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TIFF 2023: In the Rearview, Flipside, Copa 71

I wish I could devote more time in Toronto to non-fiction filmmaking, but I’m always happy when I can carve out some space for it. The breadth of storytelling in the docs programs at TIFF is always impressive. Take the three documentaries in this dispatch that transport viewers around the world, from a soccer stadium in Mexico to a record store in New Jersey to a vehicle in war-torn Ukraine.

Maciek Hamela is more than just a director with the powerful “In the Rearview”—he’s quite literally a lifesaver. The Polish filmmaker has been traveling to Ukraine for years and felt like he needed to do something when Putin began his war crimes against the country. Instead of merely making a film about the war in Ukraine, he decided to become the driver of one of the cars transporting millions of refugees to Poland. As he transports families through the war-torn region, his camera rarely leaves the car, typically focused on the passengers in the backseat, intercut with stunning footage of a landscape shattered by warfare.

“In the Rearview” doesn’t feel like a traditional war documentary in that its minimalist structure allows for an unusual POV. There’s a striking sense of what’s been lost—as we see a woman cry over never seeing her cow named Beauty again or images of the burned cars that litter the roads—but there’s also notable hopefulness, typically in the eyes of children who hope they can find peace and safety across the border. As Hamela traverses roads that sometimes lead to blocks because there are too many mines up ahead—or, in one stunning sequence, he arrives at a bridge that has been destroyed—we feel like passengers in his car. However, Hamela’s film is never manipulative. We are not in the same precarious, life-changing situations as these men, women, and children. We are lucky enough to be watching from a safe distance.

Hamela’s film takes on the power of protest through personal filmmaking instead of blunt messaging. How can anyone look into the eyes of these children traveling with all their belongings to who knows where, uncertain if they will even make it out of the country that, before now, they had never left, and not feel a sense of tragedy? There has been increasing concern that the War in Ukraine isn’t getting the necessary worldwide attention it did in its first year and that Putin could be amassing an arsenal to strengthen the Russian attack. People like Hamela are unsung heroes of this conflict, not just because of the lives he saved as a driver but for the attention his filmmaking can bring to the cause.

The TIFF Docs program included a very different kind of personal documentary in Chris Wilcha’s interesting “Flipside,” a movie that first felt a bit too rambling and shambolic for my tastes, but then I realized I think that’s the point. Wilcha’s film is about those half-considered ideas we’ve all had in our lives, whether it’s a business venture, moving to another city, starting a new job, or whatever. We all have half-complete projects that exist on an alternate timeline in which we completed them. By examining some of his own and paralleling them with the somewhat stuck-in-time existence of a New Jersey record store, Wilcha gets at something about the human condition and our capacity to get stuck in a way that leaves things incomplete.

It feels like “Flipside” started as a documentary on jazz photographer Herman Leonard, but Wilcha, who helped produce the influential “This American Life” with Ira Glass, realized there wasn’t enough there when Leonard passed to form a full feature. The film reveals that it was actually the legendary David Milch who asked Wilcha to make a film about Leonard, hoping to inspire him to create more after the filmmaker got relatively stuck in a commercial direction for most of his career. The project leads Wilcha to unearth interviews that never developed into full-fledged projects, including footage of writer Starlee Kine and Milch himself. And it leads to a personal examination of how Wilcha got to where he is in the first place—let’s just say that Mom blames Judd Apatow.

All of this is intercut with the story of a record store named Flipside that Wilcha frequented in his youth. The store is still there, run by someone who has arguably turned it into a museum more than a business venture. And when a competing record store opens across town—yes, I’m serious—it highlights how Flipside is stuck in old patterns. Wilcha’s refreshing and entertaining film highlights how easy that is to do.

Finally, there’s Rachel Ramsay & James Erskine’s sports documentary “Copa 71,” an analysis of the 1971 Women’s World Cup, a heavily attended event that received press worldwide but was intentionally buried by history. You see, FIFA didn’t sanction a Women’s World Cup at the time and was clearly incapable of handling the potential rise of the female version of the most popular sport in the world. Executive produced by Serena and Venus Williams, “Copa 71” should be embarrassing for FIFA, a look at how radically they mishandled what could have been a worldwide turning point for their sport. A half-century later, women’s soccer is now the fastest-growing sport in the world. “Copa 71” makes the case that it should have happened sooner.

How much was the ’71 Cup buried? The film opens with Brandy Chastain, one of history's most famous soccer players, seeing footage of the event for the first time. Not just that—hearing about it for the first time. How could millions of people have watched an event as athletically impressive and formative for the sport, and then one of the pioneers of its next generation was never even taught about it? Ramsay & Erskine’s film doesn’t answer that question as much as I’d like, focusing instead on the event itself, detailing the rounds of the cup and its MVPs through interviews with the women who played in it. The result is a strong sports documentary that doesn’t ignore the political issues around its subject but doesn’t lean into them as much as a better version could have done. It’s solid and will do very well for a network like ESPN or Netflix, but it’s a bit too formulaic for the talented athletes it profiles and their finally-reclaimed legacies.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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