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Some don't like it hot: Narcissism and celebrity at a doc fest

 TORONTO—Albeit relatively real, documentary cinema can't entirely resist the same forces of unnatural selection that determine whether Brad Pitt can be seen wearing sandals or sunglasses this summer. Or so it seemed at the fifth annual Toronto Documentary Forum, an industry-oriented offshoot of the city's concurrently held Hot Docs fest of international nonfiction.

"What's the likely outcome?" asks a cautious cable exec of the producers who've just pitched their work-in-progress doc about a man's ongoing efforts to prosecute the perpetrators of a toxic gas leak in mid-'80s India. "Think this guy's gonna win?"

So much for letting verité follow its own shaky course. After a handful of 15-minute pleas for funding and distribution—presented to several dozen doc-broadcasting heavies (and a live audience) in a cathedral-like lecture hall on the University of Toronto campus—only a few things appear true enough to take to the bank. One: First-person docs à la Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock aren't just hot, but scorching. Two: Celebrity—as in Right-Wing Hollywood, Jesse Moss's (first-person!) poke at Arnold et al.—still makes the real go round. ("I think [Hollywood] looks really fun," proclaims the Channel Four buyer who passed on a doc about the legacy of the U.S. military's hundred-year-old slaughter of Filipinos in Balangiga for being "an American story.") And: Though docs about art-making outside Hollywood are considered risky business these days, everyone and his affiliate seem to want in on Albert Maysles's latest portrait of the iconoclastic Christo. (At age 70, the ever charming Maysles—seen schlepping his own shipping materials after the big pitch—is one of the only non-fiction figures who maintains his valuable reputation without going on camera.)

Auto focus: I, Curmudgeon
photo: Alan Zweig
Auto focus: I, Curmudgeon

A year ago, the city's SARS scare put a damper on an event that's regularly billed as "North America's largest documentary film festival and market," even relegating the fourth annual Forum to a virtual existence. Still, at least one project pitched online last year—Christian Bauer's The Ritchie Boys, about the German Jews who fought Hitler as U.S. spies—found a place among the many dozens of cable-ready docs screened at the fest this year. Indeed, Bauer's opening-night attraction, a History Channel–esque mix of gray-haired talking heads and grayer footage of tanks and ticker tape, proved emblematic of a festival whose all-important size requires that all-important TV money, which in turn pads the roster with new work that, however important, can appear rather small on the big screen.

Call me crabby, but I, Curmudgeon—made with little more than a consumer-model camcorder and a desktop mirror by narcissistic misanthrope Alan Zweig (Vinyl)—seemed thrilling precisely for spitting in the face of all that's hot. True, kindred sourpusses Harvey Pekar, Joe Queenan, and Mark Eitzel do lend a touch of alt-cult marketability to Zweig's endearingly claustrophobic home movie. Still, I, Curmudgeon's primary pitch is to the lone viewer: Isn't it more real to sulk for nothing than sell out?

 
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