The documentary section at Toronto has always been one of its strongest, and films selected for this year’s largely virtual version feel like they’re addressing modern concerns of the world, including works about Greta Thunberg, COVID (yes already), and a new work from Werner Herzog (that makes three this year!). Those, and others, will be covered by other correspondents, but I almost randomly selected the three documentaries I could fit into my schedule this year, a trio of incredibly different films in terms of subject matter and approach. This trio also happens to include one of my true TIFF discoveries, not just of this year but any year, a movie I had no intention of seeing but virtually stumbled into after a Twitter recommendation from Orla Smith of the wonderful Seventh Row. It’s a stunner, a great movie that would be buzzed about on the ground in Toronto right now if there were critics in Toronto right now. We’ll have to build that buzz online.
The movie is Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s “No Ordinary Man,” one of the best films I’ve ever seen about trans representation, reporting, and history. It takes the stale concept of a bio-doc and flips it to ask how we tell certain kinds of stories and what those choices do to underrepresented groups like trans masculine men. It’s moving and empowering, a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
“No Ordinary Man” is the story of Billy Tipton, an admired jazz musician in the ‘40s and ‘50s. When he died in 1989, his wife and son by his side, the world learned that Billy was trans, and they learned about it in a way that’s jaw-dropping in its insensitivity. Billy’s son and wife were trotted around to all of the daily talk shows to give interviews about how Billy had “tricked” them for years, as almost every reporter misgendered Billy after death, speaking about what “she” did to her family. As someone who’s old enough to remember 1989, it was striking to see how poorly the media handled this story at this time, making it into tabloid fodder that feeds the belief that trans people are just tricksters who set out to fool others instead of living life the best way they know how.
Chin-Yee and Joynt tell Tipton’s story almost entirely through a group of trans masculine actors “auditioning” to be in a film about Tipton’s life. And so we hear snippets of a screenplay about Tipton that reimagines major events in his story without resorting to cheap recreations of them. It’s a brilliant move in terms of non-fiction filmmaking, taking Tipton’s life and filtering it down through art to another generation of men empowered by his story. And then those scenes are cut together with interviews with trans performers and authors on gender issues that help build the picture around Tipton’s story. Finally, the filmmakers spend time with a now-older Billy Jr., and the interviews with him are some of the most moving doc interviews I’ve seen in a very long time. He’s clearly still coming to terms with his father’s death and legacy.
Bio-docs often feel like they exist in a bubble like a history lesson. They’re often chronological and dry, forcing experts to tell a story of someone they never met. “No Ordinary Man” is vibrant, and alive. It’s evidence that it’s not the details of a life that matter but how those details impact people even decades after we’re gone.
Of course, arguably no one in the 20th century has had more impact than Martin Luther King Jr., the subject of Sam Pollard’s expertly made “MLK/FBI.” Told entirely through interviews over archival footage, Pollard’s film uses the fact that the FBI wiretapped and watched King for years as a foundation on which to discuss the role of our government in the civil rights movement and the shadows that haunted King as he tried so hard to pull this country to a better place. It is a finely tuned, perfectly edited film, one that builds to a remarkably current chapter about the power and need for legal protest, and what it says about the failures of a country that doesn’t encourage it.
J. Edgar Hoover led a campaign against Martin Luther King Jr., using all of the tools at his disposal at the FBI. It started with an effort to morally discredit the civil rights leader. They would wiretap hotel rooms that they knew King was using for extramarital affairs and then leak those tapes into the community, hoping to destroy King’s standing and credibility. When their attempts to turn King into a villain to his people failed, they turned up the heat, putting people undercover in his organization to track his every move and report it back to the powers that be. None of this is a theory. This is all on the record, and Pollard even has officials from the FBI on tape talking about it, including James Comey, who calls this “the darkest part of the bureau’s history”. Someone from the FBI sent King a letter encouraging him to kill himself. It is shameful and gross. Some of the tapes were recently declassified, leading to this documentary, but others won’t be until 2027.
From the start, Pollard recognizes the morality of building a documentary around wiretapping, so don’t come to the film expecting to hear private moments. Pollard wouldn’t make that movie. Instead, he digs deeper into how historians should handle revelations like what are on the tapes released now and what will be available later this decade. And he connects the legacies of King and Hoover to 2020 without ever explicitly doing so. The fight that King started isn’t over and the ghost of Hoover’s virulent hatred still haunts the halls of Washington.
Finally, there’s “The Boy from Medellin,” from Matthew Heineman, the talented director of “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts.” His latest may seem like a departure from the director’s typical subject matter but he brings the expected filmmaking acumen to a story of a celebrity at a personal and career crossroads. It’s an undeniably well-made film that almost feels too well-made at times, incredibly cautious in what it reveals about its world-famous subject. Of course, almost all documentaries about famous people have a manufactured quality to them, but this story of a man who is so careful about what he says to his fans feels overly careful itself at times.
“The Boy from Medellin” is the nickname for J Balvin, a massive global star with millions of fans. Heineman captures him preparing for a 2019 homecoming concert at a giant stadium. Balvin is nervous about the show and opens up regarding his battles with depression in the past. Heineman’s film is most interesting in these moments, ones in which it feels like Balvin needs the adoration of his fan base to stave off his depression, and so he’s very particular about what he says and does in public. There’s a sense that if he steps wrong and his fans leave him behind that he won’t recover emotionally.
That explains why Balvin was so hesitant to speak out in late 2019 when his home country of Colombia went through their version of the Arab Spring. With massive protests in the streets against President Duque, some of them ending in violence, Balvin starts to get pressure to use his platform to support the revolution. He’s scared. And he’s sometimes naïve in how he looks at the issue—in one scene, he seems to worry more about the protests making travel to the concert difficult than the actual cause being supported by the young people of his country. He tells people over and over again that he doesn’t want to be political, but when the people who buy your albums are dying for a cause, not saying something is as political as saying something.
Balvin is an interesting guy and there’s certainly a degree of intimacy to “The Boy from Medellin,” but I couldn’t help notice that Balvin’s manager, Scooter Braun, was credited as an Executive Producer. There are large parts of this doc that feel very carefully manufactured, and scared to dig into what it's presenting. That’s not to say the feelings and emotions aren’t true—I believe they are—but that their presentation has been considered for maximum impact with minimal criticism of Balvin. There are moments here, including one with Balvin and Braun, that feel a bit too much like something for the cameras. Maybe they’re not, but the film's polished look doesn’t help the sense that we’re watching something only a few degrees less scripted than one of Balvin’s performances.