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.”

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