The Doc Is In

Not ready for prime time player: Hugo Chávez with his audience in 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'
Power Pictures

Was it fear--a sense of foreboding left over from the scorched earth of Cannes--that seemed to make the documentaries in Toronto shine so bright? The dire pronouncements of May aside (the death of cinema had, once again, been greatly exaggerated), the real world made a terrific comeback at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, adding fierce political bite to a season already rife with strong documentary work of a more personal stripe.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a frightening account of the roiling governmental power grabs that occurred during Venezuela's weekend-long coup of April 2002, could scarcely have been improved upon by a team of screenwriters, achieving in 72 minutes what few political thrillers accomplish in two hours. It has an earnest, hammy hero in Hugo Chávez, the popularly elected president on the brink of redistributing his country's massive oil wealth to the poor; a riveting second act with the palace being besieged by mobs angered by deceptive footage aired on the anti-Chávez media stations (the documentarians were blessed to have been trapped inside); and a cathartic reversal of misfortune to top it off. Naturally, there are plenty of lip-smacking villains to choose from: the grassroots instigators ("Keep an eye on your domestic servants!"); the coup leaders, flush with the "profoundly democratic process" bringing them briefly to power; and the Bush White House, which the film unambiguously suggests was far from a silent observer in all of this.

The corporate world likewise took a beating in Toronto. Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine is a somewhat romanticized chronicle of the titular chess champion's infamous defeat at the hands (or microchips?) of IBM's monolithic Deep Blue, while The Yes Men finds directors Chris Smith, Sarah Price, and Dan Ollman tagging along with an uncommonly able team of guerrilla activists who infiltrate conferences by posing as phony speakers from the WTO. Albeit conceptually slack (might the film have been presented as an elaborate put-on itself?), The Yes Men still yielded some of the fest's more memorable images: ersatz Power Point presentations by the Yes Men graphing the merits of re-legalized slavery (the unaware audiences nodding uncertainly), and of recycled hamburgers piped directly from McDonald's toilets to the kitchens of starving third-world nations.

Such stridency--refreshing in the bruised context of the second anniversary of 9/11 and official requests for expansion of the Patriot Act--was counterbalanced by slippery but no less compelling work about political ciphers. Zombie-like prison guards re-enact their daily routines in the abandoned torture rooms of S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, as if unaware that their victims are all dead and the purge long over. Director Rithy Pahn's inquiry is sharp, thorough, and cool--perhaps a touch too cool for a regime whose brutality claimed close to two million lives. "I never saw them as human beings," says one guard, while the near-silence of the death chambers, accompanied only by distant birdsong and the patter of light rain, offers as conclusive a rebuttal as one could reasonably expect.

On the subject of killing machines: The Fog of War, Errol Morris's hypnotic portrait of former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, accommodates both a phone conversation with Kennedy as they consider the swift removal of troops in Vietnam and McNamara's own admission of having misread the threat of Communist China under LBJ. The story of a brilliant efficiency expert whose skills were put to bellicose ends, The Fog of War has much in common with Morris's Mr. Death (about a builder of execution chairs), but with the stakes--and, arguably, the culpability--raised to a global scale. With ferocious intelligence and the clarity of hindsight, McNamara reckons with historical record (elegantly realized by Morris's unfailing eye for creative analogy, as when a flurry of numbers drop from the sky like bombs) while shifting cagily between enthusiasm, modesty, and a palpable sense of guilt that he simply refuses to address.

As a result of all the refracted light coming from Toronto's impressive documentary slate, the merits of the fiction films, especially those from Cannes, came into greater relief for their realism. Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or-winning Elephant still has no answers for Columbine, making it seem all the more truthful. Distant, another prize winner in Cannes, transcends its arty zones of alienation, revealing the chilly portrait of Istanbul at its heart. Robert Altman's new picture about dancers, The Company, isn't the bitchy catfight one might have expected, but a refreshingly uninflected study of the day-to-day work of professionals. And Dallas 362, the astonishing directorial debut of Scott Caan (yup--son of Sonny Corleone), announced an almost preternatural ear for utterly believable trash-talk.

Other films--particularly those that trafficked in stylized abstraction--seemed out of the moment. Jane Campion showed up with a supremely silly thriller, In the Cut, which strenuously wrestles with the impossible task of making Meg Ryan sexy. Guy Maddin delivered The Saddest Music in the World, a typically gorgeous amalgam of deteriorated imagery that loses potency with every contestant's headfirst slide into a giant vat of beer. (Just take my word for it.) Lars von Trier's literally stagy Dogville will continue to find its defenders--perhaps, ironically, among the same people who despise filmed theater, which it essentially is. But that doesn't change the fact that Dogville casts Nicole Kidman as the dog, a woman's role familiar to anyone who endured Breaking the Waves.

Still, one should give von Trier credit--or at least half of it--for The Five Obstructions, the film of the festival and, most likely, of the year. Striking an oddly fitting balance between documentary and narrative, it's a one-of-a-kind comedy: Von Trier's perverse style of prescriptive torture (the Dogmatist persuades director Jørgen Leth to remake an antic short film five times, each time with a new arbitrary aesthetic limitation) is wedded to a profound, often hilarious dialogue on the role of the artist, world citizen, and human being. As Leth bests each challenge with irrepressible good humor, steadily driving his taskmaster nuts, a picture of their teasing friendship begins to emerge, with von Trier revealing more insecurity and warmth than he has ever allowed himself. It's the 8-1/2 of buddy movies, a film for the ages.

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