TIFF Doc Conference 2017

It's a good thing to continue learning. I have been in the documentary industry for more than three decades. This past week I had the opportunity to refresh my thinking and learn some new perspectives about the craft, the business and documentary education.

The occasion was the 9th annual TIFF Doc Conference, part of the Industry component of the Toronto International Film Festival. Moderated ably by programmers Thom Powers and Dorota Lech who is also associated with Toronto's Hot Docs festival, the day featured a swift moving and well paced series of interviews, panel discussions and key note speakers.

Anjali Nayar, director  Silas

Anjali Nayar, director Silas

Anjali Nayar a Canadian filmmaker now based in Africa presented a keynote address on ethical considerations surrounding appropriation. She rhetorically posed the all important question: how do I as a first world person of privilege tell stories out of Africa? In a thoughtful way, Nayar, whose current film Silas premiered at TIFF17, both defended her story telling liberty and underscored the collaborative approach, empathy, listening, open mindedness and respect that she must be sure to employ abroad. She called for telling each other's stories "with imagination and skepticism." Without backing down from her right to free speech, she drew attention to moments in her own work where she thought she might have done better.

Nayar examining her conscience about representation of the so-called developing world

Nayar examining her conscience about representation of the so-called developing world

Filmmakers Brett Morgan Jane & Kurt Cobain - World of Heck ,Denis Côté and Sam Pollard traced the arc of their careers and motivation in interviews. Pollard who had a distinguished career as an editor with the likes of director Spike Lee and who teaches at NYU is now primarily a director. His latest film I Gotta Be Me about the singer-dancer-entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. had its premiere at TIFF17 and will be seen on the American Masters strand on PBS.

TIFF17 Pollard.jpg

Morgan Spurlock who rose to fame with his Supersize Me doc was joined on stage by the team from his company Warrior Poets, Entertainment Weekly and A&E network that are responsible for a new pop culture doc series that will launch soon across A&E media platforms. Spurlock emphasized his creative and entrepreneurial bent. He and his colleagues stressed that the digital space provides documentary producers with unprecedented opportunity.

Moving beyond specific projects, financier Geralyn Dreyfous of Imact Partners and the film & TV career consultant Peter Broderick proffered useful tips about private financing for documentaries and the approach one might undertake to ensure longevity and a decent income in the independent documentary production industry.

Consultant Peter Broderick

Consultant Peter Broderick

As a filmmaker and educator at Toronto's Seneca College, I felt my time at the 2017 TIFF Doc Conference was well spent. Each year's conference has its strengths, but this one avoided transparent, shallow promotional gambits that can sometimes mar such industry affairs. Each session was distinctly thoughtful.

As for improvement for the 10th annual TIFF Doc Conference in 2018, one might suggest a better mixing up of American-Canadian-international speakers. As in other years at this particular event, it occasionally seemed we were attending a conference in New York or Los Angeles because Canadian or international context was missing for significant stretches of time. That being said, it was an informative day and I look forward to next year.

Francis Fukuyama “Political Order and Political Decay”

Political Order and Political Decay: From Industrialization to the Globalization of Democracy

By Francis Fukuyama

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

The prolific political philosopher Francis Fukuyama has essayed again, this time with a weighty (in all respects) tome that outlines his understanding of political development in the west in the modern era. It’s the second and final installment of his treatise that began in 2011 with The Origins of Political Order.

The two-part series undertakes nothing less than an overview of the rise and fall of institutions of democratic accountability in western Europe, Latin America, the United Kingdom, and the United States since the Industrial Revolution. In the current book, he picks up from the chronology of his inquiry in the first volume dealing with the governmental legacies of imperialist monarchies, the Enlightenment, and the important revolutions that took place before approximately 1800.

Fukuyama cut his scholarly teeth as an intellectual in sympathy with the so-called Reagan revolution that supposedly reasserted American dynamism and global significance following setbacks like the Viet Nam War. However, by the Iraq War he began to take some distance from the ideology and strategy of the George W. Bush administration — and a Republican party that he felt had lost its way. So, with the election of Barack Obama, Fukuyama had earned the uncomfortable distinction of facing criticism from America’s centrist and neo-conservative political thinkers alike. Perhaps such intellectual isolation fosters original work.

