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By Chris Knight, National Post

You might expect the director of programming at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival to have a fixed notion of what is and isn’t a documentary, but Sean Farnel, now in his fourth year in the job, says it’s a moving target.

“I’m becoming less of a purist about the form as I see filmmakers doing impressive things,” Farnel says. “This is a case where the term ‘non-fiction’ is better than ‘reality’ — whatever that is. Documentary as a non-fiction form has become very fluid in the last 10 years ... You see docs consistently pushing the form in new directions.”

Two popular, form-pushing films released last year illustrate his point. Waltz with Bashir, by Ari Folman, recreates the Israeli filmmaker’s memories of the 1982 war with Lebanon through animation. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg was part monologue, part travelogue and partly made up, though clearly even the imaginary parts of Manitoba’s capital are close to Maddin’s heart.

This year’s festival, which opens next Thursday with a screening of Jennifer Baichwal’s Act of God, includes a number of what Farnel calls “creative documentaries.”
Cooking History, about soldiers’ food during wartime, uses tableaux and elaborate reconstructions. Antoine, a Canadian film by Laura Bari, immerses the viewer in the universe of a blind five-year-old boy. Big River Man, which Farnel calls a “demi-documentary” in the festival’s program notes, “might be another example of walking the line between fiction and non-fiction to achieve what Werner Herzog would call poetic truth.”

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