distance, Resemble Another was absolute bliss. Set in various museum conservation workshops, it follows the process of replicating an elephant’s tusk, among other things. This is a film made entirely of close-ups, with a particular focus on hands delicately capturing a wide range of delicate gestures — a common trait among Rinland’s films. Seeing this much effort put into closely imitating “real” (or more accurately, “original”) objects calls into question the entire idea of authenticity. At the same time, the sheer complexity of accurately imitating something an elephant makes naturally, without expending a single thought, demonstrates the inherent limits of artificial reproduction.
The various shorts programs under the festival’s Wavelengths banner included some standout docs as well. In SaF05, recent Turner Prize winner Charlotte Prodger tracks the movements of the titular figure, a rare maned lioness, using various archival materials. Through her gaze, the animal becomes a symbol for queerness and elusive desire, as she injects autobiographical musings into her study of the creature. In Burak Çevik’s A Topography of Memory, audio of a Turkish family discussing whom they plan to vote for in the June 2015 election plays over security camera footage of Istanbul. The juxtaposition does more to question the legitimacy of democracy in the age of mass surveillance than any big speech, making for an outwardly tranquil but thematically frightening film.
The short Heavy Metal Detox played alongside Those That, At a Distance, Resemble Another, and similarly focuses on hands at work. In this case, Austrian director Josef Dabernigis follows a dentist removing a man’s fillings. Filled with meticulous (and frequently stomach-churning) sound, it’s a ballet of forged instruments at play. Finally, in Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 2, Marwa Arsanios tours different communities attempting to achieve sustainability out of collective power, including the women-only village of Jinwar in Rojava. The film explores the tension between political ideals and actually achieving those goals, as well as the hope one can find in the lived reality of these spaces. (Bonus, it retains its clarity and resonance even if you haven’t seen the first part.)
The Toronto International Film Festival ran September 5-15. State Funeral, A Topography of Memory, SaF05, and Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 2 (along with Part 1) will all screen at the New York Film Festival, taking place September 27 through October 13.