Great new docs

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For lovers of documentaries, Toronto is a Mecca, offering a surprisingly large amount of feature docs in limited commercial release throughout the year, a vibrant local non-fiction filmmaking community worthy of support, the exciting Hot Docs festival every April and, in September, a well programmed selection of films at TIFF.

This year at TIFF there are 26 documentaries screening in a variety of programs ranging from Masters to Mavericks but the overwhelming majority are in the aptly titled Real to Reel section. In an inclusive and innovative gesture, the festival is providing a doc blog at, which gives additional information on the films screened at the festival.

One of the big advantages of docs over fiction features is that, by and large, what you read in a catalog description or hear from a critic or friend, is what you will see on the screen. True, a film may not be the masterpiece suggested by others, but a doc about Canadian eco-warrior Paul Watson (At the Edge of the World), LeBron James’ high school basketball team (More than a Game), ‘60s student activists at New York’s Columbia University (A Time to Stir) or African singer Youssou N’dour (I Bring What I Love) will at least provide solid information and some insights into the subjects they’re handling.

The bonus, of course, is that these films were picked by internationally respected programmer Thom Powers and are, indeed, well made documentaries. One of the best films of this, or any year, at TIFF is Waltz with Bashir, Ari Fogelman’s personal account of being an Israeli soldier during the Beirut invasion in 1982. Like Persepolis, this is an animated documentary—and a truly effective political and psychological statement.

Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar winning director of the Al Gore feature An Inconvenient Truth returns with a quite different doc. It Might Get Loud focuses on the electric guitar through three generations of rock stars: Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, U2’s The Edge and Jack White of the White Stripes. Wildly disparate as individuals, their mutual love of the guitar and roots music creates a bond between the three musicians. Subtle and well structured, Guggenheim’s film allows the viewers to gain insights into the personalities and highly different styles of the ‘60s art school educated Brit Page, Irish ‘80s rebel The Edge and the eccentric, more contemporary American White.

Two other docs evoke Africa, where so much of popular music has been created. Soul Power uses archival material shot when a who’s who of great African-American bands accompanied Muhammad Ali and George Foreman to their famous heavyweight championship fight in Zaire, the “Rumble in the Jungle.” The film catches an era when black power was ascendant. It features James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers and The Spinners, all performing in a great concert held to go along with the fight. Youssou N’Dour is the modern inheritor of James Brown: his concerts go on for hours and feature a fabulous band and accompanying singers. The doc Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love shows off the singer’s marvelous voice and deep abiding love for the Muslim faith, which he expresses powerfully through “Egypt,” the CD that was released as the film was being shot.

Other fascinating docs at TIFF are: Les Places d’Agnes, an autobiographical essay by filmmaker Agnes Varda; Peace Mission about the burgeoning home-video industry in Nigeria called “Nollywood,” and Upstream Battle, which passionately covers the resistance of the Native Hoopa tribe to the use of water by a powerful conglomerate.

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