Compelling documentary films screened at Toronto Festival
Lorraine Hansberry still from "Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart."

TORONTO — Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) it was the acclaimed writer James Baldwin whose impressive work was revisited by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck in the stunning documentary I Am Not Your Negro. This year, in the same manner, the equally brilliant but oft neglected writer Lorraine Hansberry was saved from oversight in Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart [click on title to see trailer]. Both African-American writers were gifted talents and also happened to be the closest of friends. Baldwin was with her up to her untimely death at the youthful age of 34. Just beginning to make her mark in the annals of theater, at 29 Hansberry became the first Black woman playwright to appear on Broadway with the first drama about real Black family life, Raisin in the Sun, among the greatest plays of the 20th century.

Hansberry was quadruply oppressed: a Black female lesbian communist. And she bore the pressure defiantly as a member of the YCL (Young Communist League) fighting racism and discrimination through her writings in the progressive journal Freedom, alongside comrades such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois. She was deemed by some as a “left wing radical” who often contemplated whether her actions would have been more militant if she were actually in the front lines of the struggle for civil rights.

The compelling documentary, sensitively directed by Tracy Heather Strain, covers her short but amazingly active life from her youth in South Chicago as the daughter of a wealthy family, to her socially unacceptable marriage to her white fellow Freedom journalist Robert Nemiroff, who selflessly assisted her rise to greater heights; and from her activism alongside the icons of the civil rights movement to her final tragic days fighting cancer, still holding hope to continue her writing and mounting her next play on Broadway, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Interviewees like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte lend emotional depth to the story. The title of the film comes from Hansberry’s own writings: “one can not live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.”

Agnès Varda and JR in Faces Places.

Women directors were highlighted this year at TIFF, and one of the world’s best loved filmmakers offered probably her last gift to the cinema world with the award winning, Faces Places. The 88-year-old Agnès Varda teamed up with the celebrated 33-year-old photographer/muralist JR to create one of the most charming and humanist films of her entire oeuvre. TIFF Director Cameron Bailey introduced Varda as “one of the most essential figures in cinema; celebrated and venerated for decades; she has continued to work and explore and follow her curiosity. In this film JR and her just play and it’s wonderful. My very favorite film at Cannes.”

The charming village settings with beautiful interesting people—farmers, workers, families—provide the canvas for her realist approach and her shared love of people of all kinds and generations. It is filled with one glorious scene after another: their visit to JR’s grandmother; a waitress in a small village café whose image is displayed 4 stories high in the town center; an older ostracized villager with teeth missing who gets his enormous image displayed in town for all to see; a dilapidated village that comes alive once again with photos of its former residents displayed on the walls of the empty buildings; the wives of dock workers whose pictures are pasted on layers of shipping containers piled ten high—with the 3 women sitting in the top empty spaces! It’s a touching human study demonstrating the very best in human relations, which also includes the priceless relationship between two great people’s artists. No wonder it won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at TIFF!

Many docs at TIFF deserve attention from progressive viewers, but briefly I’ll mention a few of my favorites, including the latest high-end production by America’s most successful and prolific doc producer, Alex Gibney, with no fewer than 12 films released just this year alone! The China Hustle addresses a horrific financial crisis in the making, with the unregulated and unscrupulous purchase of hundreds of Chinese companies trading in the U.S. stock market. The mercenary greed of Wall Street and its financial hustlers and opportunists have never been more exposed, enriched by testimonies from a slew of experts and insiders.

Another persuasive film exposé is centered around the MS Society of Canada. Living Proof is directed by multiple sclerosis patient turned filmmaker, Matt Embry, who is determined to reverse his diagnosis. Those who follow his research and findings will be engrossed by this study of how the profit motive takes precedent in capitalist healthcare agencies and big pharma. Diagnosed in 1995 with MS and told there was no cure, Embry, influenced by his research geologist father, is currently leading a normal healthy life free of unnecessary debilitating drugs and any symptoms of MS!

Another activist of a different sort is environmentalist Silas Siakor, who has dedicated over 25 years of his life exposing the corrupt Liberian government which has been allowing illegal logging and land grabs that are destroying hundreds of villages, including his own. Silas demonstrates the power of what one person can do. One person eventually gains the trust of his village and then hopefully the people of the country who will help carry on the struggle for social change. This one effective activist, similar to many in the world, attracted the attention of filmmakers Anjali Nayar and Hawa Essuman, who created a masterful documentary which gained the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio, who joined on as executive producer.

Now the world can learn about and lend support to another struggle against the greed of multinational corporations and American imperialism. Siakor discovered that even the presidential candidate he supported, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, eventually sold out to powerful economic interests. Siakor has learned that politics can be a dirty business, as many government officials have been lured by personal financial gain, while he has personally been threatened many times with violence. Despite this, his solution is to run for office. “This is bigger than me, than Ellen, it’s about our country.” Look for election results in Liberia!



Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.