Progressive Cinema

When’s the last time you went to see a progressive film and the theater was packed, standing room only? And the audience thundered approval throughout the film, climaxing with a standing ovation and applause throughout the entire final credits? And the filmmaker came running down the aisle through the cheering crowd like a hero at the Olympics? And then he stayed around to answer questions from the audience?

This was the reception Michael Moore received for his North American premiere of Bowling for Columbine at the 27th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. The audience had special reason to praise this new film from America’s most successful progressive filmmaker, who spent years honing his skills with award-winning TV shows like “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth.”

Bowling for Columbine, although often compared to his early success, Roger and Me, is far superior in editing and production quality. The whirlwind pacing packs a powerful punch. It’s loaded with fascinating interviews (Marilyn Manson, Charlton Heston and survivors of the Columbine massacre); relentless statistics confirming America as the worst gun violence offender; and a radical three-minute cartoon describing the entire history of the “Western world.”

What seemed to appeal to the Canadians in the audience was Moore’s obvious love for Canada and his constant references to our northern neighbors and their ability to buy millions of guns but not kill each other with them. Fear based on racism, which Moore presents as the motivation for Americans’ stockpiling of weapons, seems to have bypassed Canadians, as he shows in the film by randomly knocking on doors and pushing them open to see if Canadians really don’t lock their houses. Some in the audience reproached him for letting the truth be known, now expecting burglars to rush up from the U.S.

Film festivals are fast becoming one of the few outlets for progressive cinema. At a time when global capitalism firms its grip on the entertainment industry, most film producers are forced to follow the buck. Rarely do films like Bowling for Columbine make it to mass distribution. With Moore becoming a marketable artist, companies like Warner Bros. and United Artists are willing to overlook the message for the profit value.

Most national cinemas are also forced to produce profit in order to self-sustain their film industries. Cuba’s films are now mostly co-produced with other countries helping to foot the bill. Most of the screenplays avoid revolutionary content and instead either dwell on criticism of the Cuban revolution or avoid it entirely in order to sell themselves in the new global market.

Nevertheless, this year the Toronto Festival offered an abundance of probing, passionate, political filmmaking. Of the 345 films from 50 countries, many were thoughtful, informed and powerful works of art. Grouped into Programs, TIFF offered documentaries (Real to Reel), first films (Discoveries), films from world- class directors (Masters), films from the African Diaspora (Planet Africa), films from Canada (Perspective Canada) and from around the world (Contemporary World Cinema).

In the Canadian Retrospective Program, documentarist Allan King was center stage. King’s life work of over 60 titles includes Warrendale, one of the finest documentaries on troubled youth in the ’60s. He has made films on a wide range of subjects, including Emma Goldman, union organizing, Estonia and Nigeria.

The Spotlight director this year was Robert Guédiguian, a progressive French director relatively unknown in this country. His body of 11 social-realist films all deal with class issues centered in present-day Marseilles and utilize the same cast in rotating roles. His years as a political activist included leading the Young Communists, and this political awareness permeates all his films.

TIFF is not about prizes but rather about finding distributors and an audience for the films screened. However, there were some special awards given, including one to Les Chemins de L’Oued, directed by Ga’l Morel of France. The reason given for this award defines the high standards associated with the Festival: “for its political risk taking, for its power to disturb, for its portrait of the way protracted war destroys identity and the capacity of trust.” It’s to the credit of the informed audience that Bowling for Columbine was a runner-up in the People’s Choice Award. The inaugural Independent Film Channel Visions Award was presented to Russian Ark, by master filmmaker Alexandr Sokurov. A technical tour de force, this stunning film moves through 33 rooms of Russia’s St. Petersburg Hermitage in a single camera shot lasting 96 minutes.

The success of the Toronto Festival is due in large part to its director, Piers Handling. His fearless willingness to include progressive titles, such as last year’s six-hour La Commune, often featuring left-wing filmmakers, makes this one of the richest sources of progressive cinema available.

In future columns I’ll discuss some of the films from Cuba and the Middle East, social documentaries and other recommended titles that were shown at this year’s largest film festival in the Western hemisphere.

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PDF version of ‘Toronto International Film Festival 2002 – Part 1’