General Report 2: the New Abduction of Europe [2016]

This isn’t so much a documentary as a curation of a series of discussions between various kinds of big thinkers on issues of interest to contemporary Spain. There’s a huge amount of interesting thought expressed in an intelligent way by intelligent people covering everything: art, museums, education, the environment, science research funding, social structures, economics. It really is a general report – but it does absolutely nothing to help the audience understand any of the content displayed. There were large chunks of the film that were completely beyond my comprehension because I don’t know enough about Spain to fill in the blanks. I wondered if someone who knew a bit more than me might have then found the rest of it a bit tediously obvious.

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All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I.F. Stone [2016]

This was a braided-stream of a documentary, cutting between several major threads: a mass grave in Texas, the effect of I.F. Stone on various journalists, the Iraq War and a few other minor threads. I had never heard of I.F. Stone and the film made that seem pretty astonishing in terms of his accomplishments, and the fact I’d missed him entirely was simultaneously good evidence about the many failings of the “Main Stream Media”.

The key conclusion of the film was depressingly foregrounded – it’s right there in the title. Governments lie, and the main stream media doesn’t call them on it. It was made at the outset of the current US Presidential cycle, so given the cavalcade of lies on both sides of the aisle this time I can only shudder at what the sequel might reveal. The key point that the film makes again and again is the deleterious effect this has on the political discourse, and on the public in general. What it doesn’t do is dig into a deeper causation – it constantly laments that ratings drive content to the lowest common denominator without offering any structural view on why trivial things get good ratings, or how editorial controls work. A more technological forward-looking documentary on this topic might also have tackled the echo-chamber effect of “likes” and “+1s” that cause you to only see things that reinforce your own view.

Unfortunately in a way, this documentary suffered intensively from the same echo-chamber effect for the Toronto audience: preaching to the choir. I already feel disconnected from all of the major news agencies it discusses. It didn’t touch on anything really outside of the USA, so no real commentary on Al Jazeera or the BBC, who must surely count amongst the big news players in English. It very briefly discusses Snowden, but not Assange. It doesn’t tackle alternative strategies, but most damningly, it doesn’t tackle the question of why governments should feel the need to lie.

Ultimately I found every bit of this interesting, without feeling like it came together as a holistic statement of, about, or for anything. The big take-away from me is to look up I.F. Stone and see whether he belongs in my pantheon of reporters with H.L. Mencken, Alistair Cooke and Hunter S. Thompson.

An introduction from the director:

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The War Show [2016]

This isn’t so much a documentary in the classic sense as a memoir by someone of the life of their friends amongst the Syrian conflict. As the film moves forwards in time and the characters become more active in the conflict the emphasis broadens a little, but always remains intensively personal. It’s a film designed to really elicit an emotional response to what is just the most recent in a slew of 21st Century tragedies. Like most of the other documentaries I’ve seen at TIFF, this film gives no thought to trying to explain the bigger picture driving its story, but it’s affecting enough that this strategy more-or-less works.

Robin Laws’ capsule review.

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Guilty Men [2016]

This is a film set in a tiny village in Colombia in the last days of the Paramilitary force, which was one half of a political struggle. It’s a very small film, focusing on just a couple of characters in the lead-up to a marriage in the village. The director is deft and confident in using small gestures, long takes, and naturalistic performances to tell an elliptical story. I really admired the way the director eschewed almost all exposition while still showing a complex situation filled with people with complex backgrounds and suppressed emotions.

This was one of the better fictions from the festival.

Below is the Spanish-language trailer, if that helps any. I couldn’t find this on IMDb, and it seems very unlikely to get any kind of release anywhere in the English world, which in one view makes it the poster-child for going to these kinds of festivals.

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(Re)Assignment [2016]

This is a completely unhinged exploitation picture based on the premise that a professional assassin has forced gender reassignment surgery. After the first reel it plays like a classic revenge thriller with a Hannibal-lite side-show in a second stream. It has a cracking pace and is very well put together – acting, script, editing, etc. As revenge thrillers go, it was somewhat on the lighter side, eliding most of the cat-and-mouse that drives the genre so that it never feels like our protagonist is having to try too hard.

I’m not familiar enough with the transgender communities or subcultures to discern whether it has anything interesting to say to them, or about them. I certainly haven’t had any new thoughts on the relevance or formation of identity through gender as a result, though I think perhaps the audience is supposed to. I’ll await some commentary from more informed sources.

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Goldstone [2016]

This is a tidy little noir set in a gold-mining town in Queensland. It is quite conventional, in that it has most of the classic plot points and character archetypes. It is beautifully shot, well-acted, well-scripted, with an evocative score, which is almost all down directly to the Director, who did all of those things, a virtual one-man movie industry. In particular, the cinematography of the Outback was breathtaking.

There was something surprisingly suitable about the vastness of the Australian outback to the alienated feel of noir and the tendrils of corruption. I liked this film a lot, at the time of viewing it was probably my favourite film from TIFF 2016.

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The Bad Batch [2016]

I was deeply impressed by Lily Anna Amipour’s first film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and so when I saw a second film by her it shot right to the top of my selections. The elevator-pitch for this film is that it’s set in one of those fantasy prisons like New York in Escape from New York where all the bad people are just rounded up and left to it. This prison is somewhere in West Texas – miles of burning plains. The Bad Batch feels like a post-apocalyptic tale about what kind of society could emerge.

The things I liked about AGWHAAN film are all present in this one, but somehow it really didn’t work for me at all. The post-apocalyptic genre is less focused, more dissolute than the Vampire genre, so it was much harder to see the scenes that she had replaced with silence, much harder to understand to what she was responding with her alternate vision. I never found myself confused exactly – as she said in the Q&A afterwards, the story is tightly constructed even if there’s no dialogue. But I found myself wondering what the point of it was – more bemused than confused, if that distinction makes sense. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and I wasn’t ever too interested in what they might do or what might happen to them.

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