Toronto Film Festival 2003: Documentaries show glimpse of real life

Documentaries always provide a rich fertile ground for progressive ideas and those selected for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival’s Real to Reel Program are no exception. Outstanding titles include “The Corporation,” an impressive Canadian examination of the institution that’s taking over the world. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a “you are there” filming of the actual Venezuelan military coup and the kidnapping of President Hugo Chavez. This nail-biter offers the closest feeling most people will ever get to being part of a major historical event.

“Bus 174,” the filming of an actual hostage-taking bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, puts the viewer in the bus driver’s seat. “The Agronomist” is famed American director Jonathan Demme’s tribute to the assassinated Haitian radio DJ/activist, Jean Dominique. Errol Morris’s “The Fog of War” explores history and wars through the eyes of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

This year the theme running through many films was death and loss. With wars, many started by the U.S., leaving death and destruction around the world, and with the global economy wreaking havoc in developing nations, it’s no surprise that people are suffering everywhere.

While watching these realities is certainly no joy, the importance and opportunity of getting a firsthand glimpse of scenes the Western media avoids is priceless. The first post-Taliban film from Afghanistan, “Osama,” offers visual testimony to the horrifying destruction going on in this war-torn country. “At Five in the Afternoon” is an Iranian telling of the same realities.

“In This World” is yet another Afghan story, this one by famed British director Michael Winterbottom. The story follows a young Afghan boy smuggled out of a refugee camp entering an even more uncertain and dangerous world.

These are just a few of the films about one country, Afghanistan. A total of 55 countries were represented at this year’s festival. With limited time to see these rare films of the world, blockbusters that are soon to be released at your nearest theater were postponed for later viewing.

It’s one of the tragic aspects of the business that a film of such urgency and significance, so lovingly crafted and costly to produce, might only be seen at a film festival. Now that most American theaters and network TV stations are showing primarily Hollywood moneymakers, and art houses are becoming dinosaurs, it falls upon film festivals and select cable TV stations to carry the bulk of films from the rest of the world.

Most of us are aware that media conglomerates are dominating the airwaves with right-wing propaganda and attempting to silence alternative voices, so it’s essential to support progressive artists in all media. With film festivals quickly becoming the last refuge for non-commercial, socially-progressive art, it’s important that you try to attend screenings, or at least help to distribute films that can make a change, by informing and convincing libraries, schools, organizations, and even TV stations, local or cable, to buy and show these works of art. Or maybe you can help start a film festival in your area.

Remember it was last year’s prize winner in Toronto that went on to become the highest-grossing documentary in history, Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.” Moore credits the Toronto showing of his first film, “Roger and Me,” for jumpstarting his film career. And it’s Moore’s success that has inspired hundreds of filmmakers to revive the power of documentary filmmaking.

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