Toronto 2021: Documentary Dispatch
With so many films and so little time, I never feel as though I catch quite as many documentaries as I might like to at any given festival, and this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is no different, with Attica and Becoming Cousteau among the many that will be added to my catch-up list. The trio I did screen, however, were among the highlights of the festival — drastically different subject matter, but each story told by talented filmmakers with plenty to say.
Beba is the feature debut of director Rebeca Huntt, introducing the young filmmaker to a global audience with a well-realized self-portrait. It’s an audacious choice and one that pays off as Huntt’s film is one of the more expressionist and poetic narrative documentaries in recent memory, following her as she interrogates her world and her place in it, especially as a woman of color. These sorts of stories can tip far too easily into vanity projects — and there are moments where the film toes the line between performative and introspective — but what Hunnt does here shows far more courage than vanity. Though she features plenty of conversations with friends and family members, the director finds herself in front of the camera more often than not and is unafraid to present herself in a less than flattering light: key to a piece about the struggle for identity and authenticity in a world that too often seeks to stamp out both. Though it may not be the most polished documentary you’ll see all year — with mismatched camerawork and the occasional thread that meanders just a bit too long — there’s a good chance it will be the one that sticks with you.
Penny Lane brings us a very different sort of portrait with her latest, Listening to Kenny G, a tongue-in-cheek picture of an artist loved and ridiculed perhaps in equal measure. The man himself is a gregarious and generous interview subject, alternating between charming narcissism and some real self awareness as he walks us through his path to superstardom as well as his musical process. But while Kenny G himself is a hoot, Lane has more on her mind than mere biography, using the saxophone player as a case study in the ongoing battle about whether popular art constitutes real art. She juxtaposes Kenny G’s reminiscing with analytic appraisal from a variety of music critics, none of whom particularly like Kenny G — with some expressing that dislike quite harshly — but are forced to maybe, possibly, respect him. Though perhaps more time could have been spent on the subject of race and appropriation in the jazz world (the topic is given a few moments of brief but fascinating conversation), Lane’s clever style manages to touch on a variety of topics and ideas that stretch far beyond a single artist, leaving us with mischievous and moving insight from an unexpected source.
While The Rescue serves as a profile in its own right, the follow-up from Free Solo directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin plays more like a high-octane thriller than anything else, complete with a propulsive (and excellent) score from blockbuster composer Daniel Pemberton. In 2018, a dozen members of a Thai boy’s soccer team were trapped in a flooded cave system for over two weeks while the world watched the rescue attempts from the outside — Vasarhelyi and Chin craft an expert documentation of those attempts but bring us in on the heroic action, putting us side by side with the men and women willing to risk their lives to save the children trapped inside. Integrating contemporaneous footage, talking heads, and impressive recreations, the filmmakers impressively balance humanity and tension, likely leaving anyone watching with hearts racing and eyes tearing in equal measure. If there’s a quibble it’s perhaps that the narrative hook — a cadre of middle-aged cave-diving enthusiasts become unlikely heroes — tips the perspective balance a bit too much in the western direction, but Vasarhelyi and Chin are for the most part able to seamlessly provide cultural context and shine the spotlight on several deserving faces, all while prioritizing cinematic storytelling.