TIFF documentaries mix fact with fiction

This year's Toronto International Film Festival, which opens Sept. 6, features several so-called hybrid docs, including The Secret History of Disco, which uses fictional devices such as animation, historical re-creations and unreliable narrators to illuminate larger truths.
Jamie Kastner's documentary The Secret Disco Revolution suggests that a shadowy conspiracy invented disco to promote greater social harmony. (TIFF)

Much has been written about the hilarious excesses of disco, but The Secret Disco Revolution, a Canadian documentary premiering at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, offers a stunning new revelation.

According to the film’s narrator, a shadowy conspiracy invented disco in order to liberate gays, blacks and women "from the clutches of a conservative, rock-dominated world."

Who knew?

As it turns out, it’s not true — there was no conspiracy. But this irresistible fiction provides a nifty way for filmmaker Jamie Kastner to explore the social ramifications of this mid-to-late-’70s musical movement.

It also shows how far non-fiction filmmaking has come, when directors like Kastner, Alex Gibney (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) and James Marsh (Man on Wire) can blatantly invent characters and situations and still call themselves documentarians.

"Hybrid docs," as they’re called, use devices such as animation, historical re-creations and unreliable narrators in order to illuminate larger truths.

Thom Powers, lead documentary programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival, says the growing popularity of documentaries has led to a broader definition of the word.

Multiple genres

"It’s not that the documentary is one genre – it’s multiple genres," Powers says.

"You have biographical films, diary films, reportage — and you have highly stylized films like The Secret Disco Revolution and How to Make Money Selling Drugs that are kind of like provocations."

The Liar's Autobiography is a highly fictitious documentary that pays tribute the late Graham Chapman, one-time member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. (TIFF)

Kastner’s film contains interviews with genuine experts such as singer Gloria Gaynor, producer Tom Moulton and New York DJ Nicky Siano, but it also features three actors who play the glitzy figures who appear to be orchestrating the so-called revolution.

"It was a device that grew organically out of the narrative demands of what I was trying to do," says Kastner.

Part of his aim was to challenge revisionist historians such as Alice Echols (Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture), who claim that this largely hedonistic movement was somehow engineered to create greater social harmony.   "Rather than challenge these theories in any kind of direct or head-on way, I decided to take a more playful, roundabout, ironic approach that was, in tone, agreeing with them 150 per cent," says Kastner.

Several films at TIFF this year qualify as hybrid docs. In addition to The Secret Disco Revolution, there’s A Liar’s Autobiography, a gleefully fiction-filled tribute to late Monty Python member Graham Chapman and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, in which a group of Southeast Asian war criminals re-enact some of their most heinous acts.

Verve and style

Powers highlights another TIFF entry, Matthew Cooke’s How to Make Money Selling Drugs, which uses the tone of an instructional video to examine the failure of the U.S. war on drugs.

Powers says the film’s verve and style "makes it more accessible than if you just gave a more earnest and dry telling of drug policy."

In rationalizing this style of filmmaking, venerated German director Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man) has talked about trying to achieve an "ecstatic truth," rather than a literal one.

While this philosophy can lead to some memorable footage, it doesn’t always win the viewer’s sympathy.

In the recent documentary The Ambassador, Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger impersonates a seedy European adventurer looking to make his fortune in the resource-rich Central African Republic. Brugger’s masquerade makes it possible for him to meet — and film — all sorts of felons and crooked officials.

Rapper 50 Cent in a clip from Matthew Cooke's documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs, which is showing at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. (TIFF)

In his review of The Ambassador, however, New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote that it was "sometimes difficult to read Mr. Brugger’s intentions. The Ambassador is both a satire of European cynicism and an exposé of African corruption, but a crucial element of social or ethical concern is missing."

Powers says hybrid docs started gaining momentum in the late ‘80s, thanks to two films: Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) and Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989).

Morris’s film, which explored the case of an Ohio man wrongly accused of murdering a Texas police officer in 1976, relied heavily on cinematic re-creations of key testimony — a bold move at the time.

'Revealing a different truth'

Moore’s film examined the fallout of General Motors’ decision to shutter several auto plants in his hometown of Flint, Mich. The film chronicles Moore’s quixotic, often uncomfortable attempts to confront GM CEO Roger Smith in person about this decision, which led to 30,000 layoffs and the hollowing out of the local economy.

"Michael Moore came and said, ‘I’m going to get involved, I’m going to throw myself into this, I’m creating situations that are a way of revealing a different truth,’ " says Powers.

Canadian director Christine Alexiou knows this feeling. In 2009, she and collaborator June Chua made a 17-minute short called Travels with My Brother, which explored Alexiou’s complicated relationship with her sibling Vas.

Classified as high-functioning autistic, Vas is a talkative fellow who has a photographic memory for names and dates but also exhibits a number of physical tics.

In the film, he talks about his obsessions, his love of tall women and what he calls "thought attacks," which are overwhelming brain stimuli that often put him in a dark, aggressive mood.

Seeing the world differently

"We didn’t want it to be just another what-is-autism story," says Alexiou.

"Because I will be my brother’s legal guardian one day, I felt I needed to see where he was coming from, how he saw the world."

The film consists largely of interviews with Christine and Vas, but occasionally veers off into animated sequences that are meant to capture Vas’s mental processes.

For example, when he talks about how old George Washington would be if he were alive today, a cartoon figure of the first U.S. president in modern bling pops up.

"As a storyteller, you have to see what’s best for the story," Alexiou says, lauding animation’s "ability to take imagination and almost manifest it."

She says one of the films that inspired her was the Oscar-nominated Canadian short I Met the Walrus (2007). The five-minute film animates a 1969 audio interview Jerry Levitan — then only 14 — did with John Lennon at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel.   Powers says that like so many forms of artistic expression, the documentary has evolved.

"In any kind of art form you see new ideas and innovations emerge," says Powers.

The emergence of hybrid docs comes "after a long stretch of observational, cinema verité being the dominant [documentary] style, and I think people were just ready to try something new."