Toronto 2018

The State of Things

The Daily — Sep 13, 2018

Nearly two years since the election of Donald Trump, and with the rise in Europe of right-wing extremists openly expressing their admiration for the authoritarian tactics of Russian president Vladimir Putin, there’s understandably a fresh urgency in many of the political documentaries screening at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Among the filmmakers capturing the moment is Michael Moore, who is no stranger to the subject of electoral crisis.

During the months leading up to the U.S. presidential election of 2004, Michael Moore rolled out Fahrenheit 9/11, which would become the highest grossing documentary of all time—even though it failed to stop the reelection of George W. Bush, as Moore had suggested it might. Now, with Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore is clearly taking aim at this year’s midterm elections. The title is a reference to the predawn hours of November 9, 2016, when Trump became president-elect. In its opening minutes, Fahrenheit 11/9 recaps the complacent confidence with which pundits pooh-poohed the seemingly remote possibility that Trump could win a primary, never mind the nomination, and certainly not the general election.

“This isn’t his smoothest film,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture, “but it’s his fullest and most original. It’s also his most urgent, which is really saying something. It’s one of the most urgent films ever made.” Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf adds that “what makes Moore’s latest so ferocious—and pound for pound his most effective piece of journalism—is the way it pivots to a meaty central subject that isn’t Trump but has prescient echoes.”

That would be Moore’s hometown, Flint, Michigan, where he made his groundbreaking first feature, Roger & Me, in 1989. “As usual,” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer, in Fahrenheit 11/9, “Moore doesn’t always bother to draw any really strong or logical connections between his segments, using sarcasm and outrage as connective tissue.” But the section on Flint and its contaminated water crisis “is infuriating and powerful in a way that shows him at his indignant, muckraking best.” In addition to Flint, Moore also takes on the wave of teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and the shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Several reviewers are noting that some liberal viewers may cringe when Moore takes a few shots at the Democratic Party establishment, including Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Moore isn’t arguing that we should abandon all hope, but rather, that hope is a poor substitute for action. For Slate’s Sam Adams, “the movie’s strongest sections cede the floor to the progressive activists and insurgent political figures whom he paints as the country’s best, and perhaps last, hope of salvation.”

It’s up to Americans to address this national emergency, argues Moore, which is why he’s far less interested in pinning blame on the Russians and their interference in U.S. elections. Putin warrants only a few mentions in Fahrenheit 11/9 as an example of the sort of strongman leader Trump has a penchant for cozying up to, but he is, of course, front and center in Putin’s Witnesses. Director Vitaly Mansky spent the earliest days of Putin’s presidency documenting the new leader’s inner circle and, as Guy Lodge observes in Variety, he’s “evidently spent much time pondering his degree of complicity in the president’s toxic power—making Putin’s Witnesses not just a major, access-rich overview of recent history, but a compelling work of personal self-reckoning.” But Celluloid Liberation Front, writing for Cinema Scope, argues that “the trite proposition whereby Putin has brought back the totalitarian darkness of Soviet times hardly makes sense in a country that, before the October Revolution, had been run by the same family for 300 years.”

Glasnost and perestroika, policies of “openness” and “restructuring” introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, were the most daring flirtations with democracy during the final years of the Soviet Union. In Meeting Gorbachev, Werner Herzog, who codirects with André Singer, sits down with the retired leader for a series of interviews. As Michael Sicinski notes in Cinema Scope, the film was “made with the full cooperation of the Gorbachev Foundation” and “frequently veers toward the hagiographic.” That said, “there is no question that the Gorbachev legacy is due for re-evaluation. . . . Although Meeting Gorbachev tends to shy away from direct criticism of the current Russian leader, one does not need to read between the lines too hard to see that for Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR and possibly the last hope for ‘socialism with a human face,’ the present global situation represents a betrayal of his own hopes for a more dignified future for the Soviet people.” IndieWire’s David Ehrlich notes that Gorbachev thwarts Herzog’s “attempts to hijack the man’s life story for his own ecstatic purposes,” which makes Meeting Gorbachev “a different and engaging bio-doc, as Herzog is left no other choice than to abandon the dark irony that tends to veil his work and embrace a more sincere approach.”

What Is Democracy? asks musician, activist, author, and filmmaker Astra Taylor in her new documentary, and she describes the origins of the project and her deep research in a recent piece for Bookforum. “As she did in her previous feature, the philosophy doc Examined Life,” writes Pamela Cohn, introducing her interview for Filmmaker, “Taylor poses open-ended questions to her subjects, generously giving them a free rein to not only tell their personal stories but to grapple with big ideas and to describe where they see themselves fitting into the global equation—or even the local one.”

The Globe and Mail’s John Semley talks with Taylor as well, noting that her film takes us back “to the ancient Greek agora, to Plato’s Republic, and to the historic and literary sources that nurtured the seeds of self-governance” in search of the roots of current threats to formally cherished ideals. “For Taylor,” writes Semley, “the problem is not that democracy is under threat from some new form of populism (embodied by Trump, Bannon, Breitbart, Fox News, etc.), but that democracy itself is always imperfect and structurally undermined by its own inherent contradictions.” Back in Cinema Scope, Michael Sicinski finds that the film suffers “from a rather scattershot approach, as though the sheer monumentality of the problem undermined the clear inquiry that defined Taylor’s earlier films.”

Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier have collaborated on Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a film that sweeps across a broader scope than any of the other docs discussed so far—but is no less urgent for doing so. Anthropocene, a term awaiting official approval by the international bodies that decide such things, would be the name of our current epoch of geological time, which began with the first impact of human activity on our planet’s ecosystems. The effects of ongoing human impact are most immediately visible in the increasingly catastrophic consequences of climate change. For Steve Macfarlane, writing in Cinema Scope, “aside from the imminent collapse of human society, what’s depressing about this film from the makers of Manufactured Landscapes is that it spectacularizes far more than it actually reveals.” Still, “there’s no denying the images are stunning.”

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