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The Reeler Blog

NYC Doc Blast Hits Toronto

By S.T. VanAIrsdale

The Reeler only moments ago jumped off a phone conversation with Thom Powers, the juice behind IFC Center's semi-annual Stranger Than Fiction series and no-nonsense documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. The event's 2007 Real to Real program is rolling out this week, with a sizable list of New York films and filmmakers set for showcases; among the docs are high-profile titles like Body of War (talk show legend Phil Donahue's collaboration with Ellen Spiro), My Kid Could Paint That (a Sundance sensation snagged by Sony Classics for an October release) and Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts (a biography of the composer by Shine and No Reservations director Scott Hicks).

Nathan and Tomas Young in Body of War, premiering in the Real to Real section of this years Toronto International Film Festival (Photo: Ellen Spiro)

Add those to the promising local indies Obscene, Very Young Girls and A Jihad for Love (among others punctuating the program sprawl), and I think we're onto something -- we may have a journey north in our future. Meanwhile, Powers holds us over here with some insights from the viewing bubble at TIFF HQ:

BODY OF WAR: "What's interesting to me about this film -- and Donahue's choice to become a documentary filmmaker -- is it sort of signals the way documentary filmmaking has moved to the center of the culture. Phil Donahue has the power to get on television or be in a newspaper or have access to any medium that he wants to tell a story, and here we see him choosing documentary film. It was not an easy film to make; he's been working on it for a couple years, and it's important to say that he teamed up with a veteran documentary maker, Ellen Spiro, for this and recruited Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam to write two new songs for the film. It's an incredibly stirring anti-war anthem -- the whole film. It pulls no punches and minces no words. ... It's actually a film I started tracking last summer; I met Ellen and Phil about it in the summer of '06, and it wasn't ready for us last year. So I was very happy it was ready for us this year."

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT: "Amir Bar-Lev, the director, was at Toronto with his film Fighter. So he's a director who's kind of part of the Toronto family. My Kid Could Paint That kind of fits together with Operation Filmmaker (Nina Davenport's documentary about an Iraqi film student's troubles on the Prague set of Everything is Illuminated) in that they both raise questions about the role of the documentarian within the film. They're self-reflective and self-critical about that role, so I thought that was good note to inject into a line-up."

A JIHAD FOR LOVE: "It's by a first-time director (and New York resident), Parvez Sharma. People in the documentary community have been hearing about this film for a while because it's been very present, screening in different work-in-progress venues and high-profile fund-raising forums like the Hot Docs pitch forum. It looks at the cross section between Islam and homosexuality. I think the keyword in that title is 'love.' It's really looking at these individuals' struggles to find love and acceptance in their society. The director is an Indian Muslim himself, so this is a film that is in made in that community -- not by outsiders looking in."

"It's an incredibly intimate portrait of Philip Glass. Scott Hicks, knowing Glass, got incredible access to his life that no documentary make ever would have gotten. Hicks came from a background of making documentary films, of course he's now better known for his fiction films, most recently No Reservations. But in Glass, he was sort of able to return to a more hands-on approach to filmmaking. He shot most of the film himself, and the result is a biographical portrait that really defies the formulas of other film biographies."

OBSCENE: "It's by two first-time fimmakers, Neil Ortenberg and Dan O'Connor, who come from a background in publishing; they used to be at Thunder's Mouth Press. It looks at a tremendous and, I think, underrecognized New York character, Barney Rosset, who, as the publisher of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review, fought really key First Amendment court battles over works like Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch. He even had a period as a film distributor and fought a court battle over I Am Curious -- Yellow. What I'm especially struck by is that I watch a lot of film biographies about people whose story I already know. Here was a kind of revelation of an important chapter of cultural history that seemed very fresh to me. "

VERY YOUNG GIRLS: "It's an extremely powerful and emotional film by David Schisgall, who previously made The Lifestyle. ... Very Young Girls looks at the remarkable activist Rachel Lloyd, who runs the operation GEMS in New York City, helping to get young, sexually exploited girls off the street and transitioning to a new life. What's interesting about this film is that we've seen lots of documentaries about prostitution, but none like this one. Both fiction and documentaries play easily into a set of stereotypes about prostitutes; in fiction, we have the hooker with a heart of gold, in documentaries they kind of range between sexually empowered sex workers to, on the other end of the spectrum, sort of lurid portrayals of junkie whores. And this film does not play these women for any kind of stereotype -- they come across as very complex, vulnerable, fully-rounded human beings."

Posted at August 1, 2007 1:20 PM

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