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TIFF 2023: Stamped from the Beginning, They Shot the Piano Player, Viva Varda!

In the hustle and bustle of big narrative premieres, which often showcase major movie stars, documentaries can be easy to overlook in Toronto. But with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike significantly curtailing the talent attending the festival, it’s worth remembering how bountiful the doc medium is. This year offers three films about subjects battling repressive environments—anti-Blackness, suppressive dictatorships, and their era’s sexism—by enlightening viewers through compact storytelling.   

Roger Ross Williams“Stamped from the Beginning” is a visually and sonically swirling text. Inspired by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s same-titled book, the film traverses slavery’s history to reveal the dehumanizing historical myths that have led to our contemporary racial reality. The swift telling begins with Kendi, a talking head in the film, sharing how Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis defended slavery in 1860 with a fake parable, which said that God ordained that Black people be forever subservient. 

Williams then doubles back from that opening frame, retracing how slavery shifted from a color-blind system that included Slavs, before eventually becoming a practice primarily used to put Africans in captivity. 

His film compares favorably with Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” as a work interested in the falsities that have informed the act of historiography, carried out by white people through mass media and political rhetoric that pitches Black people as dangerous, primitive, and hypersexual. Williams uses the lineage of Black women as artists, poets, and researchers as his throughline and assembles an array of notable historians, thinkers, and academics like Angela Davis, Iman Perry, Racquel J. Gates, and more to look behind the Black image.   

Williams Smarty notes how these stereotypes inform white perspectives and taint Black cultural mores. In back-to-back clips, both Barack Obama and Don Lemon demand that Black men pull up their pants.

For some, this won’t be entirely new. Other documentaries as recent as “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Amend: The Fight for America,” and “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” have all come at the same history from different angles. But the packaging of “Stamped from the Beginning” makes it stand apart. Rather than opting for a staid visual and sonic language, Williams’ film utilizes captivating animation, deep rhythms and beats, and needle drops like “Fight the Power” to imbue his interrogation with a sense of modernity. Some might push back against making a bleak record so vibrant, flashy, and active, but “Stamped from the Beginning” understands that history is often written with lightning.  

They Shot the Piano Player,” a quirky animated mystery from Spanish auteurs Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba, is “Searching for Sugar Man” by way of “Waltz with Bashir.” 

This entrancing and kinetic doc opens in New York City in 2009, with author Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) at Strand Bookstore, telling the story behind his latest work, a novel about Tenorio Jr., a Brazilian piano virtuoso who, in March of 1976, was kidnapped and murdered at the age of 35 in Argentina under the reign of Isabelita Perón. While based on real events, the film hews closer to docufiction than being a straight-up documentary. 

Harris is a double for Trueba. Like the character, four years ago, the director learned about Tenório Jr. by listening to a random Brazilian album from the 1960s. The piano playing enamored him, inspiring Trueba to track down more information about the pianist who helped to make Bassanova an exportable music genre. Trueba’s search is told chronologically through the Harris character as he interviews the real-life musicians and friends close to the pianist, giving the film’s many discoveries to arise organically.  

“They Shot the Piano Player” follows a recent string of films—“The Eternal Memory” and “Argentina 1985”—about oppressive Central and South American dictatorships. In this picture, scenes depicting the debilitating censorship, pervading sense of death and despair under Peron are either zapped of color or take on a rusty orange hue; these are contrasted stylistically through colorful (particularly the use of aquamarine and teal) and vibrant jam scenes depicting the freedom jazz and bossa nova provided many.   

While we get a sense of Tenório Jr. as a ghost, something is left at a distance from his humanity. The integration of the spirit of the French New Wave—the film’s title is an allusion to the François Truffaut movie, and “The 400 Blows” and “Jules et Jim” also make an appearance—also feels incidental rather than eloquently weaved. Still, the vibrating fusion of balming jazz notes with Cubist figures and evocatively shaded compositions brings about the creative verve of the era Tenório Jr. lived through. 

I must admit when I first saw the brisk 67-minute runtime for “Viva Varda!”—a revealing documentary about legendary auteur Agnès Varda—I was incredulous it could do her life and career justice. But Pierre-Henri Gibert’s film proved my initial suspicions wrong. “Viva Varda!” is a tightly calibrated, efficiently told, and lovingly compiled portrait of the seminal director. 

In recalling Varda, Gibert doesn't necessarily attempt to be comprehensive. He opens with her film “Vagabond”—about a rebellious feminist tale of a houseless woman hitchhiking across the French countryside—to interrogate the director’s early life. We see how she defined herself against her industrialist bourgeoisie father, becoming a radical communist, a curious intellectual, and a fervent artist. And yet, Gibert is also interested in how alike she was to her father. Both were tyrannical control freaks.

In that way, “Viva Varda!” isn’t hagiographic. Talking heads like the late Jane Birkin are quite open about Varda’s less-than-endearing personal quirks—her exacting, all-consuming ways—while admiring her looniness and eccentricities. The documentary is similarly open about both her and her husband Jacques Demy’s respective bisexuality. Gilbert smartly intertwines the couple’s rocky marriage, Varda’s singular role as producer/director, and her early creative ethos to demonstrate the director’s later self-mythologizing from a tenacious auteur to the French New Wave’s loving grandmother. 

On the film side, Gilbert hits the big beats of her oeuvre—“Cleo 5 to 7,” “La Pointe Courte,” “The Gleaners and I”—while employing her more noteworthy shorts to explore her politics, feminism, and marriage. Through other interviewees like her children Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy and a compilation of archival television interviews with Varda, the documentary acutely captures her biting humor and witty personality. While its storytelling can move too conventionally, and some of the cuts are a frame too quick, “Viva Varda!” is wonderful and engrossing, a vivid introduction for first-timers to the French film legend.      

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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