The unrelenting drive to grab eyeballs, to ride the wave, to play the highest trump card, as it were, fuels most sectors of the media. And so, I must say, it’s a relief to see that this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which runs from September 8th to 18th, and which announced its nonfiction lineup today, is not going to satiate our blood thirst for the gaffes of Donald Trump, attempt to rectify the world economy’s impending demise or bring us into the mind of an ISIS terrorist.
Not to say that the films aren’t topical—for example, there’s The War Show, about a Syrian woman who provides a close look at the changes there—but what I see in the list of documentaries is a multitude of compelling stories that will help inform our long view of the world we live in—where it’s been and where it’s going.
Nothing runs deeper than a Werner Herzog documentary, and here he’ll be looking into the deepest depth of volcanoes, no doubt waxing profundities on a precipice, in Into the Inferno. It sounds ripe for a Documentary Now! parody—from this man who has had Encounters at the End of the World, plumed the Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and been Into the Abyss, after all—but I’m only gently ribbing the master; Herzog is without doubt one of the greatest thinkers, let alone filmmakers, of our time, and I can’t wait to see this. “With the Herzog film, we feel this engagement with the span of human history and our relationship to nature,” promises Thom Powers, the doc programmer of the festival, who, by the way, will also be reintroducing his doc podcast, Pure NonFiction, providing more insight into the non fiction realm.
Leonardo DiCaprio may not have earned similarly wise-man status just yet, but the actor-dude sure has maintained his commitment to the cause: he’s putting out yet another environmental documentary, The Turning Point, in which he confronts, with actor/filmmaker Fisher Stevens, how to stop the demise of endangered species, the destruction of native communities and the earth in general. “DiCaprio has really put himself out there on this,” Powers says. “This is not a guy parachuting in on the issue.”
For a fun romp, Powers suggests The 6th Beatle, which is about the seminal rock band’s first manager, Sam Leach. For a quiet sleeper, he suggests The Cinema Travellers, which focuses on movie theater projectionists in small Indian villages.
The above mentioned sound great to me, as does Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City about Jane Jacobs, who transformed how people conceive of urban living and planning. I Am Not Your Negro is probably highest on my must-see list—it’s a portrait of writer James Baldwin and his uncompleted book about Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. Baldwin was as good a talker as he was a writer, and Powers says the film captures him fully.
My guilty pleasure, because I doubt it’ll change the world or change me, is the film Amanda Knox, which apparently has unparalleled access to the American woman famously accused of murder in Italy but eventually acquitted. Most true crime tales are inherently compromised, in my opinion, and I hope this one sheds more light than feed flames.
Here is the list of documentaries, as announced by the festival:
The 6th Beatle. Tony Guma and John Rose, USA/United Kingdom/Germany
This fresh take on music history argues for recognition in The Beatles’ legacy of the early promoter Sam Leach. Leach was a working- class Liverpudlian who championed the group, but was eventually replaced as manager by the wealthy, posh-accented Brian Epstein. Interviewing Leach, the band’s original drummer Pete Best and other Liverpool musicians, the film gives a touching portrait of a rock ‘n’ roll true believer.
ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail. Steve James, USA
Accused of fraud, Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York City becomes the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, forcing its owners — the Chinese immigrant Sung family — into an underdog battle to defend their reputation and their community’s financial way of life.
Amanda Knox. Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst, USA/Denmark
Twice convicted and twice acquitted by Italian courts of the brutal killing of her British roommate Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox became the subject of global speculation over the decade-long case. Featuring unprecedented access to key people involved and never-before-seen archival material, the film explores the case from the inside out. Amanda Knox is a human story that moves past the headlines to examine the often fraught relationship between true crime tragedy, justice and entertainment.
An Insignificant Man. Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, India
Arvind Kejriwal is an activist protesting against India’s government corruption when he decided to form a political party and take on the government directly. His main challenger was The Congress, one of the country’s oldest political parties. With unprecedented access, this film follows Kejriwal as he tries to overcome his own shortcomings to convince the people of New Delhi that he is the honest politician they need.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Errol Morris, USA
Elsa Dorfman is a master practitioner of a rare photographic format, the large size Polaroid 20×24 camera. For three decades in her studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she took thousands of portraits, including those of accomplished friends like poet Allen Ginsberg and singer Jonathan Richman. Now in her late 70s, she opens her archives and her memories for this documentary by her longtime friend Errol Morris.
