Frederick Wiseman and a portrait of Martin Luther King lead TIFF’s documentary slate

By A.A. Dowd

When people insist that a movie must be seen in a theater, what they’re usually talking about are its visual pleasures, which do tend to be enhanced by the scale and clarity of the big screen. (That was, presumably, the crux of Christopher Nolan’s crusade to get Tenet into multiplexes during a damn pandemic.) But there are benefits beyond eye candy to the currently inaccessible or just inadvisable movie theater experience. One of the big ones is that when you sit down in an auditorium, you’re kind of locked into whatever you’ve come to watch, with no option to pause the feature and few of the usual distractions within reach of your couch. It’s just you and the film, for however long it lasts.

Movie theaters tend to be best for mammoth time and focus commitments like City Hall (Grade: B), the latest installment in Frederick Wiseman’s career-long study of places, vocations, and institutions. Even more so than the average project from this legend of documentary cinema, Wiseman’s portrait of his hometown of Boston—and the machinations of the government that runs it—pretty much demands your undivided attention. Which, of course, poses a challenge to the virtual festivalgoer, who might find their eyes and thoughts wandering—and their fingers restlessly scrolling—during the seventh or eighth extended policy discussion captured in its near-entirety.

At four-and-a-half hours, this is Wiseman’s second longest (it trails only 1989’s six-hour Near Death), yet it arguably still bites off a little more than it can chew. Long passages take place within drab offices and administrative chambers. But just as his last film, Ex Libris, strayed from the main branch of the New York Public Library to chart the full cultural reach of that institution, City Hall looks beyond the walls of its eponymous setting—to drop by Red Sox games and fundraisers, crash school board meetings and press conferences, tag along on sanitation routes and animal-control calls. Given the vast sprawl of his interests, Wiseman could have chopped off the second word of the title.

In what qualifies as something of a first, Wiseman locates a protagonist of sorts: Democratic mayor Marty Walsh, whose multiple appearances throughout the movie might have something to do with the demands of the job. (If there’s a major public event happening in Boston, chances are good he’s expected to be there.) “We can’t solve the problems of the United States of America here,” Walsh says during one of several speeches, but he’s clearly positioned himself as an anti-Trump figure, standing on a platform of diversity initiatives and gun-control sound bytes. Wiseman, of course, has been studying the inner workings of American civics for too long to buy wholesale into any savior narratives. The structure of the film subtly underscores a disconnect between the rhetoric of change and the reality of how long it can take: While Walsh’s staff calmly, dryly debates how to address Boston’s high eviction rate, we meet a desperate man for whom the issue is far from theoretical.

As always, Wiseman’s approach guarantees memorable encounters. There is, for example, a contentious community meeting about the arrival of a new cannabis dispensary—a sequence that functions like a microcosm for the whole complicated business of running a city and trying to meet everyone’s conflicting needs. Yet the subject matter this time also results in both a smaller quotient of oddball personalities and a larger volume of scenes devoted to bureaucratic discussion. Is there such a thing as too much curiosity in a nonfiction filmmaker? Wiseman’s refusal to simplify—his allergy to easy conclusions—sometimes manifests itself as a reluctance to separate the conversational wheat from the chaff, or to cut away from anything. City Hall, in other words, may sometimes try the patience of even a Wiseman devotee. Still, there’s method to its patches of mild tedium, too: While Walsh makes his inspirational remarks, the real work of political progress, especially on the local level, is slower and much less glamorous; it happens around the table, not at the podium.

Wiseman, now in his 90s, has influenced whole generations of nonfiction filmmakers. Directed by a trio of clear disciples, 76 Days (Grade: B) applies his fly-on-the-wall shooting style and signature eschewal of talking-head interviews to the major global crisis of our moment and of many of our lifetimes. Chronicling the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, the film opens in a mad dash of panic, as medical workers in full PPE gear race down a hospital hallway to the entrance, where a mass of sick people have gathered, waiting to be ushered indoors one by one. The vibe is pure vérité horror, a Direct Cinema apocalypse. Yet directors Hao Wu and Weixi Chen (along with one just credited as “Anonymous”) quickly transition out of the blind chaos and into something like a new normal, as the staff settle into protocol for dealing with the virus, exuding a rather comforting competency and calm bedside manner.

