Documentaries at TIFF
The New York Times called it the year of the documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the full range of documentaries were on display, from the opening night FILM ABOUT U2 to Morgan Spurlock’s endearing, engaging essay on popular culture, Comic-Con. Three of the films particularly interested me.
Nick Broomfield’s investigative documentary on Sarah Palin is in a style familiar to viewers of his work. He and Joan Churchill, his longtime collaborator, head off to Wasilla, Alaska to find out who Sarah Palin is when she is at home. In what seems more of a good-faith effort than Michael Moore in Roger and Me, they try to interview Sarah Palin, and to interview her friends and allies. Palin cannily escapes, and her family and friends put up a solid front of refusal.
But investing months in hanging around Wasilla (apparently not bumping into Joe McGinnis, whose Palin expose is out soon) eventually pays off. Broomfield and Churchill find a few appreciators and more critics—often people who once were her friends, colleagues or employees. Turns out Sarah Palin is a “mean girl” who treated both her mayoralty of Wasilla and her governership as personal fiefdoms, used her position to wage vendettas, and who constantly generates feuds. She doesn’t seem any nicer at home. Levi Johnston, father of Bristol’s baby, says that she is a careless mother who yells at her kids and dumps them with relatives. Her ideological compass is self-righteous evangelism, within which she sees herself as anointed. A local pastor says that she has no hesitation to use violence in her cause. People keep using the phrase “thrown under the bus.”
Broomfield obviously brought considerable skepticism to the project, and everything he learned about her apparently deepened his disgust. When one filmgoer asked him if he would recut, should Palin finally agree to be interviewed, he said no; the whole process had been agonizing, and he wanted not to have to think about her any more. But the film isn’t a simple hatchet job. It’s an alarm going off.
Broomfield has regularly profiled larger-than-life figures. Sarah Palin is a grotesque addition to the gallery; she is a smaller-than-life character who somehow has been inflated into outsized proportions in public life. Why? Broomfield interviews several people who talk about her charisma, her ability to make you feel that you are the only one in the room when she’s speaking to you. He experiences it himself, and shows it to the viewers. But there has to be more of an explanation for Palin’s and other extremists’ rise to political credibility. That’s not in the movie, which will probably be dismissed unseen by her supporters but will send chills down the spine of everyone else.
Girl Model, by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, is an insider’s look at the sordid process of recruiting Russian girls for what seem to be modeling jobs in Japan. We follow a recruiter and a 13-year-old rural recruit through a process in which the recruit, who does not find a job, sinks slowly into debt. Most likely, says the recruiter, the girls who cannot find work to get themselves out of debt will turn to prostitution. The film never follows this path through to the end, although the modeling circuit is notorious for leading to trafficking. Rather, it walks us through the process by which the model enters in good faith and naivete, the recruiter uses her position to extricate herself from the racket, and the guys appear to tell themselves comforting stories about uplift while refusing the answer reasonable questions. Girl Model, which was supported by Sundance Documentary Fund, is expected to show up on public TV’s POV.
Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad, and the Politician was a surprisingly watchable omnibus film, created with the help of European TV. Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin and Amr Salama each produced a short about the 18 days that overthrew Mubarak. They consolidate and explain the welter of amateur videos that have circulated since, and include interviews with participants. The danger, the violence, and the stakes are well-sketched, and so is the deep concern about the process to come and the military’s role in it.
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