Beauties of the Night. Maria Jose Cuevas, Mexico
Eight years in the making, Beauties of the Night is a captivating group portrait of iconic Mexican showgirls, still thriving with grace and style in their ostensible golden years. Their stories speak volumes about what it means to be a no-longer-young woman in a career grounded in physical beauty and erotic appeal.
Bezness as Usual. Alex Pitstra, Netherlands
During the rise of mass tourism in the 1970s, young Tunisian men from poor families made it their business — or “bezness” — to romance women visiting from Europe. Among the children born from these relationships was filmmaker Alex Pitstra, who was raised by his mother in Holland and scarcely knew his father in Tunisia. In Bezness as Usual, Pitstra attempts to reconnect with his father and navigate the differences in their cultural attitudes and economic opportunities.
(North American Premiere)
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. John Scheinfeld, USA
Revolutionary artist and innovator, John Coltrane expanded the frontiers of his craft by introducing elements from musical traditions the world over. Chasing Trane reveals the critical events, passions, experiences, and challenges that shaped the life of John Coltrane and his revolutionary sounds. It is a story of demons and darkness, of persistence and redemption. Above all else, it is the incredible spiritual journey of a man who found himself and, in the process, created an extraordinary body of work that transcends all barriers of geography, race, religion and age.
The Cinema Travellers. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, India
Once every year, traveling cinemas bring the wonder of the movies to faraway villages in India. Seven decades on, as their lorries and cinema projectors crumble and film reels become scarce, their audiences are lured by slick digital technology. Filmed over five years, The Cinema Travellers accompanies a shrewd exhibitor, a benevolent showman and a maverick projector mechanic who bear a beautiful burden — to keep the last traveling cinemas of the world running.
(North American Premiere)
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Matt Tyrnauer, USA
Jane Jacobs, whose classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed the way we look at and live in cities, would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year. This film explores our urban past and the future of cities through the lens of Jacobs, one of the 20th century’s great public intellectuals, and a pioneering community organizer, whose campaigns against New York’s master builder, Robert Moses, are the stuff of legend.
Forever Pure. Maya Zinshtein, Israel/United Kingdom/Ireland/Norway
Beitar Jerusalem Football Club is the most controversial sports team in Israel. Loyal fans, known as La Familia, take pride in Beitar being the only team in the Israeli Premier League that has never fielded an Arab player. In 2012, team owner Arcadi Gaydamak, a Russian-born billionaire signs two Muslim players from Chechnya. Their presence turns La Familia into opponents of their own team and initiates an ideological contest with wide ripples.
Gaza Surf Club. Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine, Germany
Trapped in “the world’s largest open-air prison” and ruled by war, a new generation is drawn to the beaches. Sick of occupation and political gridlock, they find their own personal freedom in the waves of the Mediterranean — they are the surfers of Gaza.
Gimme Danger. Jim Jarmusch, USA
Emerging from Ann Arbor, Michigan amidst a countercultural revolution, The Stooges’ powerful and aggressive style of rock ‘n’ roll blew a crater in the musical landscape of the late 1960s. Assaulting audiences with a blend of rock, blues, R&B, and free jazz, the band planted the seeds for what would be called punk and alternative rock in the decades that followed. Jim Jarmusch’s new film chronicles the story of The Stooges, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time.
(North American Premiere)
Girl Unbound. Erin Heidenreich, Pakistan/Canada/Hong Kong/South Korea
Maria Toorpakai Wazir has spent her young life defying expectations. At age 25, she is an internationally competitive squash player. But in her family’s region of Waziristan, Pakistan, the Taliban forbid women from playing sports. This film follows Maria over several months as she represents Pakistan on the national team and carves her own identity, despite threats to her family.
I Am Not Your Negro. Raoul Peck, USA/France/Belgium/Switzerland
With unprecedented access to James Baldwin’s original work, Raoul Peck completes the cinematic version of the book Baldwin never finished — a radical narration about race in America today that tracks the lives and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
I Called Him Morgan. Kasper Collin, Sweden/USA
On a snowy night in February 1972, celebrated jazz musician Lee Morgan was shot dead by his wife Helen during a gig at a club in New York City. The murder sent shockwaves through the jazz community, and the memory of the event still haunts those who knew the Morgans. Filmmaker Kasper Collin examines the two unique personalities and the music that brought them together.
