Docu- and mockumentaries at Toronto International Film Festival
‘Desert One’

TORONTO—Just like with the news, it’s getting difficult to draw the line between fact and fiction—truth or lies—in movies. The line is blurring between docs and narratives, they just don’t want to fall into clear categories. And just because there are no scripts in docs, doesn’t necessarily mean that the characters are speaking the truth. Just because actors read written lines in a narrative doesn’t mean that it’s not real, honest and truthful. Since the advent of docudramas, mockumentaries, and biopics, the question is raised whether a documentary is more truthful than an acted film. A good example is the great 1994 political mockumentary starring and directed by Tim Robbins entitled Bob Roberts, a timely satire about a right-wing guitar-plucking senatorial candidate, quite reminiscent of the late Republican Party hack, Lee Atwater. Appearing like a documentary, it is totally scripted, and although it contains fictional characters, there are many truisms in the satirical script.

The Toronto International Film Festival, like many festivals, has had for years a category called Documentaries, where unscripted non-fiction films are placed. This year, a film called The Laundromat, (not in the Doc category, but rather in Special Presentations) offered a comical deciphering of the Panama Papers, in a mockumentary format, a narrative film written to look like a documentary. It’s a difficult and complicated subject but presented in an extremely entertaining style reminiscent of another daring and cleverly constructed doc, How to Make Money Selling Drugs. Directed by master filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, it is a brilliant and creative satire about money, where it comes from and how it’s misused.

It employs a clever construct of two sort-of moderators, played by veterans Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, walking through the sets unnoticed, explaining what is really going on. They define money and its historical role in society. They discuss credit, money laundering, government corruption, offshore tax havens, and how the scheme was created and developed in the U.S. and expanded worldwide. A lowly office employee eventually becomes the president of over 200,000 fake companies that exist only on paper. The companies are given addresses in places that are designated tax-free havens and the scam mushrooms into what the Panama Papers eventually exposed.

The film begins with a boating accident and drowning. The survivors try to get insurance coverage and discover the company is offshore and unapproachable, so they sue. From then on it’s a wild ride following the money to unexpected places far beyond the vision of the law. The roving moderators supply witty sayings as the story unravels. “There’s a 1000 billionaires in the world. A million or more millionaires. The rest are victims.” They explain how “your potholes and bad roads are caused by these offshore tax havens.”

The script provides a clear analysis of what the over 11 million leaked documents, called the Panama Papers, revealed. The cast is enhanced by the presence of two other veteran actors, Meryl Streep and Sharon Stone, involving dual roles that eventually are revealed in the clever and shocking ending. The powerful message is stated there, but rather than spoil it, you’ll have to see this fascinating non-doc mock.

The fake doc The Laundromat is far more truthful than a real doc presented at TIFF called The Cave. Produced by the team that brought us the Academy Award-nominated doc on the now-discredited Syrian White Helmets, Last Men in Aleppo, it’s another regime change film that somehow manages to show the brutality on one side only. The death and destruction caused by U.S.-funded “moderate rebels” and jihadi militants are hard to find, implying all of it is coming from Assad’s government forces. This is a one-sided, highly funded doc that has an obvious agenda of covering up a large part of the truth. And as for truth in documentaries, keep in mind Steve Bannon used to make them.

Another film at TIFF is The Report, where the middle word in the title is redacted. The word is “torture” and the film is about the determination of reporter Daniel Jones (played admirably by Adam Driver) to expose our government’s use of torture at the Guantánamo facilities. It’s not a condemnation of our government’s imperial aims but a pro-Democrat movie mostly glorifying Calif. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s work in this area. Obviously, a movie of this size and subject matter, with privileged intelligence access demonstrated throughout the story, had to have the complete support of the CIA. Thus, it’s not a serious challenge to the CIA’s power and sordid history of abuse.


Another important doc made by one of our country’s greatest filmmakers, Barbara Kopple, also raises the same concerns. How can one feel they’re getting an impartial and truthful telling of a governmental calamity when the director has gained unprecedented access to the government and its military? This highly funded and well-produced doc, Desert One, retells the fatal attempt to rescue U.S. hostages held in Iran in 1980. Jimmy Carter was president at the time and had to make the critical decision of aborting the rescue operation after one of the helicopters crashed into a plane on the ground. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed, and the USA was shamed. The small town in the Iranian desert is still a tourist attraction with exhibits and attractions demonstrating how incompetent and foolish the powerful empire really was. The only thing that saves this movie from being traditional government propaganda, is that Kopple chose to include a few Iranians in some respectful interviews, telling the story from the side one rarely sees in our country.

And to complete our reporting of some of TIFF’s fake and real docs, one can’t overlook the Israeli recreation of the Rabin assassination in a film called Incitement. It’s composed as a doc, obsessed with details about the background of an idealistic 25-year-old far-right Israeli law student who is determined to shoot Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin because of his signing of the Oslo Peace Accords. The film examines in detail the actions and beliefs of the assassin, a Yemeni Jew named Yigal Amir, who believed a Jew cannot kill another Jew without consent of a rabbi. So he searches for that one person to justify his actions. His family and friends all have no idea what he’s up to, but they share his hatred of a leader who they feel sold out his people.

The film appears to sympathize with Rabin but follows both sides of the issue. Netanyahu, who went on to replace Rabin, viciously opposed the former leader and the peace movement, and never mentioned Rabin or the assassination in his inaugural speech. And in an abrupt and dramatic manner, the film ends the moment Rabin is shot at a peace rally as if saying the killing is only secondary to the story that led up to it.


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.