Alla Kovgans Cunningham. Courtesy TIFF.
As the cinema lights come up after Cunningham, Alla Kovgan’s dazzling 3D documentary about 20th-century American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, the audience makes a trilling noise—it’s the rare sound of strangers noting shared delight. This is only the third day of the Toronto International Film Festival and while audience members remove their 3D glasses and decide whether to settle in for the Q&A, I wonder whether it’s too soon to consider Cunningham a festival highlight. There are several other documentaries I’ve been looking forward to: Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker; Hassen Ferhani’s 143 Sahara Street; Barbara Kopple’s Desert One; Anocha Suwichakornpong and Ben Rivers’ Krabi, 2562; Feras Fayyad’s The Cave; and Agnès Varda’s Varda by Agnès, to name a few. I jotted down a dozen more titles during the festival, and no doubt several of those films are good and perhaps a few even great. Acknowledging the inevitable limitations of my scope, I felt nonetheless underwhelmed by the doc selection by the end of the week.
Greenfield’s newest doc, The Kingmaker, is billed as a biopic of Imelda Marcos, the nonagenarian former first lady of the Philippines who retains ongoing political ties, including to current president Rodrigo Duterte. Given Greenfield’s experience chronicling the 1%, as in the much-vaunted The Queen of Versailles (2012), expectations for The Kingmaker ran high. In lieu of a coherent story, however, Greenfield plies us with montages of Imelda’s excesses. The result is a caricature that lacks in sufficient personal or cultural context. The audience careens between horror and amusement as Imelda sweeps over criticisms of the corrupt regime of her late husband Ferdinand Marcos, and reminisces about her diplomatic approach—at one point, Imelda confides that rather than read briefs, she preferred to simply ask leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Chairman Mao: “What’s your problem?” Anecdotes about her thousands of pairs of designer shoes, chic real estate investments, and first-name basis with global dictators are admittedly entertaining, but left me curious about Imelda’s early life and perplexed by the documentary’s flippant tone. At about the halfway point, The Kingmaker does change gears to reflect upon Ferdinand’s violent legacy and the imposition of martial law from 1972 to 1981. While interesting, Greenfield’s interviews with activists and civilians feel out of sync with the film’s primary focus. I left the cinema longing for a more nuanced presentation of Imelda’s circumstances: that her ends are despotic doesn’t mean they don’t deserve clear-sighted storytelling, and a parade of gilded hypocrisies alongside testimonies of state oppression don’t bridge the gaps in an unclear story.
Barbara Kopple’s Desert One, about the Iran hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981, also felt underdeveloped. Kopple relates the stories of the 52 hostages—staff at the American embassy in Tehran—and the political and military teams back in the United States who spent months strategizing their release. After negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries controlling the embassy stalled, an elite American task force planned a covert rescue mission. This endeavor, entitled “Operation Eagle Claw,” faced several unanticipated challenges in Desert One, a staging area in the eastern Iranian desert. The mission failed publicly and was interpreted by many to be a sign of American weakness thus hindering then-president Jimmy Carter’s chance of reelection. Kopple, whose previous documentaries include the Academy Award-winning Harlan County, USA (1976) and American Dream (1990), is known for astutely observing American political identity, which is in large part why the imprecise scope of Desert One disappoints. The film’s relatively traditional talking heads approach remixes interviews—notably including a conversation between Kopple and Carter—and archival footage to compile the perspectives of American hostages, politicians, and soldiers. It is unclear, however, what story Kopple ultimately hopes to tell. Scenes of veterans reminiscing about their felled compatriots are moving, but feel unmoored in a film that sidesteps exploring the United States’ relationship to the Iranian Revolution. Desert One’s most exigent storyline may well be Carter’s presidency: Kopple’s portrayal of his commitment to peaceful conflict resolution—an approach later derided as weakness by subsequent president, Ronald Reagan—feels sadly resonant in 2019, when Donald Trump’s brinkmanship-first approach has become the status quo. The film’s patriotic undertones, too, disavow opportunities for more layered political reflections, though this makes sense in light of its commission by the History channel.
