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Camp 14 features effective animation.
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The People Of The Kattawapiskak River is more relevant than ever.
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Gael García Bernal tries to market change in No.
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Masha Drocova changes her mind in Putin’s Kiss.
Human Rights Watch, the film festival devoted to raising cinema-goers' awareness of global social and political issues, tends not to be the happiest slate of movies. The subject matter is often heavy - genocide, repression, unrest, wrongful imprisonment - and the content almost entirely documentary in nature.
Even the triumphant stories usually involve people escaping unimaginable horror; halfway through last year's screeners, I was wondering how much it would cost TIFF to set up a puppy room in the Lightbox so people could decompress after screenings.
Whether by coincidence or calculation, there's more hope than sorrow in this year's program.
Things kick off Tuesday night (February 26) with Lise Birk Pedersen's documentary Putin's Kiss (rating: NNN), which made its Toronto premiere in the Doc Soup series last year. It's the story of Masha Drokova, whom we meet as a 19-year-old true believer in Russia's Nashi movement.
Nashi is ostensibly a grassroots organization of young people trying to save their nation from corruption. In practice, though, they're squads of agitators who can be deployed by Vladimir Putin's operation to shout down opposition groups. The more time Masha spends interacting with regular people - and the more she sees of Nashi's questionable behaviour - the more she comes to question her political stance.
Wednesday (February 27), it's TIFF 2012's Camp 14: Total Control Zone (rating: NNNN), Marc Wiese's stranger-than-fiction doc introducing us to Shin Dong-huyk, a North Korean born and raised in one of Kim Jong-il's re-education camps. At the age of 23, Shin escaped to China with an older prisoner. He now lives in South Korea, totally unequipped to function in a free society.
Supplementing Shin's memories with sparse animated sequences and interviews with a former camp guard and a former North Korean secret policeman, Wiese makes it possible for us to imagine what Shin's life was like - and, by extension, to understand the utter helplessness of ordinary North Koreans so thoroughly steeped in their Dear Leader's propaganda that they're just as lost as Shin. It's a devastating and horrifying story.
The People Of The Kattawapiskak River (February 28, 6:30 pm, rating: NNN) opened the ImagineNative festival last year, and Alanis Obomsawin's documentary about the Attiwapiskat First Nation has become even more relevant with the rise of the Idle No More movement.
Obomsawin has never been a particularly flashy filmmaker, and her direct-cinema approach suits this study of a community sunken in miserable poverty; she just interviews her subjects to bring out their humanity and lets us stew in rage over the lack of support.
The festival finds a rare dramatic feature in Pablo Larraín's No (March 1, 6:30 pm; rating: NNNN), a comedy of manners centred on a Chilean advertising whiz (Gael García Bernal) hired to package and market the campaign to defeat dictator Augusto Pinochet's 1988 attempt to legitimize his 15-year reign through a public referendum.
Shooting in butt-ugly analog video, the better to integrate actual footage from the era, Larraín finds sly humour in the push-pull between dogmatic revolutionaries and Bernal's more mercenary character - and also captures the tension of a terrorized society just starting to allow itself to imagine an end to a decade and a half of oppression and paranoia. (It's up for the best foreign-language film Oscar this weekend, but it'll lose to Amour.)
Another TIFF 2012 premiere, The Act Of Killing (March 2, 6:30 pm; rating: NNNNN), plays its intriguing premise for maximum impact. Directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn offered former Indonesian death squad leader Anwar Congo and his associates the chance to re-enact their crimes onscreen, filtered through the tropes of musicals or thrillers or any other genre they might choose.
The results are mesmerizing - and not just because of Congo's self-aggrandizing and utter lack of remorse. The cameras bring out the worst in all concerned, who think nothing of singing and dancing about mass murder.
It's no wonder Errol Morris and Werner Herzog got behind this movie when it premiered at TIFF last year. It lands right in the centre of their lifelong obsessions, while feeling utterly original and unique. It burns itself into you... and I'd really like that puppy room right now.