Toronto Film Festival 2003 part 2 Reality on the screen

Certainly the richest program for progressives at the Toronto International Film Festival is the Real to Reel collection of documentaries. With the phenomenal success of Michael Moore’s films, there’s been a revival of interest in “real” cinema. Most all the screenings in this program were filled with enthusiasts searching for entertainment and truth through film.

One explanation for this phenomenon is offered by the co-president of Sony Picture Classics, Michael Barker: “The reason these films are working is that they’re simply the best films out there right now. These documentaries have something fresh and new that people want from the independent world.”

What defines a documentary? Real events with real players. But there are new variations on the theme of “reality” filmmaking. Errol Morris’s early film about an accused police killer, “The Thin Blue Line,” is one example of a film that challenged the accepted concepts by inserting re-creations using actors within the documentary format. The film was so powerful in its investigative force that it actually resulted in a re-trial and exoneration of the main character.

“Magic realism,” a form of implying something just beyond reality as an influence on events, has been a common style especially in Latin American cinema, and even in some documentaries.

Early terms such as “direct cinema” and “cinema verité” define a specific type of ”reality” filmmaking, regulating the degree to which filmmakers influence or involve themselves in the action.

Of course, “reality” cinema can be further from the truth than a fiction film. By careful editing the director can alter the sequence of events, or emphasize events or characters to produce a different reality. This was the issue when Michael Moore’s first documentary film, “Roger and Me,” was refused entry in the Best Documentary category of the Academy Awards. It went on to break box office records, and Moore credibly defended the realities in his film, as he defended the right of the documentarist to interpret reality through film.

Famed Canadian director Allan King, honored at last year’s festival, concurs with this concern about truth in documentaries: “Is that really real? – what the hell does that mean? Either the film means something to you or it doesn’t.”

The docs at this year’s festival provided a wealth of information, and reality entertainment. Mark Urman of ThinkFilm reflects on this new interest in documentaries: “It’s really kind of a miracle. There’s never been a time when so many art-house hits were documentaries, at least not in my lifetime. For a small distributor like us, this is as good as it gets.” ThinkFilm is helping to distribute Jonathan Demme’s new doc, “The Agronomist,” about the Haitian political activist Jean Dominique.

It’s certain that one of the reasons for this renewed interest is the failure of commercial media to provide the whole story. Many viewers are beginning to mistrust corporate-owned media and their inability to be objective, or offer alternative views. With the focus on profits, corporate media has been involved with strange bedfellows.

Michael Moore’s quote, “They’ll sell the rope that hangs themselves,” describes the ironic situation of Warner Bros. picking up distribution rights for “Roger and Me,” a decidedly anti-corporate satire. Moore’s successful style of fun and entertaining political filmmaking has shown viewers that the days of the boring documentary are numbered.

The author can be reached at bmeyer@macgroup.org.