TIFF 2017: At film festival, the truth is out there — if you know where to look

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival is filthy with movies boasting exceptionally progressive bona fides. Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, tackles chauvinism from the sports arena. Kings, with Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, looks at racism through the prism of the Rodney King riots. The same-sex love Call Me by Your Name intends to be this year’s Brokeback Mountain. Hollywood, do not you know, is all about speaking truth to power.

TIFF itself is positioning itself as more socially “awakened” than normal, with its Share Her Journey campaign aimed at remedying the incredible gender imbalance in the market (last year, just 7 percent of the top 250 films were directed by women).

Yet year after year, it is the less-glitzy documentary program that shows true social consciousness. It makes sense; with smaller budgets, reduced aesthetic expectations, and a cinematic form constructed on real time urgency, documentaries are better positioned to serve as a mirror to the present culture.

It was a thought I kept returning to this past weekend, as TIFF lurched from 1 glitzy, suspicious star vehicle to another — where were the incendiary movies that could unite audiences to stand up and cheer? Where were the movies which may really make a difference in this heightened political climate? As ever, the doc lineup supplied the answer, with a few of the most culturally conscious choice of movies lately TIFF memory.

Even putting aside its accomplishment in near-gender parity — 41 percent of 2017’s doc programming is led by women, versus the festival’s overall programming of 33 percent — this year’s offerings are remarkable, even intimidating, in their progressiveness.

There are movies on iconic characters in the black community (Boom for Actual, about Jean-Michel Basquiat; Grace Jones: Bloodlight amp; Bami; The Gospel According to Andre, focusing on fashion icon Andre Leon Talley; Sammy Davis Jr.: I GotId Be {}; and Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart, that chronicles the life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry); films analyzing LGBT issues (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood); and the anticipated, though no less valued, docs pivoting on here-and-now politics, such as The China Hustle, Cocaine Prison, Silas and The last Year.

On paper, that record may read like a compacted semester on the most liberal campus conceivable. Yet the movies are more lively than didactic. It’s a testament to the programming art of TIFF’s longtime documentary specialist, Thom Powers — particularly when the rest of the festival is packed with temptations of glossier, more escapist fare.

“Sometimes these things come together as a coincidence,” says Powers, who has been programming docs for TIFF for the last twelve years, and has also worked together with the IFC Center in New York, the DOC NYC festival and the Miami International Film Festival. “The Grace Jones movie, I have been after that for ten decades. And then there was a bunch of movies, such as the Jean-Michel movie and the Andre movie”

Although he prefers to not interrogate certain connective themes in his doc choice, Powers admits that this season provides a notable cluster of movies that can’t escape the present political climate. “The movies come in waves, and outsiders may not find the connections like I do, but there’s a notable cluster of movies in the program about amounts of immunity,” he says. “They come from very different countries and different filmmakers, but all the characters in something like Silas, they impressed me for their courage and eloquence in position to larger forces.”

“Right now, in North America, we see people hold up signs of ‘resist’ and rally around this notion of resistance,” he continues. “I think these characters, and such movies, have a lot to teach us{}”

On the problem of gender parity, Powers admits the doc medium only makes it easier for female filmmakers to make headway in a notoriously aggressive and sexist industry.

“There is no question there, with funding being a very major factor,” he says. “It requires a lot less money and fewer gatekeepers for girls to get going on a documentary project. Or any director, as you don’t have to wait around for somebody to give yourself permission. You only have to get it going with less funds to start with.”

Like every TIFF program, however, the doc lineup is not immune to the influence of celebrity. Hence its world premiere of Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! , from pop-doc provocateur Morgan Spurlock. On this front, Powers makes no apologies.

“He is a documentary brand name in a field that does not have that many. I believe he has been a key figure, along with Michael Moore, as somebody who’s shaken up the doc area from a number of its tendencies to be over-serious,” Powers says. “If you would like to reach a bigger audience, it is helpful to have a sense of humour.”

If including Spurlock guarantees the remainder of the program has as many incendiary calls to act as it does this year, so be it — I’ll bite.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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