DocWatch – TIFF 2015

TIFF docs – Eclectic

Docs at TIFF were as eclectic as ever – from the journalistic to the essay, from the investigative to the meditative. Here’s a sampling, with more to come.

View from a Black Hole -- 'The Return of the Atom'

View from a Black Hole — ‘The Return of the Atom’

In The Return of the Atom, directors Mika Taanila, Jussi Eerola took a careful, sober and ultimately sour look at the resurgence of the respectability of nuclear energy. The case under scrutiny is a huge atomic plant of multiple reactors under expansive construction – what seems permanent construction, or construction in permanence – in Eurajoki, a remote part of Finland. Still under construction? Didn’t Goethe say “Mann reist ja nicht zum anzukommen,” loosely translated “you don’t travel to arrive somewhere”?

Note that these are the first reactors to be built in Europe since Chernobyl. But The Return of the Atom suggests that, when the reactors are finished, if that ever happens, the benefits that were promised may not be there. Lots of liabilities that threaten the place will be hard to escape, though.

This is the Tower of Babel, with deception, management quarrels (much of it involving investors from abroad), shoddy workmanship and a deliberate understatement of the risks involved. And, the longer it takes to build, the more it costs.

Let’s not forget that, with such a low population, Finland could be in the forefront of an effort to develop renewable sources of energy, even in the frozen north. But those approaches require far less investment and don’t generate profits in the conventional way that excites investors, the same investors who tend to bring you Volkswagen anti-pollution devices and overpriced pharmaceuticals.

The Return of the Atom, one of my favorite films at TIFF, is a rigorous, persuasive and entertaining case history in how not to plan for providing energy in the future. It should be shown to schoolchildren and to policymakers around the world. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the nuclear ensemble is still under construction. Think of Waiting for Guffman as you watch locals in Eurajoki wait impatiently for the golden egg to hatch.

Let's Invade a Place Where People Are Entitled to Long Vacations

Let’s Invade a Place Where People Are Entitled to Long Vacations

Finland is examined and acclaimed as a country of highly educated citizens who urge the youth of their country to enjoy their free time in Where To Invade Next by Michael Moore. You can’t argue with their attitude toward life, as you can’t argue with a lot that Moore says and shows in his latest, which tours countries – Iceland, France, Italy, Portugal – and reminds us that people outside the US eat healthier food at school, take longer vacations, vote for women, and take more humane care of prisoners.

Moore has never been in the public realm to win a popularity contest, although he may get sympathy today as he trudges along, appearing to be an unhealthy poster child for the ills of the American health care system hat he attacked in Sicko. Where To Invade Next clones and broadens Sicko’s argument that the USA’s best-country-in-the-world argument falls flat in front of the evidence.

There’s a lot that Moore gets right – the food in French schools can be very good, and many Italians do look radiant – as if they just had sex. But Iceland, sadly, is not free of the cronyism that got its economy into very bad trouble, and Europe’s attitude toward refugees and immigrants, which you can read do the front page of any European newspaper, takes away much of the glow. Still, as much as Moore can be easy to dislike, the country that he’s criticizing, the USA, can be even harder to like. This we know. But will anyone pay to see a retread like Where To Invade Next?

Album of Spirituals -- Show Me the Money

Album of Spirituals — Show Me the Money

And will anyone see Amazing Grace, Sydney Pollack’s doc of Aretha Franklin’s performances and sessions that went into her 1972 gospel album of the same title. One of the hottest tickets at Telluride and at TIFF this year, where both screenings were cancelled, the film, to extend the sacred metaphor, is in some kind of limbo, although the reasons seem to be about that profane thing called money. Alan Elliot, who is listed as the film’s producer, says the original project got a release from Franklin. Franklin says her image and music are being used without her permission. It looks as if Franklin believes that Elliot and his team are not giving the Queen of Soul the proper R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but it also looks as if money can solve this dispute.

There was at last one private screening of Amazing Grace for some 40 film buyers in Toronto, which Franklin’s lawyers also objected to. Insiders say not to expect high production values – a bit like A Poem Is a Naked Person, Les Blank’s raw rough and tumble doc (with lots of Blanks idiosyncratic asides) about Leon Russell, which went unseen for decades before playing at SXSW and Film Forum this year. Could it all be part of a promotional campaign? There’s nothing like two cancelled screenings to get attention. Here’s the trailer.

