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Progressive Cinema in Toronto: An Overview

Bill Meyer: Still one of the largest film festivals in the world, and growing, the Toronto International Film Festival is now boasting around 400 films in a 10-day jam-packed extravaganza of celluloid, or should I say, digital data.

Still one of the largest film festivals in the world, and growing, the Toronto International Film Festival is now boasting around 400 films in a 10-day jam-packed extravaganza of celluloid, or should I say, digital data. Film production, funding and distribution are changing drastically, and it was apparent at the festival that the trend is away from movie houses. The convenience of online streaming is replacing the traditional way to watch films in a dark theater with strangers. DirectTV, Amazon, iTunes, Netflix and Starz are changing the filmic landscape, with many watching films on iPads, computers and even cellphones.

Toronto Film Festival

Funding is also moving away from the big expensive Hollywood blockbusters toward crowd-funded independent films, with final credits rolling endlessly, listing every supporter who gave money online. And as for production, there are now even feature films that are made entirely with an iPhone! Movie making has reached the masses!

However, the thrill of cinema and the smell of celluloid are apparent everywhere in Toronto where hundreds of celebrities appear with their films and participate in panel discussions before enthusiastic packed houses. I was able to see only about 45 of the 400 choices, but this is still enough for me to give you a heads up what might tickle a progressive's fancy.

Michael Moore took center stage after his lengthy hiatus from filmmaking since his 2009 blockbuster satire,Capitalism: A Love Story. His newest, Where to Invade Next, is nothing like the title implies. It's a much happier and gentler Moore, far from a treatment of America's endless empire building.

It was one of the few major films that came to the festival without a distributor - and it left that way. Moore reportedly turned down enticing offers from Netflix and other online sources, preferring to save his film for theatrical release. Not surprising, considering the love he has for his theaters up in Traverse City, Mich., the State Theater being one of the most successful in the country. For him, nothing matches the excitement of a communal sharing of art in a large darkened room with bouncing lights on a giant screen.

But it wasn't long before the film was picked up by a new distributor excited to promote the film properly, starting out with a Midwest premiere in Chicago Oct. 23 followed by the Philadelphia Film Festival and eventual theatrical release this year.

It's often obvious from even the titles, what films would be of interest to progressive viewers. Trumbo is about the Hollywood communist writer Dalton Trumbo, Truth is about Dan Rather's last hurrah at CBS, Je Suis Charlie documents the mass killings at the satirical newspaper Hebdo's headquarters in Paris, Nasseris a doc that covers the span of the great Egyptian leader, A Young Patriot is a Chinese doc that spans 5 years in the life of a young man dedicated to Mao's communist teachings, and many more titles which will be reviewed in future columns.

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Of course the host country usually figures prominently in a film festival, and there is no lack of great films here in Canada. Long known for inspiring cinema and great talent, Canada is also known for its great tradition of creating thought-provoking documentaries, many of them produced and distributed by one of the world's greatest national cinema funds, the National Film Board of Canada. Torontonian Avi Lewis, along with his wife Naomi Klein, produced probably the most progressive film at the festival, This Changes Everything, based on her sizzlingly critical book about climate change.

Alan Zweig (When Jews Were Funny) offered Hurt, a penetrating and honest portrayal of a tragic hero of Canada, Steve Fonyo, who ran across Canada with one leg, a year after the more famous Terry Fox was unable to complete his journey. But Fonyo immediately fell from glory, into drugs and crime, and spent the rest of his life dealing with the demons of being once-famous and barely alive. Another penetrating Canadian doc isGuantanamo's Child: Omar Khadr whichtells the tale of the Canadian Muslim imprisoned in America's torture chamber on Cuban territory.

Music personalities figured prominently in this year's Festival, with insightful films covering the lives of Janis Joplin (Janis: Little Girl Blue), Keith Richards (Under the Influence), country singer Hank Williams (I Saw the Light), Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (The Music of Strangers), Palestinian singer Mohammad Assaf, winner of the Arab Idol contest (The Idol), jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (Born to Be Blue), and almost a doc on R&B singer Aretha Franklin (Amazing Grace), which was withdrawn at the last minute by the artist. It was the year of withdrawals as another film, London Road, based on a musical about the murder of London sex workers in 2006, was taken out of service by the director over contractual disagreements with the producers.

Famed American documentarist Barbara Kopple, after starting her career with award-winning political docs (Harlan County, American Dream) has recently made biopics about music celebrities including Woody Allen (Wild Man Blues), the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing), and now the soul singer fighting cancer, Sharon Jones. Although they all carry an obvious political progressive message, the biopics feel like high-end infomercials, especially the recent Miss Sharon Jones and her previous study of the iconic news-magnate, editor Katrina vanden Heuvel in Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation. In both of these she follows the lead figures, Jones and vanden Heuvel, wherever they go, with cameras in their faces, often in close-up nostril shots, with angles straight out of glamour magazines. But then, who wouldn't want to hire one of America's greatest documentarists to promote your image? Tragically Jones's cancer has returned, halting her plans to travel with the film.

TIFF has become a major film market, with buyers and sellers dealing with the new realities of the digital age. But the city still goes all out to provide the greatest film experiences for film lovers. Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, who started out with the festival as a programmer for the Planet Africa section, reflects, "I learned film is an art and it's also a business. And some people treat film as a product. And occasionally you get invited for breakfast with Agnes Varda and you remember why it's all worth it."

Festival planners offered one of the best gifts to film aficionados for closing night, a free screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, considered by many critics as one of the greatest films ever made. And to top it off, this newly restored digital version was shown in Toronto's premiere venue, the Roy Thomson Hall, with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing the award-winning Bernard Herrmann soundtrack live. It doesn't get much better.

bill meyer

Bill Meyer
People's World