TIFF 2016: Foreign affairs films coming to Toronto

You know it's fall when TIFF comes to town. We highlight the films to keep an eye on this festival season.

By: /
September 1, 2016

Always signalling the end of summer, the annual Toronto International Film festival kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 8. Over 10 days, nearly 400 films from 83 countries will be screened in theatres across Toronto, attracting swarms of people from around the world. Red carpets replace King Street traffic as celebrities like Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Reese Witherspoon and Denzel Washington descend on the city.

As many of the films will see wider releases in coming months, future Oscar winners among them, we scoured this year’s program to identify those that delve into some of the world’s most pressing issues, from cyber espionage to the
 illegal ivory trade. 

1. All Governments Lie

All Gov Lie
Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Documentary directed by Fred Peabody. With Amy Goodman, Nermeen Shaikh, Matt Taibbi, Jeff Cohen, Jeremy Scahill, Myra MacPherson.

The storyline: All Governments Lie pays homage to I.F. Stone’s legacy as a fierce, maverick journalist and highlights contemporary journalists continuing to champion the truth and freedom of the press in his wake.

Why it's timely: Increasing public awareness to mainstream media’s alignment with the establishment has led independent media organizations to flourish in recent years.

Screenings: Sept. 9, Badar Theatre; Sept. 15, Scotiabank Theatre; Sept. 17, Scotiabank Theatre.

2. Before the Flood

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directed by Fisher Stevens, actor and producer of The Cove, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Leonardo Dicaprio also produces and stars in the film.  

The storyline: Stevens’ cameras follow Dicaprio around the globe as he serves as the UN Ambassador of Peace and visits areas of the world that are adversely affected by climate change. Along the way, he speaks to activists, politicians and scientists on the frontlines.

Why it’s timely: While this year has seen some progress in terms of global governance on climate change (the Paris Agreement, North American Climate Action Plan, U.S.-Canada bilateral agreement on the Arctic), it continues to be one of the greatest threats to global stability.

Screenings:  Sept. 9, POW; Sept. 10, Badar Theatre; Sept. 16, Scotiabank Theatre.

3. Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directed by Mohanad Yaqubi.

The storyline: Film shot in the ‘60s and ‘70s by the Palestine Film Unit is juxtaposed with current footage of unrest in the region capturing Palestinians’ ongoing fight for self-determination and the longevity of the bloody conflict. The film will be followed by a screening of the short film Breaking Occupation.

Why it’s timely: So far this year, the Israeli government has ramped up operations to build settlements in the West Bank and violence between Israeli forces and Palestinians has swelled. The documentary provides a uniquely Palestinian perspective of the conflict as Yaqubi delves into the history of his homestead.

Screenings: Sept. 10, Jackman; Sept. 11, Jackman; Sept. 13, Scotiabank Theatre; Sept. 15, Scotiabank Theatre; Sept. 16, Jackman.

4. Black Code

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directed by Nicholas de Pencier (Four Wings and a Prayer, Watermark). With The Citizen Lab’s Ronald Deibert.

The storyline: Following the publication of Deibert’s book by the same name, Pencier investigates how the Internet has impacted free speech, activism and privacy.

Why it’s timely: As acts of cyber espionage are exposed (think the recent DNC hack), whistleblowers and hacktivists continue to leak information, and activists around the world continue to try to protect themselves, this documentary is especially timely as debates around censorship and internet freedom shift and evolve.

Screenings: Sept. 13, TBLB; Sept. 15, TBLB.

5. Gringo: the Dangerous life of John McAfee

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Documentary directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nanette Burstein. While John McAfee rejects her interview requests, she speaks to people who have crossed paths with McAfee over the years.

The storyline: Burstein investigates the life of McAfee, from his rise as a tech mogul to his run in with authorities after his neighbour in Belize (he moved to Belize and became a yogi for some years) was mysteriously murdered.

Why it’s timely: A lesser-known but fascinating candidate — McAfee is running for U.S. president as a member of the Libertarian Party.

Screenings: Sept. 11, Scotiabank Theatre;  Sept. 13, Scotiabank Theatre; Sept. 18, Hot Docs.

6. In Exile

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directed by Tin Win Naing. The documentary follows three Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand.

The storyline: Filmmaker Tin Win Naing was forced to flee Myanmar after filming political footage. He crossed into Thailand where he witnesses the plight of fellow asylum seekers as they work on plantations in conditions that equate to modern-day slavery.  

Why it’s timely: This year, Myanmar’s parliament elected its first civilian leader after nearly half a century of military rule. Now, peace talks are taking form to end a decades-long conflict between the government and armed ethnic groups that has caused the displacement of millions of people since the nation’s independence nearly 70 years ago. Though, the fate of the thousands who have fled the violence remains precarious.   

