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TIFF 2019: Varda by Agnès, The Australian Dream, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator

Time management and over 200 movies to see limited my documentary viewing from TIFF this year to only a trio of what are essentially bio-docs about three very different people. The gentle genius of Agnès Varda is contrasted against the righteous empowerment of Adam Goodes and the walking monster that is Bikram Choudhury. All three fall into traps of traditional bio-docs, which could be summed up as that uncertainty that one couldn’t get the same experience listening to a podcast or NPR segment about the subject, but they ultimately work, even if to varying degrees.

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The best of the three is the wonderful Varda’s final film, “Varda by Agnès,” which is really just a filmed conversation with the legendary director that she directed before she passed away earlier this year. “There are three words that are important to me: inspiration, creation, and sharing,” says Varda, who adopts a very intuitive, organic approach to telling the story of her life. She jumps around chronologically, bringing in collaborators from her past and skipping from film to film, taking breaks between anecdotes to offer some notable ideas about her theories on filmmaking. Like a lot of her movies, the result has a cumulative effect, as her habit of detouring through her subject matter gains power the more you give into it and just let her guide the way.

Naturally, “Varda by Agnès” is filled with wonderful behind-the-scenes details, including a conversation with Sandrine Bonnaire on the difficult filming of “Vagabond” and her realistic approach to making that movie. There are really very few projects like “Varda by Agnès” in film history, one in which a legend illuminates her own career. Some it feels a bit perfunctory as Varda ends up describing films we’ve seen or clips we’re watching, but she is such an engaging, brilliant speaker that even those moments are forgivable. It’s a loving and lovable project filled with great lines. I’ll close out with one I think Roger would have liked: “Nothing is banal if you film them with empathy and love.”

Daniel Gordon’s searing and angry “The Australian Dream” tells the story of “The great sin—the black man who complains.” Parallels to issues like that of Colin Kaepernick and the way racism feeds into professional sports in the United States are left undrawn but it’s impossible to watch Gordon’s profile of Australian footballer Adam Goodes and not consider them. Goodes became a hot-button issue in his home country after a racially-charged incident at a game in 2013 first painted him as a villain but ended up spurring him on to seek greater social change. Gordon’s doc is steeped in hagiography, but that’s not really a problem as much as it would be in other documentaries. Goodes deserves a bit of time on a pedestal.

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The main difference between Goodes and Kaepernick is one of athletic success. Goodes was a legend in Australia—a four-time All-Australian and two-time Brownlow Medal-winner in the sport of Australian Rules Football. The way fans and other players treat players of Indigenous origin, which Goodes is, had been an issue for years when Goodes heard someone call him an ape at a 2013 game. He turned around and ordered the spectator removed, only to discover that the invective was hurled by a 13-year-old. Painted as a bully pushing around a teen girl who didn't know better, Goodes became an enemy to sports fans, leading to a premature retirement.

Clearly, there are complex issues of perception embedded in this story and Gordon arguably doesn’t dig deep enough into some of them, giving us a film that feels at times more like a TV special than a theatrical release. However, Goodes' story is a fascinating one, especially if the redemptive final act of “The Australian Dream” is to be believed. Even if he’s not the hero of his country this movie makes him out to be in everyone’s eyes, he’s undeniably opened a few of them.

Another eye-opening doc will play on Netflix later this year in Eva Orner’s “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” a curtain-pulling expose on the story of the man who made Bikram Yoga a phenomenon around the world. Hot yoga is something that now takes place in hundreds of cities and is credited with changing people’s lives. Sadly, its creator is alleged to be a sexual predator and absolute monster, someone who preyed on the female teachers at his schools, fabricated his background, and committed multiple assaults and rapes. If Orner’s documentary is completely true, he’s one of the most loathsome people you’ll see on film this year, an egomaniacal, sexist sociopath who built a legacy mostly so he could become a predator.

Orner follows a chronological structure, detailing the rise of Bikram Choudhury as a fitness celebrity in the ‘70s through his founding of schools that teachers needed to attend to be able to use his techniques to accusations of assault and rape. Even in the early days, there’s something off-putting about Choudhury, who would yell insults at his students and have them massage him when class was done. There’s even the hypocrisy of the fact that he had cooling fans behind him in hot yoga to give you an idea that he was not all that he preached. Orner gathers informative interviews with those who were close to Choudhury and even some of his victims. The result is a doc that can be a little too straightforward—this is one that works almost as well if you close your eyes and treat it like a podcast—but if the form here isn’t special the content is unforgettable, a reminder to question those in positions of power, even ones who seem only to want to help you. You won’t look at a sign for a yoga class the same way tomorrow.

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