India in a Day. Richie Mehta, India/United Kingdom
India in a Day is India’s largest crowd-sourced documentary: the story of a single day, October 10, 2015. The film is a unique document, capturing a remarkable range of characters and personal reflections on what it means to be alive in India today, submitted by individuals from across the country.
In Exile. Tin Win Naing, Germany/Myanmar
Having filmed politically sensitive events such as the Saffron Revolution, Tin Win Naing fled his home country of Myanmar in 2009. Forced to leave his wife and children behind, he crossed illegally into Thailand, where he encountered the world of Burmese migrants toiling as plantation workers. Theirs is a world of exploitation and danger, but also of solidarity and resilience. This beautiful work of deeply compassionate first-person filmmaking is a testament to their struggle for justice.
Into the Inferno. Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, United Kingdom/Austria
Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer take a global journey for a meditation on volcanoes and their meaning, with stops in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Iceland and North Korea. Into the Inferno artfully blends reportage, history, and philosophy into a riveting cinematic experience.
The Ivory Game. Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, Austria/USA
The Ivory Game is an undercover feature-documentary, set to expose the dark world of ivory trafficking. The African elephant faces extinction as poachers wreak slaughter in pursuit of the ‘white gold’ of ivory. Award-winning director Richard Ladkani and Academy Award® nominated director Kief Davidson filmed undercover for 16 months with intelligence organizations, undercover activists, frontline rangers and conservationists, to infiltrate the corrupt global network of ivory trafficking.
Karl Marx City. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, USA/Germany
During the Cold War, filmmaker Petra Epperlein grew up in the German Democratic Republic — a.k.a. East Germany. Twenty-five years after its collapse, she returns to find the truth about her father’s rumoured connections to the notorious Stasi secret service. Epperlein and Tucker tap into declassified Stasi footage to explore a world that has eerie corollaries to expanding government surveillance today.
Mali Blues. Lutz Gregor, Germany
With her radiant voice and magnetic presence, Fatoumata Diawara is a rising star in world music. In Mali Blues, we follow her as she returns to her country to give her first home concert. Along the way, we meet other great Mali musicians: the Griot Bassekou Kouyate, rapper Master Soumy, and Tuareg guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi, who fled the northern desert under threats by fundamentalists. The film is a powerful testament to their artistry and resilience.
(North American Premiere)
Politics, Instructions Manual (Politica, manual de instrucciones). Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Spain
Against a backdrop of social cutbacks, unemployment and street protests, the Spanish government invites those unhappy with the system to organize their own party and run for election. A group of activists and university professors accept the challenge. Politics, Instructions Manual is the story of how Podemos was built. The documentary constitutes a practical manual about how to elaborate and communicate a political project in only one year.
Rodnye (Close Relations). Vitaly Mansky, Latvia/Germany/Estonia/Ukraine
Russian citizen and Soviet-born Ukrainian native Vitaly Mansky criss-crosses Ukraine to explore the experiences of his own large family after the Maidan revolution. They live scattered all across the country: in Lviv, Odessa, the separatist area in Donbass, and Sevastopol in Crimea. With his elegantly composed camerawork, Mansky gains a privileged view on a time of sweeping change.
(North American Premiere)
The Turning Point. USA
From Academy Award–winning filmmaker Fisher Stevens and Academy Award–winning actor, environmental activist, and U.N. Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio, The Turning Point presents an engaging account of how society can prevent the demise of endangered species, ecosystems, and native communities across the globe. DiCaprio interviews individuals from every facet of society in both developing and developed nations who provide unique, impassioned, and pragmatic views on what must be done today to transition our economic and political systems into environmentally friendly institutions.
The War Show. Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon, Denmark/Finland/Syria
Obaidah Zytoon and her friends journey through Syria to take part in the country’s revolution. It is an experience that will change their lives forever as they witness Syria’s spiral descent into civil war. In a highly personal road movie, we see a patchwork of epic, but real, human stories.
(North American Premiere)
Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, the Colours of Life. Fariborz Kamkari, Italy
A veritable journey through Italian cinema spanning Neorealism and “commedia all’italiana”, to the Manhattan of Woody Allen. This film celebrates the great Italian cinematographer Carlo di Palma who marked the history of world cinema forever.
The 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is from September 8 – 18.