Must-see documentaries showcased in Toronto

For the first time in its 32-year history, the Toronto International Film Festival screened a film that was simultaneously available for free streaming on the Internet. The 7-minute short film, “Shock Doctrine,” based on Naomi Klein’s bestselling book, is co-directed by Mexico’s acclaimed director Alfonso Cuarón, famous for “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Children of Men.” The powerful short is succinct and to the point in defining capitalism’s shock tactics. Klein makes the point that it isn’t just coincidental that every world crisis is followed by massive political change. The book is still on bestseller lists. See the film free at naomiklein.org.

The Toronto audience was treated to a special visit by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalind promoting a film about his recent book tour, “Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid.”

“Man From Plains” follows Carter around the country as he confronts challenges to his claim that apartheid exists in Palestine. Homespun interviews and personal stories about his upbringing in Georgia by his African American nanny bring a deeper understanding for a former president who’s gaining more respect after his term in office. The director chosen by Carter is one of America’s most sensitive and politically astute filmmakers, Jonathon Demme, who is also known for his award-winning film “Silence of the Lambs” and probing documentaries about Haiti. This film adds another president to the list of great film subjects.

Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon, France, figures into two fascinating biographies. “My Enemy’s Enemy” covers his life since World War II and makes the point that Barbie’s existence as a Nazi didn’t end with the war. It’s well documented that Nazis were used by the U.S. to fight the emerging Soviet superpower. The chronicling of Barbie’s escape to Bolivia with U.S. assistance, and his ongoing ties with the CIA, reveal his hitherto unknown involvement in many historical events, including Che Guevara’s death. The film is suspenseful and brings to light many new facts about Barbie’ life. The parallels to the current U.S. government’s use of enemies to fight enemies is also clearly stated. Although Barbie eventually was returned to France to stand trial for his crimes against humanity, he was responsible for inflicting extensive damage while on the payroll of the United States.

Probably one of the most complex figures represented in all the films shown this year at Toronto is the enigmatic French-Vietnamese lawyer Jacques Verges. In “Terror’s Advocate,” we examine the seemingly contradictory actions of a revolutionary attorney who defended clients as far-ranging as Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Carlos the Jackal and Klaus Barbie. Always an anti-colonialist, his first major client was Djamila Bouhired, a leader of the Algerian resistance immortalized in the classic film “Battle of Algiers.” He went on to marry her upon her release from prison, a release won by his own defense.

Holding the firm position that all those accused, however reprehensible, deserve counsel has put the eloquent Verges on the defensive quite often. Critics claim he avoids the moral realm but loves to challenge the judicial system for all its failings. Verges is considered the founder and main exponent of the “rupture strategy,” where the defense accuses the prosecution of the same offense as the defendant.

The film is an amazing tour of history through the many cases Verges tried. A compelling insider’s view of history’s famous “terrorists,” this well-made film by Barbet Schroeder, who also directed “General Idi Amin Dada” and “Reversal of Fortune,” is a must-see.

“Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman” is a documentary from the acclaimed American-Chilean writer. A penetrating and emotional examination of the joyous and hopeful times of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, this film allows the viewer to see — through the eyes of Dorfman — the tragic loss caused by the Sept. 11, 1973, military coup. This “other Sept. 11” tragedy is fading from history.

The coup, led by former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, along with the many other related crimes, is being covered up and forgotten. Many Chileans still avoid talk of those times, but Dorfman offers this informative and heartbreaking memory of exile, and gives expression to the Chilean people’s lifetime longing for democracy.

An intriguing piece of investigative reportage about the mysterious poisoning of a former KGB agent and reporter forms the basis of “Rebellion: The Alexander Litvinenko Case.” Director Andrei Nekrasov’s discoveries puts the blame squarely on the corrupt Putin government in Russia and the Federal Security Service (FSB), and delivers a barrage of accusations against the current state apparatus. Findings show the FSB involvement in the famous 1999 bombings of an apartment building and the use of the Chechen war as a cover-up for political crackdowns. The film also depicts some of the corruption in Russian government. The realistic cinematic style adds a state of urgency and forces the viewer to question official statements emanating from the Kremlin.

Two more documentaries about Iraq are told from fresh perspectives. “Iraq: Heavy Metal in Baghdad” tells of the trials and tribulations of a rock band, probably the only one of its type left in Iraq. And they are determined to perform, somewhere, regardless of the extremely dangerous conditions that currently exist throughout the entire country. They manage to pull off one concert in a rundown hotel with a very small audience — the most determined heavy metal fans in the country.

But the film reveals much more than it appears at first. The musicians, being quite astute observers of the U.S. occupation, show us the tragic decline of their community and the fears and dangers that plague their friends and families. Along with many other Iraqis, they are eventually forced out of their country in order to survive.

The same situation befalls Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old Baghdad filmmaker, in the film, “Operation Filmmaker.” A fortunate recipient of an MTV grant, the young Iraqi is offered a dream job on a Prague film set. The good intentions of these Americans gradually become a nightmare for the aspiring young director, and the realities of his homeland, cultural barriers and competitive life in America eventually set in motion an irreversible disaster. The outcome is certainly not what the director of this film had intended, and there are hard lessons learned.