New documentaries in Toronto

Documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) come from all corners of the globe, covering a wide range of subjects, and many are of interest to the progressive community.

Merchants of Doubt, based on Naomi Oreskes’ best-selling book of the same name, is directed by Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.). It’s a powerful exposé of corporate wrongdoing, this time its use of so-called pundits or skeptics paid to cast doubt on climate change theories. The history of these doubters is investigated back to the 1950s, when they challenged the belief that cigarette smoking caused cancer.

Another exposé of corporate malpractice is explored in The Price We Pay by director Harold Crooks (Surviving Progress). Here the subject is tax evasion and how corporations hide profits in offshore havens. Anywhere between 10-15 percent of the world’s money is hidden away, depriving governments and people of billions of dollars in revenue, while exempting companies from sharing the tax burden. We learn that ever since the 1960s the City of London has been the largest tax haven in the world. Corporate executives from Google, Apple, Amazon and others are grilled in congressional hearings, about the extremes to which they’ve gone to hide massive profits. But of course none of this is news to those of us challenging the capitalist system.

The Yes Men, a popular activist/prankster duo who also like to challenge the capitalist system, are back at it again. Yes Men are Revolting is the third installment in the antics of Andy and Mike, who like to impersonate and make fun of corporate executives and  bigwigs. Designing ridiculous costumes, improbable inventions and wacky press releases, the duo shock and enrage defenders of the system, ultimately revealing the truth about capitalist greed and profit mongering. This hilarious sequel focuses on climate change, and for the first time reveals the personal side of the two buddy activists. Andy ran off and got married, now with two children, living in Europe. The distance stresses their collaborations, as Mike realizes the difficulty in getting the job done without Andy around. It’s all fun though, because these guys have found a way to fight for social change while laughing. If you want to laugh while changing the world, sign up for their Action Switchboard.

One of the up and coming political rappers and word artists comes from France. He’s now directed a movie, based on his 2004 autobiography, that raises the bar in documentaries. May Allah Bless France tells of Abd Al Malik’s experience growing up on the tough streets of Strasbourg, and features his compelling raps and new-found love of hip hop. Every day he would go from the top of his high school class to the bottom of the drug dealing world, while also performing for sold-out hip hop concerts. Eventually the violence became unbearable and he discovered Islam. The film is deeply moving and extremely artistic, and Malik’s rap is socially conscious.

The disturbing follow-up to Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning Act of Killing, continues the story of Indonesia’s mass murder of Communists. But where Act of Killing allowed the fanatic killers an opportunity to demonstrate their great skill at eliminating millions of workers, unionists and communists through surrealist reenactments, Look of Silence takes a different perspective, a sobering look through the eyes of the victims themselves. Oppenheimer travels with survivors, visiting homes of their torturers and men who killed family members. At one point in the film, a former militia leader states that it was America that taught them how to hate communists. What’s frightening is that many of the former killers are now officials in government, although most refuse to talk about that sordid period in history. The director and main character deserve credit for their courage and persistence in exposing this horrific chapter in Indonesian history. Still fearing reprisal, many crew members are listed in the credits as “Anonymous.”

As an advocate for First Nations people, Alanis Obamsawin has created empowering documentaries in defense of the first people living on this land. Trick or Treaty is her latest effort demonstrating how land and rights were stolen by deception and distortion. Dual interpretations of the infamous Treaty 9, the 1905 agreement dealing with land exchange, led to a massive loss of First Nations land, now almost impossible to regain. Despite that, the movie is about the spirited rallies and dedicated activists determined to bring about change in the Canadian treatment of Aboriginals. Inspiring scenes of Idle No More activists, hunger striker Chief Theresa Spence, and masses gathered outside the Capital chanting support for the youth-driven movement, make the film exciting and vital in the struggle for justice.

There were two 3D movies this year at TIFF. Both were far from the expected genre. Master filmmaker Jean Luc Godard, forever in the vanguard, created an impressionistic and complex study of history, life and death. Like a wild horse ride, viewers had to hang on throughout the assault of images and complex ideas, aided by the whimsy of 3D effects, only to end feeling that Goodbye to Language needs to be seen several times to possibly grasp the entire meaning. A powerful musical score aided by traditional puzzling Godard titles make it worth the ride.

 The other film in 3D was more down to earth, Iraq to be specific. A family portfolio of an Iraqi family in diaspora, Iraq Odyssey takes 3D where it usually doesn’t go. 3D is applied to graphics showing the structure of the extended family, moving from one relative to another, then dissolving to their homes in countries all around the world. Flat black and white archival footage is given new life in 3D, and the history of Iraq is fascinating. Before “terrorists,” wars and car bombings, there were educated people fighting for a modern society cradled in the land where civilization began. Many of them were progressives, communists, and their stories are told in beautiful interviews, with tender narration and loving memories. It’s a mesmerizing hi-def film about the history of an impressive people – and in 3D!


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.