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Toronto film fest documentaries embrace the news feature

Cameron French
10 September 2013
Producer Frank Marshall attends a news conference for the film "The Armstrong Lie" at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill
Producer Frank Marshall attends a news conference for the film "The Armstrong Lie" at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill

By Cameron French

TORONTO (Reuters) - Documentaries have enjoyed increased profile over the last decade thanks to personality-driven hits by directors such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, as well as big-budget films such as U2's "From the Sky Down", which headlined the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011.

The documentary slate at this year's festival - led by Jehane Noujaim's "The Square", which follows activists in Cairo's Tahrir Square in the wake of the 2011 overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - leans more towards the kinds of news features that in years past might have been found on network TV.

"I think what we're seeing is as traditional news media is going through a transformation and cutbacks... we see documentary makers kind of filling that void," said Thom Powers, documentary programmer at the Toronto festival.

He points to films such as "The Armstrong Lie", which tracks cyclists Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, and "The Unknown Known", an examination of Donald Rumsfeld's run as U.S. Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, as other new-driven offerings making an impact this year.

While those films bring a fresh perspective to older stories, Noujaim has been barely able to keep her film "The Square" up to date with a still-evolving story.

Noujaim screened a rough cut of the film at the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning the Audience Award.

Even as she was accepting the accolade, demonstrations against Mubarak's successor Mohamed Morsi were growing. The protests prompted the director to return to Cairo to film events leading up to Morsi's removal in July, which became the final act of the documentary.

"Events kept catching up to it with the toppling of Morsi and then it became the story of the toppling of one (leader) to the toppling of the next," Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian actor and one of a group of revolutionaries Noujaim follows over the course of 30 months, said in an interview.

ARMSTRONG, ROBERTSON, RUMSFELD

Much like "The Square", Alex Gibney's "The Armstrong Lie" had to change as events unfolded. The Oscar winner began filming Lance Armstrong in 2009 as the cyclist prepared to return to competitive cycling after a three-year absence.

Gibney shifted his focus as suspicions grew that Armstrong had been doping in winning his seven Tour de France titles, culminating in his ban in 2012 from competitive cycling and the stripping of his Tour de France titles.

Rather than a comeback story, Gibney was left with a front row seat to one of the most spectacular collapses in sports history.

Errol Morris's "The Unknown Known," essentially a series of interviews with former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, revisits his tumultuous five years at the Pentagon under President George W. Bush and his actions in building the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"Mission Congo" examines televangelist Pat Robertson's efforts to raise funds in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide through his Operation Blessing organization.

In the film, which has already drawn threats of legal action from Operation Blessing, directors Lara Zizic and David Turner examine claims that Robertson misused funds that were raised to provide relief for refugees flooding in to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

TAHRIR

While the events at Tahrir Square have been covered extensively for more than two years, Noujaim said the documentary format offers a level of intimacy and understanding tough to find in event-driven news.

"I think documentary film making has this great advantage of being able to follow the emotional journey of people that the headlines are about," she said in an interview.

"The media comes in and captures the election or the .. huge event and when there's lots of violence, but you never get to see the in-between times, and it's the in-between times that are the most important."

Indeed, rather than focusing on the major news points of the Egyptian revolution, Noujaim focuses on a handful of activists whose lives have come to revolve around Tahrir Square, the public square that has been the focal point of the revolution.

Using six cameras that produced about 1,600 hours of footage, she follows the "characters" through stages of elation, disappointment, and self-doubt as what initially appears to be a clear road to democracy after the fall of Mubarak instead turns into a battle of competing forces looking to take control.

Powers said the advantage of approaching news events through documentary film making is the rare experience of having an audience focus on one thing for an extended period.

"You may be reading articles online but you click through to something else. When you walk into a movie theater and sit down for 90 minutes... that's a concentrated piece of time," he said.

"I think people have an appetite for that."

(Reporting by Cameron French; editing by Andrew Hay)

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