Before reality was a TV show, it was a documentary. Documentary! Such a quaint, unsexy word. Yet somehow it has held up, long after the documentary form has morphed into myriad sub-genres—cross-dressing as drama, flirting with fiction, masquerading as mockumentary, and mimicking everything from the suspense thriller to the screwball comedy. Today is the opening day of Toronto’s Hot Docs (April 29-May 9), the largest documentary festival on the continent. I’ve been steadily previewing films on the program, and now feel officially pregnant with Too Much Information. So far, I haven’t seen anything as sensational as last year’s Oscar-winning investigative doc, The Cove, or as magical as the previous year’s Man on Wire. Still, I’ve seen some terrific films. With 170 films from 41 countries, I’ve got a lot more ground to cover. But here’s my list so far of must-see titles, which I hope to expand as the festival progresses. It begins with three outstanding political documentaries:
• Bhutto is a riveting portrait of Pakistan’s assassinated ex-prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. After screening it, I got sucked into the Shakespearean vortex of the Bhutto dynasty and devoured three Bhutto books, including the incendiary new memoir by her estranged niece. Only then did this casual observer realize that Benazir may have been a less heroic martyr than this documentary suggests. But the film remains a gripping account, and a model of how to make history come graphically alive onscreen. To read my story on the documentary, and the dynasty, click here: Blood and Bhutto.
• The Oath is the another tale of a Muslim who played a controversial role in the heartland of Islamic terrorism, though he inhabits a world radically different world from Bhutto’s quasi-royal family. The Oath is a revealing and oddly tender portrait of Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden who now scrapes together a meagre living as a taxicab driver in Yemen and, as a single father, struggles to raise his boy as a virtuous Muslim. The film goes a long way to debunking media stereotypes of jihad, by showing there’s room for nuance and humanity, even in the realm of extremist politics. Jandal, who was seduced by al-Qaeda’s politics, never agreed with its strategy of murdering civilians, and had no hand in the 9/11 bombings. In fact, he became the first and most productive witness in naming the culprits behind the attack. Complicating the story is his deep sense of guilt. Salim Hamdan, a former driver for bin Laden whom Jandal recruited, spent years languishing in a Guantanamo cell, although he was eventually proven innocent.
Enemies of the People is a miraculous example of pure documentary revelation. It’s about Thet Sambath, a Cambodian whose family was killed in genocide by the Khmer Rouge. Sambath spends 10 years assiduously tracking down those who cut the throats in the Killing Fields, and those who gave the orders. With the enthusiasm of an amateur and the shrewd strategy of an investigative journalist, he spends ages befriending his subjects, without revealing that his own family was among the victims. Sambath returns to the flooded rice paddies where bodies still lie buried. Patiently he extracts stories from the simple farmers who carried out the orders, day after day for months at a time, until killing became as routine as work in a slaughterhouse. And he spends years earning the trust of Pol Pot’s Brother Number Two, the highest surviving perpetrator of the genocide, until he eventually talks on camera. The stories are quietly horrific. But there’s nothing lurid about this documentary, which is imbued with a Buddhist spirit of reconciliation. The images are poetic and the pacing is languid, as the camera lingers on the aching beauty of Cambodia’s landscapes and the awkward pauses of subjects who slowly confess their crimes. Wielding a camcorder, Sambath is captured on another camera as the central character in his own documentary, which is co-directed by Rob Lemkin. The result is a film within a film, the portrait of a devoted artist trying to get to the root of incomprehensible events that destroyed his family. Rather trying to conjure the horror, the filmmakers convey how breaking the silence offers solace to all involved. This must be the most gentle film ever made about genocide.
• Marwencol excavates a trauma on a much smaller scale, one that is literally miniature. Once again, it’s the portrait of an artist who’s not trying to make art. And it’s equally astonishing in its own way. Marwencol tells the story of an American named Max Hogancamp, whose entire memory was wiped out when he was brutally assaulted by five men outside a bar in his hometown at the age of 36. That was ten years ago. Since then, he has designed and perfected a baroque form of homemade therapy—constructing an eerily authentic scale model of a World War II Belgian town in his backyard, populated with dolls dressed in period costume. It’s an avatar scenario, in which Hogancamp’s alter ego is an American fighter pilot who is shot down and saved from the SS by a hot gang of Barbie Belgians. In this wartime Shangri-La, the local women give Hogencamp his own little building, where he opens a bar called the Ruined Stocking where he stages catfights “for entertainment purposes only.” Hogancamp is the ultimate outsider artist, inventing a world that essentially becomes his life. So when it’s discovered, and heralded as art, he feels naturally threatened. Marwencol is a brilliant exploration of the elusive line that separates art from delusion.
• The Parking Lot Movie is another documentary that finds a world of meaning in a tiny patch of idiosyncratic obsession. I adored it. And unlike the previous films on this list, it’s trauma-free. Well, that’s not entirely true, but the trauma is, for the most part, metaphysical. The film is about an almost cult-like group of over-educated misfits who work at the Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia. They study the art of doing nothing and the knack of getting even with rude, SUV-driving dolts who treat them like inferior beings. “Everyone should have a set of keys thrown at them by a fat rich guy with a turned-up pink collar,” one guy explains. The lot offers a crash course in class politics and existential patience. The attendants include philosophers, musicians, poets and anthropologists. Working at the lot is the perfect vocation “if you’re looking for that void,” says one, and “for the anthropologists it’s like field work.” We learn that the number of Prius vanity plates is absurdly high; that law students are bad parkers; that the biggest idiots are those who drive up to the gate and don’t know they’re supposed to push the button. One attendant takes “passive aggressive” pleasure in engaging the parking brake, knowing that the owner, who never uses it, will drive off with it on. The owner of the lot, who has run it for 21 years, is like the Lorne Michaels of Parking, if Lorne wore shorts. He sees his staff come and go, and get carried away in their righteous crusade against bad parkers until they burn out. “It’s only a parking lot,” he keeps reminding them. The Parking Lot Movie is a slice of Zen heaven, a tiny perfect movie shot in a single location. And though the lot is like an open air man cave, the filmmaker is a woman, Meghan Eckman, who directs it with rock’n’roll brio.
• Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage Sure, the title is as bad as some of the band’s lyrics—Beyond the Lighted Stage?? Uh, would that be, like, backstage? But this documentary about Canada’s dinosaur mega-rock band won me over. And believe me, I’m not a Rush fan. Far from it. I’m one of those snobs who laughed at the lyrics and thought Geddy Lee’s voice sounded like Robert Plant on helium. But this well-crafted doc, by Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn—the devoted duo behind Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Global Metal—crushed my cynicism and made me realize that Rush is far more interesting, and influential, than I’d ever suspected. Although this film is clearly a loving portrait, it takes into account the massive critical negativity toward the band, making it the key to the story. The success of Rush is a populist victory of male nerds over hipsters. And that classic high-school-movie fable goes right back to the band’s teens, captured in priceless home video. Cooler musicians than Rush, from Billy Corgan to Jack Black, testify to the band’s musicianship. Being able to play several time signatures in one song at lightning speed may be a dubious skill, but the film shows that the band has a surprising sense of humour about its excesses. By the end of it, you can’t help but like these guys.
• A Drummer’s Dream offers another showcase of musicianship, but on a more refined plane. It’s about a summer camp in Ontario cottage country where kids are inspired by seven of the world’s finest master drummers. The musicians range from Havana-born Latin wizard Horacio “El-Negro” Hernandez, who built his first kit using old X-ray film for his drum heads, to Puerto Rican conga player Giovanni Hidalgo, who can tell war stories about performing as part of Dizzie Gillespie’s band. If you’re a drummer of any kind, this movie is not to be missed. The one-man displays of virtuosity are extraordinary. But the film—directed with clean, lyrical precision by veteran Canadian filmmaker John Walker—also does a fine job of exploring the necessary balance between technical brilliance and soulful simplicity.
• Waste Land, along with Babies, looks poised to be one of the crowd-pleasing hits that should go beyond Hot Docs to find an audience at the multiplex. Director Lucy Walker follows renowned Brazilian artist Vik Muniz as he returns to his homeland to “give back” to the people. Muniz, who was born into a poor family in São Paulo, finds his material in Rio di Janeiro’s Jardim Gramancho, one the world’s largest garbage dumps. He creates installation-scale photos of freelance catadores, or pickers, who salvage recyclable debris from the mountains of trash. Then he enlists the pickers in “colouring” the portraits with recycled debris. There’s a certain Oprah effect at work as this art star elevates and beatifies the simple folk. But Walker’s documentary succeeds by questioning the morality of the project even while projecting its inspirational message.
• In the Name of the Family offers a devastating look at the phenomenon of so-called honour killings. Canadian director Shelley Saywell focuses on the murder of Mississauga 16-year-old
Aqsa Parvez, strangled to death in 2007. Her father and brother are charged with the murder. The film also explores the shooting death of teenaged sisters in Dallas three weeks later, and the stabbing of a 14-year-old New York girl by her brother six months after that. Without sensationalism, the film takes us inside these families and provides a heart-breaking portrayal of girlhood innocence and male cruelty, while unraveling the tricky cultural issues behind the crimes. What’s most chilling is to listen to the men defend their “honour”—the imprisoned brother of the New York girl blaming her for ruining his life.
Babies, the international opening night gala, is a crowd-pleaser par excellence. It’s telling that it comes from France, the country that gave us March of the Penguins, Winged Migration and Microcosmos, because Babies is basically a wildlife documentary about very young, very cute humans in their natural habitat. The babies are adorable, the photography is seductive, and the film, which opens commercially May, should do well. The filmmaker, who finds his unwitting subjects in Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo and San Francisco, tracks them from birth to their first steps. Stringing together pearl-like moments of real-time wonder, the film taps into the most primitive form of family voyeurism—staring at babies as they try to invent themselves, and master their bodily functions, one embryonic thought at a time. Baby Porn! The narrative logic is pretty straightforward as the filmmaker intercuts scenes of breast-feeding, crying, peeing, crawling, falling, babbling, playing, standing, stumbling, etc. And teasing cats. There are a lot of animals in the movie. In Africa we learn that although a calf may accidentally kick a baby, cattle tend to walk around them. The filmmaker doesn’t need narration to assert his bias. He makes it pretty clear that he thinks the most toxic environment for an infant is not the African mud hut where the kid is surrounded by flies and sticks a dirt-covered bone into his mouth. It’s in San Francisco, where the baby leads a coddled, antiseptic existence of plastic-sheathed strollers and New Age infant yoga classes.
When I came out of the premiere, I bumped into a Canadian film producer who was appalled by Babies, which he dismissed as a vapid exercise in cutespoitation. He was also amazed by how much money it must have cost. But no matter what you think of the filmmaking, or the agenda behind it, the result is something we’ve never seen before: a gorgeous feature-length spectacle devoted to very small people. There’s a reason people are mesmerized by them in real life. For the same reason, Babies will be a hit when it opens commercially next week. And that’s why it makes this list.