Fukuyama is famous, and in some eyes notorious, for the “end of history” theory that he first advanced in an article published by The National Interest in 1989. With Mikhail Gorbachev then championing perestroika and glasnost, and the Soviet system on the brink, Fukuyama posited that the imminent collapse of global communism, and the defeat of German fascism in the last half of the twentieth century, heralded humanity’s rejection of twentieth century grand schemes of social engineering and totalitarianism in preference for the ideals of liberal representative democracy. Fukuyama suggested that the world had taken Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini for a test drive, but opted for Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. His analysis elicited some very negative retorts; among many accusations, he was said to be blindly advocating a global system that privileged the USA and former imperial powers of ‘old Europe.’ Fukuyama insists that he was misunderstood, and accurately identified Hegel and Marx as originators of the ‘end of history’ analysis that describes inevitable (at least to the likes of Hegel and Marx) processes led by emerging bourgeois societies.

In Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama undertakes a further explanation — and perhaps a correction of sorts — of his post-Cold War argument. Its global scope is admirable, but the argument demonstrates its most evident strengths when Fukuyama focuses on the United States. (Born in Chicago, Fukuyama currently teaches at Stanford University.) In looking at the US, he advances some very unconventional thinking — at least for someone once considered to be an intellectual lion of the American right. Charting the historic role of a depoliticized civil service in fulfilling vital administrative tasks of government, Fukuyama makes useful comparisons between administrative institutions of government in countries influenced by either British parliamentary practice, or the American and French revolutions.

For instance, his analysis of the emergence of the US Forest Service, as an example of a body of professional bureaucrats at least temporarily decoupled from political expediency, patronage and lobbying, is fascinating and instructive. Also, his glance at attempts at railway regulation at the beginning of the twentieth century usefully foreshadows clumsy attempts in our own era to regulate telecommunication industries and the Internet. Fukuyama regards an independent bureaucracy — dedicated to serving all citizens — as a democratic bulwark. If he was once a Republican apologist, Fukuyama’s Republicanism goes back to the almost red Tory domestic policies and public duty of a Teddy Roosevelt. This ain’t no Tea Party.

Perhaps most thought provoking in his consideration of political decay in the US. He examines a system of checks and balances run amuck in which a surfeit of interest groups, lobbyists and lawyers create gridlock and stifle democracy while claiming to act in its name. His description of American “vetocracy” in which political actors, including the President, lack effectively representative (but reasonably constrained) decision-making power does not generate optimism in an age of climate change and Ebola outbreaks.

Francis Fukuyama is a contemporary political philosopher to be reckoned with. He has produced an intellectually valid yet readable work that draws on a myriad of examples — and a deep reading of his philosophical underpinnings. At times the book may suffer from being overly ambitious in its reach, but most readers, regardless of their political leanings, will find that Political Order and Political Decay challenges and provokes their thinking.

JAMES CULLINGHAM is a journalism professor at Seneca College in Toronto, and documentary film maker; his most recent film is In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey. James recently received his doctoral degree in history from York University, Toronto, with a thesis entitled “Scars of Empire: A Juxtaposition of Duncan Campbell Scott and Jacques Soustelle.”

This review first appeared in The Journal of Wild Culture.


Blind Joe Death Goes Abroad

In Search of Blind Joe Death – The Saga of John Fahey, Tamarack Productions documentary film about the late American guitarist, composer, author and provocateur, continues to gain international attention. In April, the film will have its South American premiere at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI) and will also screen at the Belfast Film Festival in Northern Ireland. Last month, it was shown at the Glasgow Film Festival.

In the summer, the film will screen in Madrid at the Transmissions Film and Music Festival; at La chaise (les tabourets) in Paris; and in Copenhagen at the Danish Film Institute/Cinematheque. It will also be featured at the Revelation Perth Film Festival in Australia. Additional screenings are anticipated in Australia.

This follows a string of screenings in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Blind Joe Death had its world premiere at Raindance Film Festival in London; its Canadian premiere at Vancouver International Film Festival; and the USA premiere at Mill Valley Film Festival near San Francisco. The film will be shown on BBC next autumn. In Canada, it will be broadcast by networks of Blue Ant Media. The film was produced with the creative participation of  the School of Creative Arts and Animation of Seneca College of Toronto

Fahey (1939-2001) is known as the godfather of American primitive guitar. His approach to blues, Brazilian, Appalachian, European classical, Gothic industrial ambiance and Indian music influenced many musicians including Pete Townshend of The Who, Joey Burns of Calexico and Chris Funk of The Decemberists who all appear in the film.

Canadian distribution: V Tape. USA: First Run Features. UK/Europe/Australia bookings: a better noise, Newcastle upon Tyne.

For further information contact:

James Cullingham director/producer

James.tamarack@rogers.com (416)312-1841


Facebook http://on.fb.me/faheyfilm

Twitter @JohnFaheyFilm