Fueled by streamers and strong B.O. on high-profile titles, the documentary genre has exploded, and Toronto Intl. Film Festival documentary programmer Thom Powers sifted through 850 possibilities before determining this year’s non-fiction lineup. While these 25 films vary widely, “politics is going to be ever-present in this section,” Powers says.
Last year, filmmakers including Michael Moore, Alexis Bloom and Errol Morris explored American politics and the people behind President Donald Trump’s rise. But the 2016 election is nowhere in site at this year’s fest. Instead, veteran doc filmmakers Alex Gibney and Lauren Greenfield as well as first time non-fiction helmer Garin Hovannisian are examining politics in foreign lands, and issues such as election manipulation, corruption, fake news and fragile democracies.
Gibney’s “Citizen K” looks at post-Soviet Russia from the perspective of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch turned political dissident, while Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker” (Showtime) aims its lens at former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos. Now 90, Marcos returned to the Philippines five years after being ousted in 1986 following a popular uprising against her and her husband, Ferdinand, and their brutal two-decade rule, and managed to win several congressional elections before being convicted of graft last year.
Both films are cautionary tales about democracy, corruption and demagoguery.
After the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., Khodorkovsky amassed a fortune in financing and oil production. But when Vladimir Putin became president, Khodorkovsky sensed the country’s democracy was in danger and rallied against him. Soon after, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison. In 2013, Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky, who lives in exile in London.
Gibney was attracted to the oligarch’s story because it was a way “to look into how power works inside Russia.
“After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a vacuum and a kind of zeal to embrace something new, with no understanding of what that was,” the helmer explains. “What I found interesting was that the businessmen chose to believe that they were separate from politics, except there would be no business without access to and manipulation of the political process. If Americans want to know how bad it can get when business determines politics, all they have to do is look at Russia in the ’90s.”
The director admits that Khodorkovsky was equally charming and troubling. “I liken him to Jake La Motta in ‘Raging Bull,’” Gibney says. “A dynamic flawed character — a fighter — you learn to embrace.”
Like Khodorkovsky, Imelda Marcos is a dynamic, flawed character.
When Greenfield began shooting “The Kingmaker” five years ago, she thought the film would be in large part be about a Philippine island that was turned into an African animal park, its indigenous inhabitants sent to a nearby island that couldn’t sustain their agricultural life.
But the focus of “The Kingmaker” changed when it became clear to Greenfield that Marcos was attempting to regain power through her son Bongbong’s bid to become vice president of the Philippines. The former first lady was also using her son’s campaign as a vehicle to rewrite the history of the Marcos family and replace it with the narrative of a matriarch’s lavish love for her country.
“I was just so surprised that somebody who had gone into exile and the entire world basically saw as a dictator who had stolen five to 10 billion (from her country) was able to go back (to the Philippines) and get back into politics,” says Greenfield.
After shifting the film’s focus to Marco’s return, Greenfield initially thought she was making a doc about redemption.
“Because she is such a generous, nice and appealing person when you meet her, I thought that maybe there would be some wisdom that had been gained,” explains the director. “I was open to that and also wishing for that, but she hasn’t changed her version of history and she is so convincing that I realized I had to bring in other voices — what I call truth tellers — to give a more accurate version of history.”
Hovannisian’s “I Am Not Alone” also explores decades of corruption, specifically, corruption involving former Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, and protests that led to .
In March 2018, Hovannisian picked up his camera after protests erupted in Armenia following a change in the country’s constitution that allowed Sargsyan to continue his control over the nation as prime minister, despite having already served his maximum two terms as president. As a result, Nikol Pashinyan — a former journalist who had already served a year in prison for protesting against Sargsyan’s rule — started a two-week march calling for a more democratic governmental system in Armenia. The peaceful, bloodless citizens resistance movement ultimately led to Sargsyan’s surprising resignation and Pashinyan being named PM.
“When I was filming the protests, I had no idea it was going to end up becoming one of the most spectacular and exciting revolutions of my lifetime,” says Hovannisian. “That’s because it had been condemned to fail. But I felt a responsibility to try to capture the spirit of the movement anyway.”
Unlike “Citizen K” and “The Kingmaker,” democracy supersedes dictatorship in “I Am Not Alone.”“The Armenian genocide was the dominant story of the Armenian people,” says Hovannisian. “But here right in front of me was another story not about death or destruction, but finally a story about the hope and the possibility of regaining your freedom and regaining your nation.”
Andrew Renzi’s “Ready for War” (Showtime) focuses on losing one’s nation. Renzi follows three of the estimated thousands of immigrants who volunteer for service in the U.S. military only to be deported, often due to petty crimes, once their tours of duties are over. Renzi says the film, executive produced by Drake, doesn’t preach to a liberal choir.
“People on the left, they’re generally very sympathetic about immigration issues and people on the right are generally very sympathetic to veterans. I think with this film I have a very specific, nonpartisan entry point into the conversation about immigration,” says Renzi.
The fact that “Ready for War” is one of the only docs at TIFF 2019 that spotlights American politics doesn’t surprise Powers.
“It is not as though [the programming team] weren’t seeing films that relate to U.S. politics,” he says. “Those films are definitely being made. We just didn’t see any this year that really stood out strongly enough to us. It’s difficult to find a real original take when there is a daily churn in other media (outlets) about U.S. politics.”