Screenings: Sept. 15, TBLB; Sept. 14, TBLB; Sept. 17, Scotiabank Theatre.

7. The Ivory Game

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani.

The storyline: Filmmakers capture the lengths activists are willing to go in their fight against the illegal ivory trade that has resulted in the widespread poaching of elephants across Africa.

Why it’s timely: This on-the-ground investigative documentary reveals the global scale of illegal ivory trading at a time when the practice could lead to the mass extinction of African elephants.

Screenings: Sept. 10, Badar Theatre; Sept. 12, Hot Docs; Sept. 16, Scotiabank Theatre.

8. Politics, Instruction Manual

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directed by Fernando León de Aranoa. Featuring political scientists Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón.

The storyline: Filmmakers follow the leaders of the anti-austerity movement in Spain as they form Podemos, a left-wing political party that shook up the country’s two-party system during last year’s national elections when they became the third largest party in parliament.

Why it’s timely: Politics, Instruction Manual, highlights a phenomenon that reaches across Europe. As the region’s politics become increasingly polarized with many right-wing parties gaining popularity and threaten the integration of the European system, citizens are challenging the political status quo in new ways.

Screenings: Sept. 10 Scotiabank Theatre; Sept. 11, Jackman Theatre; Sept. 18, Scotiabank Theatre.

9. The War Show

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directed by Obaidah Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard.

The storyline: During the Arab Spring in 2011, Zytoon, a Syrian radio host, took to the streets to film herself taking part in the protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. She continued this practice in the years after, creating a portrait of dashed hopes as extremism and civil war consumed the country.

Why it’s timely: As the bloody war in Syria continues, this documentary provides audiences with an intimate view into the lives and minds of Syrians, something that typically gets lost in the horde of headlines.

Screenings: Sept. 11, TBLB; Sept. 14, TBLB; Sept. 15, Scotiabank Theatre.

10. General Report II. The New Abduction of Europe

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directed and produced by Pere Portabella, a renowned Spanish artist, activist, politician and experimental film director.

The storyline: General Report II serves as a sequel to Portabella’s 1979 film, General Report on Certain Matters of Interest For a Public Screening. Through intimate conversations with Spanish thought leaders, politicians and activists, Portabella examines the political, economic and cultural crises in European as it comes to its precipice.

Why it’s timely: At a time when European countries are looking inward and assuming more isolationist postures, this film explores the cultural implications of that shift through the current state of affairs in Spain.

Screenings: Sept. 15, Jackman Theatre; Sept. 16, Jackman Theatre; Sept. 18 Jackman Theatre.

11. Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea)

Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Documentary shot and directed by Gianfranco Rosi (El Sicario, Room 164).

The storyline: Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Fire at Sea is set on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, on which 400,000 migrants have landed in the past 20 years. Rosi balances daily life on the island with the desperate refugees risking everything to reach Lampedusa’s shores in dingy, overcrowded boats. 

Why it's timely: The refugee crisis has scarcely been out of the headlines since the photo of young Alan Kurdi’s body was seen around the world last year, but this film provides a slower, more thoughtful depiction of how one island is dealing with an influx of people of all nationalities escaping war, torture and violence. 

Screenings: Sept. 8, Scotiabank Theatre; Sept. 9, TBLB; Sept. 10, TBLB.

12. An Insignificant Man

An Insignificant Man
Courtesy of TIFF

The players: Directors Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla follow Arvind Kejriwal, an Indian politician and anti-corruption campaigner that has been compared to the likes of Bernie Sanders.

The storyline: The filmmakers follow Kejriwal on the campaign trail and bear witness to a momentous political shift in India.

Why it’s timely: Kejriwal’s relatively new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) dismantled the country’s dominant two-party system after a landslide victory in Delhi state elections last year. Though, since taking power in Delhi in 2015, rifts between the party and the central government have widened and numerous AAP legislators have been arrested.

Screenings: Sept. 11 Scotiabank Theatre, Sept. 13 Scotiabank Theatre, Sept. 18 Scotiabank Theatre.

Five non-documentary honourable mentions:

1. 93 Days: Bringing stories of healthcare workers in Lagos during 2014’s Ebola outbreak to the big screen.

2. Snowden: Oliver Stone’s take on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. 

3. X500 (X Quinientos): This is the story of three migrants, in Canada, Mexico and Colombia, and their physical and emotional journeys as newcomers.

4. Salt and Fire: Werner Herzog (who also brings his documentary Into the Inferno to TIFF) tells the story of an unlikely union between a scientist and a corporate CEO in the face of ecological disaster.

5. Moonlight: Set in Florida, U.S., but pointing to deeply universal and timely questions around poverty, violence, race, and gender norms.