At a slim and brisk 93 minutes, this is a film with the opposite problem as City Hall, in that it maybe could have stood to be a little longer and more exhaustive; it leaves plenty of gaps in our understanding of the hospital’s response plan, and never conveys the full scale of what the team is dealing with over three months. But that’s largely because 76 Days is more interested in capturing the human element of the pandemic’s earliest days than cataloguing its grim statistics. There’s quite a lot of poignancy and humor in the interactions between the doctors and patients; while one physician tearfully apologizes for not being able to save a woman’s mother, another hilariously urges a bedridden man to listen to his doctors instead of consulting the Chinese equivalent of WebMD… in a hospital, no less. At times, we might be watching a deadpan workplace comedy; that it’s possible to laugh at this subject matter at all is a testament to its matter-of-fact presentation and maybe also to the extent that this virus has completely seeped into every corner of life.

There are talking heads in MLK/FBI (Grade: B+), which is almost nothing but information and context. But most of the interviewees don’t appear on screen until the final minutes of the film, which otherwise lays their commentary over an elegantly, urgently assembled montage of archival footage. Director Sam Pollard, who edited several major films by Spike Lee, tells a kind of shadow history of the civil rights movement, recounting the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s actions in parallel with J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to undermine them at every turn, through surveillance and some tactics so dirty that even James Comey is appalled by them. None of this is new information, exactly— one of the film’s points, in fact, is that it was basically common knowledge at the time that the FBI was trying to destroy King’s reputation. But it’s a useful reminder not just that this American hero was a widely vilified figure during his lifetime but also that he accomplished everything he did despite nonstop resistance from intelligence agencies, the media, and the public alike.

If nothing else, it’s hard to walk away from MLK/FBI without an even greater appreciation for King’s grace and patience, both plainly on display in the ripped-from-the-’60s material Pollard has combined. Look, for instance, at a news interview where the anchor browbeats the Reverend about the violence occurring at demonstrations, to which King calmly implores her to ask who, exactly, is committing that violence. Sound familiar? So will much of the film, which hints at all the ways American culture still attempts to discredit peaceful Black revolution. The film ends by wondering aloud how the public will react to the wiretap recordings the FBI made of King, which are set to become public record in 2027. One talking head speculates that whatever’s on the tapes, it may satiate a public hunger to know more about the man within the Great Man of history. MLK/FBI feeds that hunger with every glimpse of him it offers.

It’s been a good year for documentaries at TIFF, especially if you count Spike Lee’s David Byrne concert film (and maybe the new Werner Herzog, which Katie Rife will cover soon). On paper, there was no reason to get especially excited for a doc about the business of Italian truffle harvesters, who dig up the fungal delicacy in the woods of Piedmont and sell their findings to restaurants and fine-diners with expensive tastes. But though that sounds like the toniest of blue-hair bait, The Truffle Hunters (Grade: B) is more eccentric and lyrical than its logline might suggest. The film’s subjects are all interesting characters: ornery, competitive, elderly experts in their field that dote on the dogs that help them do the job while hoarding their knowledge of fertile areas from each other, even when certain they don’t have much time left to devote to the profession or anything else. What’s more, directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw apply an actual visual identity to their footage, via impressively composed wide shots of the men against the splendor of nature (the opening image is a bird’s-eye doozy) and witty compositions, like the one that places a hunter and a buyer under a shadowy overpass, as if they were conducting an exchange of deadly secrets or hard drugs. All of which is to say, I understand now why the film has become one of the year’s festival favorites, selected not just by Toronto but also Sundance, New York, and the cancelled Cannes.

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