Viewing some very different documentaries at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I was reminded just how essential theatrical nonfiction films have become in this age of instant TV sound bites and Internet replays. Being the first with the story doesn’t mean being the best, and as far as broadcast news is concerned, there’s rarely time for adequate background. Perspective improves with reflection.
Filmmakers Richard Parry and Vaughan Smith had 15 years to polish the story of Blood Trail; the two British correspondents first met their subject, American war photographer Robert King, in Sarajevo in 1993. At that time King was a charming but naive art school graduate inspired by Robert Capa and determined to bag a Pulitzer. Parry, Smith, and the rest of the press corps thought he wouldn’t last, but King survived his learning curve and, working several continents, gradually earned respect for his tenacity, resourcefulness, and uncanny knack for being in the right war zone at the right time.
What makes Blood Trail exceptional is its behind-the-scenes look at how the news business has changed over time and how its pressures and dangers change its practitioners. We watch a boyish King grow into a weathered cynic and see his ability to capture telling images compromised by having to work while embedded in U.S. military operations in Iraq. This trenchant portrait was to be featured in the current Chicago International Film Festival, but the filmmakers withdrew it to limit festival exposure, hoping to get into the higher-profile South by Southwest and Sundance. That’s a loss for Chicago, but it’s also the road to snagging commercial distribution and reaching a wider audience.
Another Toronto documentary entry that delved much deeper than the headlines was Leon Geller and Marcus Vetter’s The Heart of Jenin, a moving tale of a grieving Palestinian father who saved five lives. In 2005, 12-year-old Ahmed Khatib died in Jenin in the West Bank after an Israeli soldier mistook the boy’s realistic toy gun for a Kalashnikov assault rifle and opened fire. Ahmed’s father, Ismael, was persuaded by an ER physician to donate Ahmed’s vital organs to area residents in need of transplants, including a young girl from a Druze village, a Bedouin boy in the Negev, and a tiny Orthodox Jewish girl in Jerusalem. Over the years the recipients grow healthy and Ismael finds meaningful work running a children’s educational center in Jenin; the film culminates in his meetings with the children’s families. The Israeli-American Geller and his German codirector Vetter artfully blend archival shots from local news with contemporary footage to paint a fuller picture than the initial TV coverage could. The stated purpose of the film is to foster peace in a divided region, but the Khatibs’ story has also promoted progress in another corner of the world: business magnate Sultan Al Qassemi of the United Arab Emirates recently cited Ismael’s decision in an op-ed urging the UAE to adopt organ donor legislation.
Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz With Bashir (which I wrote about in an earlier post) is in the news again: this memoir about Israel’s first war in Lebanon recently won six Ophirs from the Israeli Film Academy, including Best Movie, which automatically makes it Israel’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. But it’s been shut out of the Oscar competition for Best Documentary because of changes in the eligibility rules, which stipulate that a nonfiction feature must screen for one week each in Los Angeles and New York before August 31. The new rule creates a dilemma for filmmakers hoping to play a prestigious fall festival like Telluride, Toronto, or New York, all of which value premieres; producers must now decide whether they want to bypass early reviews in the international press and open their films in the U.S. during the dog days of summer. Winning an Oscar can mean a great deal to a documentary, but as Alex Gibney found with his 2008 winner Taxi to the Dark Side, it doesn’t guarantee box office returns. Gibney wound up suing his distributor, THINKFilm, for not capitalizing adequately on his win.