The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a mini-festival devoted to contemporary Irish cinema, and the two frontrunners for this year’s Best Documentary Feature.
Toronto Irish Film Festival
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Landing well ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, the Toronto Irish Film Festival holds court in the Lightbox this weekend with a mix of North American premieres, returning TIFF offerings, and the second season premiere of Bridesmaids and sometimes Girls star Chris O’Dowd’s sitcom Moone Boy, about (what else) a twelve-year-old boy’s adventures with his imaginary friend.
On the cusp of its fourth year, TIRFF (as it goes for short) is still in its infancy compared to more established Toronto mini-festivals, as attested by the broadness of the offerings, including the opening night selection, The Irish Pub, which the press notes describe as a eulogy for the titular institution, and which is sponsored by Tourism Ireland. Still, one goes to such festivals either to indulge in one’s own cultural heritage or to take in the local colour of someone else’s. On that front, TIRFF is well covered, spanning informative curio documentaries like When Ali Came to Ireland, which tells of the boxing champ’s 1972 fight against Alvin Lewis in Dublin, and melodramas like Made in Belfast, about a successful ex-pat novelist come home to face the family and friends he’s alienated with his last book.
20 Feet From Stardom
Directed by Morgan Neville
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Crowd-pleasing, energetic, and full of canonical rock and soul recordings, 20 Feet From Stardom is the consensus title in this year’s documentary award deliberations—a cheerful backgrounder on American popular-music history that only a churl could hate. Whether it’s an important documentary (or even an interesting one), though, is another matter altogether.
Morgan Neville’s film treats the subject of backup singers, following a few major players like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton through their career highs and lows. In the process, the film attempts to chart an alternate history of the industry through some of its most unsung talents. That’s a good topic, which might have yielded something revelatory in different hands, but Neville seems content to operate as a slick DJ rather than as an anthropologist, to the inevitable disappointment of those who might come to a film like this more for the cultural background than for the chance to hear the hits mixed with a dash of rumours about Phil Spector. Despite the fact that nearly the entire cast consists of African American women, for example, very little is made of how black background singers are used as authenticating devices in the white male rock of figures (and onscreen talking heads) like Mick Jagger. Likewise, the phenomenon of background artists operating as eye candy is barely touched upon, as if it would be too unsavoury to get into some of the racial or gender politics of what seems like an awfully difficult profession.
In the place of these insights, we get standard commentary from the likes of Bruce Springsteen about how backup vocalists lack the ego and the narcissism of stars—a nice sentiment, to be sure, but one that doesn’t say much about the systematic inequality that drove powerhouse singers like Love out of the industry for a time.
The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
It’s been nearly 30 years since Claude Lanzmann directed Shoah, his landmark nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which is comprised wholly of present-day interviews with survivors, second-hand witnesses, and perpetrators. In light of the countless television specials about the Holocaust that followed, most of them spent panning and zooming over archival photos of atrocities in Ken Burns fashion, Lanzmann’s decision to dispense with historical mementos and make his own archive at the scene seems even more radical now than it did at the time. At last, it’s found an odd companion piece in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.
Oppenheimer’s film treats the mass murder of Communists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese in mid-1960s Indonesia—unpunished crimes committed by killing squads sponsored by the U.S.- and British-backed government. What sets Oppenheimer’s approach apart from other portraits of genocide is his bold decision to focus not on the survivors, who are no longer around to give an account of their experiences, but on the murderers, who have not only avoided prosecution but been held up as heroes by the still-reigning government. Oppenheimer grants a measure of storytelling control to one such trio of boastful gangsters, encouraging them to reenact their most heinous murders. Noticing the men’s fondness for American popular culture, he also invites them to stage those scenes in tribute to the Hollywood gangster pictures and musicals that ostensibly inspired them.
That’s a risky concept, and Oppenheimer’s brazenness gets the better of him at times. He has a habit of letting interviews run just long enough that the gangsters say something absurd and psychotic in an otherwise banal conversation, then cutting away to another scene, creating an uncomfortably jokey rhythm that feels borrowed from John Oliver’s exposés on The Daily Show. All the same, this is a powerful, complex, and wholly necessary film, an antidote to the creatively bereft documentaries that package atrocities in the most mundane fashion, as though massaging them into a soothing narrative can put them away for good. The Act of Killing says otherwise: its outrage is palpable, and contagious.