Documenting working class struggles

Toronto International Film Festival 2003 – part 4

Here are some more outstanding documentaries shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Agronomist (USA)

Jonathan Demme, known for blockbusters like “Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia” and “Beloved,” has had a longtime interest in the struggle for democracy in Haiti. In his fourth documentary about Haiti, Demme focuses on the journalist/radio personality, Jean Dominique, who revolutionized communications in this small island. Giving voice to the disenfranchised by introducing the Haitian Creole language in broadcasts, Dominique started a democratic movement that resulted in his assassination. The film dramatically charts the course of this captivating revolutionary and the history of this troubled island. When a skilled craftsman uses his art for social change, the quality can’t be surpassed.



Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (UK)

Here’s a real life drama that challenges the role of the documentarist. Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer on Death Row in Florida, develops a fondness for Nick Broomfield, a charismatic British documentarist known for his celebrity docs about Margaret Thatcher, Biggie and Tupac, and Kurt and Courtney to name a few. Having made a film about Aileen in 1992, Broomfield gets subpoenaed to appear at her new trial. Enamored by his treatment of her in his first film, she manages to offer enough startling information to warrant a remake. With his social consciousness and personal style, Broomfield becomes a major character in the trial and subsequent execution. His concerns about the death penalty, the tragic upbringing of this Michigan girl and his probing style of using film to get at the truth make this one of the most fascinating studies in years.



Dying at Grace (Canada)

Allan King (“Warrendale”) was the featured Canadian director at last year’s Toronto Festival. This is his newest, and once again, the compassion and humanism of the filmmaker is evident. Simply constructed from five personal interviews with dying patients at the Salvation Army’s Grace Hospital in Toronto, the film offers the viewer the rare opportunity to witness people in the last days of their life, making the choice on how to die. An extremely rewarding experience that raises the value of living while addressing the mortality of us all.



Bus 174 (Brazil)

A harrowing experience about a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This drama unfolded live on Brazilian television while millions saw the desperation of the young man holding a gun to the heads of the hostages. But what separates this film from other real-life docs is the research the film crew made into the life of the hijacker. Discovering that Sandro de Nascimento became a street child from a young age when he watched the tragic murder of his mother, the director sought friends and family members to help paint a picture of what led to this fatal hijacking. This edge-of-your-seat thriller is a compassionate and insightful examination of a society with extreme poverty and brutal police oppression, and challenges the question, “Who is the victim?”



Twenty Years Later (Brazil)

Prominent world directors are asked to bring a film to introduce that they consider vital to film history. Brazilian director Hector Babenco (“Ironweed,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) brought this rare documentary about the killing of the leader of the Peasant Leagues in 1962. While researching the event, the film crew was thwarted by the 1964 military coup. Twenty years later they returned to the region to piece together what had happened to the peasants involved. What they discover about the families involved, and the resultant political struggles between workers and landowners, is not only fascinating but also amazingly relevant to the current political scene in Brazil. This early film from the politically charged Cinema Novo movement of the 60s was long considered forgotten, but with Babenco’s help, is available to a new audience.



The Story of the Weeping Camel (Germany)

Let’s travel to the vast Gobi desert of Mongolia, where we can be witness to a lifestyle so different that it’s hard to believe people still live this way. In this community of nomadic shepherds, camels provide the means of transportation. The plot is simple; the film is crisp and real, as we feel the heat of the desert sun. Families function on daily routines and ancient rituals. Camels are their means of subsistence, and the birth of a new calf is joy and hope to the people. This story focuses on a camel that gave birth to a rare white calf, and she rejects it, failing to offer the little one her mother’s milk. There is only one solution, and it’s the final outcome that is one of the most amazing scenes ever recorded on film. (This next part is a spoiler.) They summon an ancient ritual and call for a musician from a distant village. He sets up his stool next to the mother camel and plays his stringed instrument until the sad music makes the camel cry. And then in an astonishing scene that depicts the indescribable power of music, the mother gradually inches toward her young calf to offer life’s milk, which inevitably is linked to the existence of this remote community.



Go Further (USA)

Woody Harrelson has been lending his name to good causes lately. Boldly risking his film career, Harrelson has gone on record against the U.S. invasion of Iraq and other criminal acts in the name of American freedom and democracy. This film chronicles his interest in living a simpler life, what he calls, “leaving a smaller footprint.” Similar to the Ken Kesey excursions of the 60s, Woody gathers a crew, a bus, hemp goods and plenty of healthy food, and travels across California to help inspire others to live a simpler life. Yoga, health food, great music and progressive politics are found along the way. Along the road trip, named the Simple Organic Living Tour, focus is placed on how corporations are destroying the environment, and polluting our minds and bodies. The Canadian filmmaker, Ron Mann (“Grass,” “Twist”) along with Woody and part of the crew drove up to their film premiere on bicycles.

The author can be reached at bmeyer@macgroup.org.