In contrast to the underexplored Western perspectives on foreign conflict in The Kingmaker and Desert One, This Is Not a Movie, directed by Yung Chang, offered a refreshing look at the mediation of information flowing in and out of international conflict zones. Chang, who proved his ability to interweave geopolitical threads in 2007’s Up the Yangtze, profiles the celebrated British journalist Robert Fisk, current Middle East correspondent for the Independent. Fisk recalls covering crises such as the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and the Armenian genocide, and reflects on covering contemporary issues, such as Israeli settlements and disputed gas attack claims in Douma. In the film, we see Fisk speaking with students and local journalists and riding in military vehicles with sounds of explosives nearby. He came up covering The Troubles in Northern Ireland for The Times in London, and the veteran war reporter offers urgent and biting takes on the value of sustained, on-the-ground reportage. That some of Fisk’s views may be controversial doesn’t detract from the complexity of the documentary, which also considers the evolving role of foreign correspondents in the era of citizen journalism, 24-hour digital news cycles, and “fake news.”
By the end of the festival, Kovgan’s Cunningham had indeed remained a favorite. During its Q&A, an audience member brought up Pina (2011), Wim Wenders’s 3D homage to German choreographer Pina Bausch. Kovgan received the question gracefully, but it was clear she felt uncertain about the two films being cast together in perpetuity. The truth is, of course, that there are very few feature-length documentaries—let alone in 3D—that focus on filming dance rather than offering in-depth biographies. If anything, Cunningham takes an even more ekphrastic approach than Pina: it primarily communicates Cunningham’s ravenously creative vision through footage of his genre-breaking choreography. Mko Malkhasyan’s vivid, kinetic camerawork mostly captures works from 1942 to 1972, while Cunningham was developing his avant-garde, chance-based style. Unlike his modern dance predecessors, Cunningham was known for choreographing without a set score and then pairing dance with music in experimental cross-disciplinary debuts. Kovgan films a selection of the resulting measured, yet spontaneous, pieces in non-traditional, oftentimes outdoor, settings that highlight the innovative gestures and concepts. The documentary is sparsely punctuated by archival footage of collaborators, including John Cage, with whom Cunningham also shared a romantic relationship; Robert Rauschenberg; Andy Warhol; and members of Cunningham’s original company. But ultimately Kovgan’s immersive visual approach encourages the audience to draw impressions foremost from the dances themselves.
TIFF’s experimental Wavelengths program also featured intriguing documentaries—specifically, Ferhani’s 143 Sahara Street and Suwichakornpong and Rivers’s Krabi, 2562 were oddball slow-burners that, like The Kingmaker and Desert One, felt ill-resolved at their respective conclusions. Both 143 Sahara Street and Krabi, 2562 showcase bold formal choices: the former brims with meditative wide shots and eschews explicit narrative or political context, whereas Krabi, 2562 takes an intentionally obscuring, semi-comedic approach to blending documentary and fiction. Despite the films’ differences, something about their individual outcomes felt comparably foreclosed. 143 Sahara Street features long shots of its protagonist, Malika, an older woman who runs a roadside cafe on a remote desert highway in Algeria. Though Malika’s independence and droll repartee with her mostly male customers is compelling, the film’s meandering pace at times diminishes its potential for emotional engagement. In Krabi, 2562, Suwichakornpong and Rivers follow a ficto-protagonist through the touristic Krabi province of western Thailand as she scouts locations for a hypothetical film. In one of the film’s more surreal scenes, a prehistoric couple interacts with present-day Krabi visitors. Despite absorbing links to some of Suwichakornpong’s previous meta-considerations of Thai filmmaking in Mundane History (2009) and By the Time It Gets Dark (2016), Krabi, 2562’s impressionistic conceits become tiresome as the film fails to develop narrative tension. As with 143 Sahara Street, I wondered whether self-conscious approaches to experimentation may have stymied opportunities for rich and stylized storytelling.
In the end, though many of TIFF’s documentaries were ambitious, only a few seemed to live up to their own expectations. In several of the films I saw this year, there was a strong interest in revisiting events from 20th-century American domestic and international politics as a way to better understand and interpret contemporary circumstances. Documentary is a medium inclined to look to the past—to peruse archives, ransack records, and query official and unofficial accounts. Clichés about consulting history lest mistakes be repeated can sound glib, but evaluating the methods used to tell said stories feels of renewed significance, especially in the context of international screenings. Considered in this light, documentaries that rely upon their subjects’ notoriety—Imelda Marcos or the Iranian hostage crisis, for instance—seem to reflect their filmmakers’ vain attempts at political neutrality. An alternative and necessarily more complicated approach might be to admit to an evolving field of knowledge. We see the latter at work in Cunningham and This Is Not A Movie, two films that contend with specifics as a means to invite audiences to ponder wider questions.