Docs had a strong presence this year at Toronto, thanks to new initiatives designed to raise the voice of non-fiction at a festival typically celebrated -on the world stage at least-for its fiction offerings. Thom Powers, who took over as International Documentary Programmer this year from Sean Farnel who left for Hot Docs, explains the reasons for the changes: “Toronto is such a gigantic festival, full of the best international films and Hollywood’s Oscar hopefuls, that there’s always a risk of festival-goers being overwhelmed. Since docs don’t always have star power, they need something else to stand out.”

Powers and his colleagues implemented several new strategies to create a “mini-festival within a festival” to give docs and doc filmmakers more exposure. New documentary initiatives now in place at Toronto are Doc Blog, which gives filmmakers a chance to reach audiences directly (archived at; Doc Corner, for industry attendees, and Doc Talks, panels of filmmakers whose topics this year included “Covering War and Conflict” and “Celebrity in Documentary”, sponsored by HBO.

“The White Planet”, by Thierry Piantanida and Thierry Ragobert

Two documentaries premiered in Gala this year: “The White Planet”, by Thierry Piantanida and Thierry Ragabert, and “Dixie Chicks: Shut up and Sing”, Barbara Kopple’s new film about the Dixie Chicks. It’s been fourteen years since any documentary has played in Gala, a section reserved for the most hyped red-carpet offerings at the fest. Over forty docs were screened in total; a new policy initiated this year requires doc entries to have a running time of at least 65 minutes, a decision designed to keep theatrical documentaries in focus at the festival.

Dixie Chicks: Shut up and Sing, by Barbara Kopple

Kurt Cobain: About a Son

One of the highly anticipated docs at the fest was “Kurt Cobain: About a Son” by A. J. Schnack. And it lived up to the hype, but not for the reasons you might think that a story about a grunge music hero who liked to trash his equipment and hurl himself into the mush pit before dying of an overdose at age 27, would. For a movie about a rock star, the film is surprisingly quiet, in a good way. After learning about the life and struggles of Kurt Cobain (I admittedly didn’t know much about him), the film’s reflective, textured, and subtle tone makes perfect sense.

If you’re looking for Nirvana concert footage or grainy super-8 home movies of Kurt as a little boy blowing out candles on his birthday cake, don’t see this film. Instead see it if you are looking for, or open to, a new experience. It may surprise you, just as it did me.

“Kurt Cobain: About a Son” is a moving documentary portrait born of bold artistic choices. It’s unconventional with a story driven by Kurt’s voice, his talking voice. And he’s never really seen, only briefly toward the end; his face obscured in the beginning. The soundtrack is culled from conversations Kurt had with Michael Azerrad over a period of about eleven years that were published in Azerrad’s book “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana”. Beautifully photographed in 35mm, the visuals are a mix of associative, literal and suggestive images, from shots of Kurt’s apartment to the places he worked, like the logging company where his father worked and the bars where Kurt played his first gigs, from images of sunsets to the endlessly overcast skies of the Pacific Northwest. Completing the picture are a few innovative animation segments, some photos by Charles Peterson, and songs evocative of Kurt’s life – but never from Nirvana.

The film has a meditative quality, born of the reflective quality of the material. There’s also an “other” something about the film, an inexplicable tone that’s almost a character in the story. I think it comes from the disembodied voice: we’re listening deeply to a man talk, feel, dream. At once Kurt Cobain is here-intimately recounting pain, love, and loss-and gone. His soul, some might say, hovers nearby.

“One of the wonderful things about listening to the Cobain tapes is that they seemed so intimate and immediate,” says Schnack, explaining some of his thoughts that went into creating a doc in this unconventional way. “You tend to forget that the conversations are thirteen years old and that the person you are listening to is gone. I didn’t want to break that immediacy by constantly reminding the audience with archival footage or grungy, flannel photos.”

When Schnack conceived the film based on audio interviews, he knew he wanted the visuals to reflect a sense of place, specifically to convey a sense of the three towns in the state of Washington where Kurt spent most of his time: Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle. “Because these three cities are so very different,” Schnack explains, “the buildings, the colour palettes, even the people on the street vary from one city to the next. We were able to approach each of the three acts of the film as having their own character. In fact, each of these towns is really a supporting character in the film.”

Schnack’s doc is a must-see for Cobain enthusiasts and genre junkies alike. And for any of us, “Kurt Cobain: About a Son” offers an experience that approaches the special, ineffable kind we’re sometimes lucky to get in cinema. I recommend watching it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system around. Then sink into a big cosy chair (or theatre seat) for the duration of the ride. You may agree there’s something transforming about the experience-whether you’re a Kurt Cobain fan or not.

Lake of Fire

At 152 minutes, “Lake of Fire” was the longest documentary at Toronto this year. And it wasn’t always easy to watch, which makes sense for a film exploring a complex, never easy topic: abortion. Filmed over the course of fifteen years, Tony Kaye’s (“American History X”) work is thorough. Almost every corner of the “pro-life” vs “pro-choice” debate is exposed, every layer of motivation peeled back. Although I would have shaved off some time in the opening section, overall the film’s running time works for its depth of content. The divide in the abortion debate, and in US society, has never been so well documented.

Doctors, politicians, fundamentalist Christians, professors of bioethics, social philosophers, impassioned pro-lifers, impassioned pro-choice advocates, men, women – they all have their turn in “Lake of Fire”. Even “Jane Roe” shows up, the pseudonym of the woman from Roe vs Wade, the landmark case that awarded women the right to legal abortions in 1973 in the United States and which has sharply divided the American people ever since. Jane Roe is no longer anonymous, she’s Norma McCorvey, and, in a change of sides, she’s now a vocal anti-abortion activist.

“Lake of Fire” is beautifully photographed in black and white (often 35mm). The grey-scaled visuals tone down (or underscore?) the harshness of the realities such as the disfigured face of a woman caught in the crossfire at an abortion clinic attack and graphic images of termination procedures you may want to shield your eyes from looking at. Interviews are sometimes composed in close-ups, offering glimpses into the deeply rooted passions of the players in this drama of real life vs death – in so many senses of the words.

Lake of Fire

The point is the abortion “issue” is not black and white- and Kaye lays that out brilliantly. The strength of Kaye’s doc is that it succeeds in making sense out of something complex. There are no easy answers here. There are people with opinions, that’s for sure – strong opinions, which sometimes drive murderous rage. The question of right vs wrong submerges into a sea of emotion, where some might say it belongs. After all, who has the ultimate authority? But duh, isn’t that the problem? And so the debate, the passions march on: “sinners” doomed to a “Lake of Fire”, on the one hand, women fighting for control of their own bodies, on the other, with doctors, nurses, politicians, sociologists, activists, friends and family jockeying for air in between.

Kaye says his motivation for “Lake of Fire” was 100% journalistic curiosity: “[I wanted to] get as much as I can,” Kaye says, “arrange it as fairly as possible to see all the sides of the debate, then sit back and watch and see how you feel. There’s no filmmaker bias or point of view. That was the opening I saw. I saw a million studies on abortion in 1990, but no ocean of everything minus propaganda. There’s nothing wrong with propaganda, but I wanted this piece to float above the sea.”

Watch “Lake of Fire” as a history lesson, a lesson in definitive filmmaking, or as a window on the US political scene. No doubt this film will stand the test of time, yet how the real-life abortion debate plays out only time will tell.