By David D’Arcy
The Toronto International Film Festival’s documentaries ranged from current affairs to historical to cultural. Here are a few you should try to see.
One of the documentaries that caught my attention at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival revisited an attempted robbery in Brooklyn that led to a hostage situation in 1973. A life was lost, but the standoff could have been much bloodier. It wasn’t, and that’s the point of the documentary. Hold your fire, directed by Stefan Forbes.
The police held their fire, at least more than they were used to. By NYPD standards, this indicated a new way to reduce conflict.
One Friday afternoon, four African-American men walked into an ordinary sporting goods store in Brooklyn. They wanted weapons. When a policeman showed up, they closed the store and detained 11 people there. Forty-seven hours later, they surrendered.
Please note that this was not the event that inspired the film dog afternoon (1975), a New York legend. It was a 14-hour siege after three men botched a bank robbery, also in Brooklyn, and held employees inside on a hot August day in 1972 as a huge crowd watched on .
Along the same lines, Stanley Nelson’s doc, Penthouse, also at TIFF, about the 1971 prison uprising and its brutal crackdown under New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller, showed us how not deal with hostage takers. A total of 43 people have died.
Hold your fire breaks down the 1973 siege, interviewing police, hostages and young Muslim hostage takers, who served long prison sentences. The film also introduces most of us to Harvey Schlossberg, a soft-spoken cop with a wry wit and advanced degrees in psychology. Schlossberg, who died in May, was largely responsible for preventing the botched theft from becoming a bloodbath.
This documentary operates on several levels. It’s a living crime scene story, with dark video footage of military-style police deployments bolstered by thoughtful reflections five decades later from all sides. It is a portrait of the police, with an overview of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s a spooky look at dark, drab, wintery pre-gentrification Brooklyn — that might be the b-roll for The French connection – brimming with character in his voices and faces, then and now. The huge, elevated subway lines that frame the crime scene appear to have been inspired by a dungeon by Piranesi. The film teaches a lesson about what can be gained when the police are told not to react with violence, which is to say everything, says Schlossberg.
As always, the closer you look, the more facts emerge. The four young men who demanded arms at gunpoint made a stupid and irrevocable mistake. We hear as much about it from two of them in interviews. They couldn’t even lift the heavy bag of weapons they wanted to steal. They were charged with the death of a police officer, but it is unclear who shot the officer. The men were also not members of the Black Liberation Army, as reported by the press at the time.
By 1973, the police had already learned enough about the hostage taking to prevent the worst from happening. Yet the metaphor that tells you more about police relations with communities of color in New York City, as one officer says in the film, is not a hostage negotiation, but an army of occupation.
This army was held back in 1973 by commanders who knew, as Harvey Schlossberg says, that holding back fire is what negotiation is all about. Stefan Forbes’ in-depth documentary reminds us that, fifty years later, we are still waiting for Schlossberg’s advice to filter.
The TIFF document that surprised me the most was Listen to Kenny G, directed by Penny Lane. I never liked Kenny Gs music – not in an elevator, not when I’m put on hold during a phone call, not even at Walmart. But this film forced me to appreciate Kenneth Bruce Gorelick for his honesty.
The world of film festivals is full of tribute films to artists. The TIFF program had such a film about Dionne Warwick, a tribute to the life of an important singer who helped expand the vocabulary of pop music. But like all in the genre, fully and conscientiously respectful. Sundance is also full of these glorifying films. Listen to Kenny G is something different.
Director Lane, whose last film, Glory to Satan? (artistic fuse critic) suggested she might do something irreverent, is based on the premise that the most respected and respectable critics don’t like Kenny G’s music, and on the assumption that those critics know what they’re talk. I think they do.
This critical disdain is central to his film, as is Kenny’s commercial success. However, Kenny does not hide behind a publicist. He is ready to address his detractors.
How many times does a living artist agree to do this? How often does the catalog of a museum exhibition of works by a living artist – or any artist – include one or more chapters of reviews that criticize rather than celebrate that artist’s work? What popular or commercially successful artist would accept that? Jeff Koon? Mel Gibson? Barbra Streisand? Madonna?
We watch critics scratch their heads trying to come up with something positive to say, and fail. Kenny’s fans (of all races) tell of their love for his music. Yes, his tunes are played at weddings. An African-American high school music teacher approvingly recalls a young man with a work ethic accused of playing light jazz. Kenny himself speaks of the disdain of his detractors. His explanation is that this is who he is. That still doesn’t make his music more likeable to me. It makes him more likeable.
Kenny G, also a beginner golfer and savvy investor, is proof against the critics. We all knew that. So, by the way, these are the most popular films and many successful authors. The disapproval doesn’t seem to bother Kenny or his fans. Eat your heart.
Devil’s Drivers, another TIFF doc, is an action movie. The documentary is also a parable of Sisyphus on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank of Palestine.
The filmmakers, Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth, introduce us to young men from the Occupied Territories who lead passengers through the gaps in the wall that surrounds this area so that they can work in the books in Israel. It is very difficult for single Palestinian men to work legally in Israel, but it is a risk worth taking as the salary is many times higher than what they earn in the West Bank. They pay drivers to break through the wall and drive them to construction sites where the Israelis hire them.
What we see is a mix of racing and bushcraft as Palestinian cars evade Israeli police and military vehicles. It works for drivers and for workers, until it doesn’t. We meet drivers who went to jail and are now stuck in the failing Palestinian economy, banned from working in Israel, living on nickels and dimes.
Devil’s Drivers can be exciting, like a roadless land race. There’s real skill and courage to the way these men fly across the landscape, and there are the ultimate “fuck you” moments. (You can imagine the “making of…doc.”) These scenes might be new to young viewers who haven’t seen Smokey and the bandit. But it’s hopeless. The Israelis, equipped with night vision and drones and faster vehicles, find and punish the drivers. They shoot fish in a barrel, and when the men are caught, the punishment is severe.
Filming here will also remind you of the high-speed chases in the COPS series, except that the dashcams are in the cars of the “criminals”. You sense moments when men feel free. But the economy is crushing: Drivers send workers to illegal jobs building homes for Israelis who will live at a higher standard of living than all but a few Palestinians could hope for. One more thing. When the drivers are caught, as they all are, Israeli teams are bulldozed into the homes of their families. Sisyphus 2.0 ends with a demolition derby.
The TIFF documentary that was furthest from conventional cinema is a three-minute repeat of an amateur film shot by a Polish-born Jew visiting his hometown in Poland a year before the Nazi invasion.
Three minutes – one lengthening, directed by Bianca Stigter and co-produced by artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, shows us film sequences taken in 1938 by David Kurtz. He was found decomposing decades later in Florida by his grandson, Glenn Kurtz. The film that we see, partly in color, was shot in streets teeming with people, all Jews, jostling to get in front of the camera.
Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, the commentary heard on the repeating film clip describes Glenn Kurtz’s years of research to find out who the people in the frame are. A few of the 300 we see were alive after the war. Most have been exterminated. In the town of 3,000 Jews, only 100 survived. Kurtz provides a withered account of what he learned in the 2014 book, Three minutes in Poland: discovering a lost world in a family film from 1938.
There are no talking heads. Stigter remains focused on the people of Nasielsk, exuberant as they push and pull to get into the frame. As the tape repeats, we learn more and more about them. And we learn what has been lost.
By replaying these images, Three minutes – one lengthening gives viewers no choice but to acknowledge all the dynamic lives that have been lost. It’s a monument to those David Kurtz filmed in 1938 – and a reminder of the vast number of others we don’t see.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, writes about art for numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.