Thursday, July 31, 2014

TIFF14: TIFF DOCS!: Hopeful signs for a troubled world

This emblematic image from Ossama Mohammed
and Wiam Simav Bedirxan's Silvered Water: 
Syria Self-Portrait captures the spirit of this year's 
TIFF Docs:reflecting with depth and hope 
on global issues.
On Tuesday, Thom Powers the programmer of TIFF Docs tweeted the press release for this year's line-up. Even at first glance it was immediately clear that the slate for TIFF14 was moving in a more issue-oriented direction than in previous years, showcasing films that speak to human and global issues in revelatory ways. While this progamme has always explored the innovative and informative, it has sometimes been hard for me to understand how it distinguishes itself (if that is even necessary) from HotDocs, whose scope and vision and audiences have expanded so dramatically in recent years. Although its breadth is only a fraction of HotDocs, this programme has always had the capacity to speak to and dialogue with the other programmes of the festival. More than ever, the TIFF14 doc programming seems to be doing so. “This year’s selection is heavily populated with rebels, resisters and risk-takers,” says Powers in the press sheet. “That’s true of the characters on screen, but also of filmmakers who are making bold choices in their subject matter and treatment." This is not an empty promise.

A look at the trailer for Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait will illustrate what he means. These few moments from a documentary made up of raw footage, shot by people who live in the horror of Syria, quickly brings home the meaning of "risk-taking". Risk-taking artistically, but risk-taking in terms of inviting us into an immersion of self in a heartbreaking place. The narrator is unseen; a child is our focus, whose exclamation at finding flowers amid carnage could act as an emblem for the deepest dreams of those forced to live in war. The combination of form and meaning make this particular doc a high-seed for me.

Children learn the story of Palestine and Israel in
six different schools in that region in
Tamara Erde's This is My Land.
Children and the Middle East continue as themes in Tamara Erde's This is My Land, which observes how six Palestinian and Israeli schools teach the history of that region. What a critical piece of the puzzle to take on. How would we ever otherwise know? Erde is Israeli but reaches across political lines. Since this film was made she has also shot a short film called Disney Ramallah, about a Hamas technical manager, whose son wants to visit Euro Disney. Can we hope for this one also as part of the brand new Short Cuts International programme? 

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose history is equally filled with strife, Dieudo Hammadi profiles a group of youth in his home town who want to pass the state exams and secure a more promising future. National Diploma illustrates how a corrupt government, less interested in the welfare of these children, impedes their progress and how the students fight back.
A scene from Dieudo Hammadi's
National Diploma
A fourth film about children and youth profiles young singers in contemporary China as they attempt to win a major nationalized singing competition. Lixin Fan's I Am Here follows his beautiful 2009 doc feature Last Train Home, which looked at the separation and reunion of children and their parents who work hundreds of miles away. 

In the world of adults, I am excited that Robert Kenner, the Oscar-nominated mind and vision behind Food, Inc., has made a documentary about the world of professional skeptics, people who are paid by corporations and others to generate mistrust and doubt about the veracity of climate change. That such people exist should hardly surprise us, but Kenner's plunging capacity to expose these truths will mean that Merchants of Doubt will leave us with little doubt about the long-term harm being done to the planet. It's not clear whether the film has been made as a kind of adaptation of the book of the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway but it seems probable.
Mike Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum of
The Yes Men Are Revolting
Also on the subject of climate change, Laura Nix and the Yes Men return us to that fabulous duo and their extraordinary staged events, hoaxes and pranks that force the hand of government and industries who deeply affect climate change. This is a great example of how one film can dialogue with another. Merchants of Doubt and The Yes Men are Revolting will make natural screening partners.

Jonathan Nossiter's Natural Resistance
Also looking at climate change is Jonathan Nossiter's Natural Resistance. In 2004, Nossiter's Mondovino became one of only three documentaries ever to be nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. That film looked at the way in which wine production and wine regions have been impacted by climate change. This year's Natural Resistance profiles four Italian vintners who are defying government and industry odds to make all-natural wine.

Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka brings Beats of the Antonov to the fest: a celebration of the "Sudanese farmers, herders and rebels of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions, who defiantly celebrate their heritage and tend their lands in the face of a government bombing campaign" (TIFF page) People who resist state acts of violence by offering witness to tradition -- this is part of how the human race survives. We need to hear stories like this one to ground ourselves in hope for the future of the world.

Hajooj Kuka's Beats of the Anatov
Hope is an undercurrent of all of these films. In the face of disaster and dissipating cultural values and planetary ecosystems, communities find ways to offer models of endurance and change. These are the reasons to see these movies!

If all this weren't enough, I am thrilled by the decision to re-present Michael Moore's, Roger and Me in a special 25th anniversary screening. I was there in September 1989 and remember it vividly. Last year, when I was culling through old program books I posted this picture on facebook with the following: "'Roger and Me is his first film.' From TIFFoF 89: Michael Moore bows into the international film scene. I remember programmer Kay Armatage (whose contribution to TIFF programming history was profound) telling the public audience that the film had 'come in over the transom' moments before the program book was going to print, and was its last entry for that year. Moore had barely made it in time for the premiere screening (at a smaller Cumberland venue) because he told us he was still putting on "finishing touches". The film debuted that night and the rest is history. Michael Moore often acknowledges a great debt to TIFF." And clearly TIFF is proud of the moment. Hoping to be there once again.

More coming in separate posts: Masters, Galas, Special Presentations and Vanguard.

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