I’ve discovered that documentaries become exponentially more entertaining when you’re in the same room as the subjects of the documentary, who are watching it for the first time. This past weekend was the Moving Image Film Festival and I attended one evening, the ‘Toronto Nights: Big City Stories’ showcase. There were five films. One almost-feature, clocking in at an hour fifteen, three shorts, and the picture that had drawn most people to join the audience, ‘Cab 138’, a half hour documentary following filmmaker Robert Swartz’s journey as he learned about his grandfather’s cab-driving experience, and the path that the cab license took to the present day. On the way, he – and us, the viewers – meet a large cast of people involved in the cab driving industry -from newspapermen to drivers to politicians. A large number of the interviewees were in the room watching the movie with me. ‘Oh my… I can’t believe he used that footage of me’ muttered the man behind me. At other times in the doc, one fiery experienced driver shouted at the politician on the screen: ‘That’s a lie! You’re lying!’
The documentary itself was very educational about a part of my city I’ve never paid a lot of attention to. It starts off seeming very charming without a lot of bite. There’s just the right amount of sentimentality as Swartz explores his family’s past, but as he gets closer to the present day, the film becomes very political, and doesn’t shy away from harsh questions and uncomfortable observations. It includes a devastating interview with a city councilor who becomes the definite ‘bad guy’ of the piece. The film overall is well made. It keeps moving at a good clip and uses sound effects nicely. I don’t know how easy it will be to get a hold of, but it’s definitely worth a watch if you can find it.
The short opener of the night was ‘Time’, directed by Kwn Ho Tse. ‘Time’ was a spiffy little piece that showed portraits of Toronto from the past slowly changing into how they are today. It was a lot of fun to watch; trying to figure out what recognizable intersection the portrait was going to become before it completed itself.
The most diverse picture of the night was ‘Moments Before’, directed by Sarah Warren. It’s a collection of many vignettes exploring the moments before someone says ‘I love you.’ The vignettes were filmed in many different styles, and had little strings and threads tying them to each other. Many of the stories were quite moving and enjoyable to watch, but not all of them were. There was one ‘moment before’ in particular that had me cringing. It was very uncomfortable subject matter – an abusive mother – but the acting and writing didn’t seem that strong. I appreciated the different styles of the various stories a lot. Some seemed very theatrical, like they’d been snipped out of a play and put on film. In others, the camera itself seemed to play a character, in others the colour and framing of the shot was essential for understanding the story. It also became a fun guessing game, trying to read the situation and figure out how the ‘I Love You’ would come into play. Some were predictable, some were quite surprising.
The final two shorts didn’t leave a huge impression on me. The one ‘De-Limited’ had its foot firmly planted in ‘art film’ territory. A place I’d like to appreciate more, but for now leaves me largely confused, especially watching it immediately after a straight forward documentary. The last, ‘Trigger’ looked absolutely beautiful (filmed in a gorgeous church) but I found it’s exploration of a hitman’s mentality quite bland. I found the Q and A after the short, with director Chris Lang, much more entertaining than the short before, with little stories about how he got to film at the church and what working with his minders was like.
I’m especially glad I went to the Toronto themed night of the festival. It was a real treat learning quite a bit about my city, and seeing it filmed in different ways. The venue – the Gigglesports theatre – was packed, but it didn’t seem like there were many people who weren’t involved with the making of various movies that were shown – which is a bit of a shame, I think. The evening was well worth the $10 admission, and it was a fantastic chance to see what local filmmakers are up to. If MIFF puts on another Toronto night next year, I definitely plan on attending.