Bald and Determined - Sharon Jones

Bald and Determined – Sharon Jones

Miss Sharon Jones did make it to TIFF, even with the presence of Sharon Jones herself, who is shown on screen struggling with cancer, shaving her head (before she undergoes chemotherapy) and facing the uncertain prospect of recovery as her band faces the uncertain economics of losing its headliner. The film takes us from Sharon’s diagnosis, to informing her band, which was already stretched thin financially, to her treatments, to heading slowly along the rocky path back.

Barbara Kopple follows this tremendously likeable singer through all of it. These weren’t Jones’s first tough times. She’d been a corrections officer, hard to believe for a woman that small. She’d also been broke, very broke. Yet we see Jones get back onstage, in risky performances, given her condition. There’s plenty of heart in Kopple’s doc, which should play all over the world, given Jones’s appeal. The Dap-Kings performances with her remind us why Jones is called the female James Brown.

But the cancer is back, Jones told audiences at TIFF. So, we hope, is her courage.

Would You Shackle a Child?

Would You Shackle a Child?

From Canada at TIFF was Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr, the chronicle by Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard of the imprisonment of a Canadian-born boy, charged with terrorism and murder, whose sentence in an American military court is now under appeal.

Khadr left Canada as a child and was raised in Pakistan. He turned up in Osama bin Laden’s compound with his parents in 2002, and was injured and captured, but not before a grenade that he threw allegedly killed one US soldier and blinded another.

What followed was ten years in Guantanamo, where Khadr says he was tortured and threatened with rape by US jailers. He was repatriated to Canada in 2012, and released on bail while his lawyer appealed his sentence. That’s where he is now.

At the Edmonton home of his wisecracking lawyer, Dennis Edney (now there’s another film), the soft-spoken Khadr seems unusually composed and well-adjusted, eager to begin life again after more than a decade of confinement. His tales of mistreatment in Guantanamo, a cause celebre in Canadian media, tell a darker side of that story, once again focusing on the torture that the Bush administration says never happened. Khadr’s saga is not over. The Canadian government would like to put him back in prison.

Once a National Hero, Now Homeless

Once a National Hero, Now Homeless

Hurt, the Steve Fonyo story, as told with pain and wrenching humor to Alan Zweig’s tactile camera, is its own account of imprisonment. To say that it was one of the delights at TIFF may not seem to fit its subject, but it held my interest – and more – as much as anything at the festival.

Hurt, the title, prepares you for what’s to come – provided that you are Canadian. The context that will be lost on outsiders is the Fonyo story. Steve Fonyo, who lost a leg to bone cancer, ran across the country to raise awareness about cancer and funds for research on the disease. In 1985, at 19, Fonyo completed a wildly-hyped national run that had been started by another cancer amputee, Terry Fox, who died in 1981 before he could finish an earlier trans-Canada marathon.

But heroism was not something that Fonyo could sustain. Soon he was unemployed, hooked on drugs and alcohol, and in and out of jail for petty offenses. In 2009, he was stripped of The Order of Canada, which he was awarded for his run.

By the time we reach Fonyo in the film, the man is homeless and facing a hearing for having attacked his wife, who had allegedly attacked Fonyo’s new mistress. Fonyo can’t make a living, although he’s trained as an auto mechanic, but he can talk. (As recently as march he was in an induced coma after being injured in a home invasion.) Hurt is a tour of the dark side of celebrity, told by a man who sank from stardom to addiction, but may have found fame again, or at least notoriety, with this documentary.

Chers Amis Occupes, Where's the Art?

Chers Amis Occupes, Where’s the Art?

Two heroes are the subject of the far-ranging and ruminative Francofonia by Alexander Sokurov, in which the Russian observer of all things takes on the threat posed to the Louvre during the Nazi Occupation of France. When the Nazis arrived, one of their goals was to inventory and seize the art in France. It was part of a larger goal of pillaging the French economy. It was also a pet project of Hitler, Hermann Goering, and other members of the Nazi leadership.

The twist here came in the appointment of the art historian Klaus von Metternich to organize the Nazi project. Metternich found himself stymied by the fact that the paintings were gone from the Louvre by the time the Nazis got to Paris, hidden by Louvre staff under the orders of the museum’s director, Jacques Jaujard.

Metternich managed to remain stymied, by his own choice, as long as he held his job, delaying any operation to seize Louvre works hidden in chateaux in the French countryside and ship them to Germany. As we know well, the Nazis still managed to get their hands on plenty of objects, many of them belonging to Jews who died in the camps, but the art that Jaujard hid was saved. Francofonia is no Russian Ark in its visual ambition, but Sokurov’s meditations on how a great museum emerged from the dreams and disarray of the French Revolution are worth our attention.

More on TIFF docs soon.

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