The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival is officially a wrap, but we couldn’t let this year’s festival pass us by without shouting out a couple of noteworthy docs worth a watch. I don’t know about you all, but usually, the documentaries are what I look forward to most at festivals — getting an inside look at the life of an iconic historical figure (or a lesser-known trailblazer) or the real story behind a pivotal moment in history. And this year’s TIFF documentary lineup did not disappoint — from game-changing women like Julia Childs, Dionne Warwick, and Alanis Morissette to historic moments whose impact is still felt today like the 1971 Attica uprising, and the 1973 NYPD hostage siege — there was a little something for everyone. So here’s a quick look at some of the documentaries that stood out at this year’s festival.
DIONNE WARWICK: DON’T MAKE ME OVER – Dir. David Heilbroner, Dave Wooley
For those of us who have been keeping up with the Twitterverse, we’re familiar with the current undisputed Queen of Twitter — Dionne Warwick. And just like the unapologetic realness she brings to the social media platform, that same realness was bought to this documentary about the legendary, international music icon. This engaging documentary gives viewers a little sneak peek behind the curtain of the genre-defying Warwick. With interviews from industry friends and family and stories from Warwick herself (the Snoop Dogg/Suge Knight story or South Carolina Jim Crow diner story by themselves make this worth the watch), this is a fun and entertaining documentary to watch.
HOLD YOUR FIRE – Dir. Stefan Forbes
In 1973 in NYC, a hostage siege took place at a sporting goods store that changed how the NYPD used violence and bad assumptions for tense situations. A couple of young black men try to steal some guns for self-defense from the store, and that fateful decision leads to a tragic experience that gave way to the birth of hostage negotiation and changed the lives of all involved. By using the techniques of a somewhat “outsider” in the force, NYPD psychologist Harvey Schlossberg, they reformed the way the police used de-escalation and “radical empathy” instead of “macho man violence.” Co-produced by Fab 5 Freddy, Hold Your Fire starts with a frenzied opening and holds your attention all the way through.
The doc follows the build-up of the situation itself, so it almost feels as if you are watching the events unfold in real-time. The doc effectively uses archival footage and photos of that day, along with interviews with individuals involved talking about what was going through their head that day, how they feel looking back on it 30 years later, and the impact that day has had on their lives. It was interesting to get insight into the different points of view of all of those involved — the young hostage-takers, the police, and the hostages themselves. Couple the intensity of the situation with the racial tensions of the time, recent events (Munich Olympics, Attica Prison uprising, and Dog Day Afternoon Bank Robbery), and the perception of the NYPD in the community at the time, and you’ve got quite a compelling story to tell who’s influence still ripples through these communities today. And looking at it through a 2021 lens with all of the police incidents in recent years, the doc at times becomes somewhat hard to watch, but a necessary watch that hopefully will move police forces to re-examine their approach to “community policing” and change police culture.
JAGGED – Dir. Alison Klayman
Let me just start by saying that the middle school me was really into this documentary. Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” was the very first album I bought and the soundtrack of my middle school and early high school years (even though I didn’t quite understand the meaning of all the words that I belted out with my whole heart), so watching Jagged was definitely a trip down memory lane. The documentary gives a behind-the-scenes look at Alanis’s upbringing and her early start in the music industry, and how her “Jagged Little Pill” album changed the trajectory of her career and pop culture in general. Although the artist herself has come out recently saying that the story that the documentary told was not the one that she signed up for, I did appreciate that it gives viewers a slightly more intimate understanding of the artist as she touches on the stereotypes, misogyny, and sexual abuse that is rampant in the entertainment industry. Ultimately, this documentary was a portrait of an imperfect and flawed artist/young woman who the world thrust upon a pedestal as a feminist trailblazer.
BEBA – Dir. Rebeca Hunnt
Beba is a self-portrait of an artist as a young woman. Rebeca Hunnt (or “Beba”) is a young Afro-Latina woman coming of age in the 2000s and confronting her past and the impact of her family, ancestral legacy, and culture on her life. The doc is a raw and vulnerable look at a young woman living an authentic life and being open and honest about who and what she is. It is a very intimate portrait with a vintage feel. This is a moving documentary and a must-watch for anyone struggling to understand their identity while on the journey for freedom and unconditional love. Highly relatable and honest, Hunnt’s directorial debut feature is a fascinating look at who we are.
OSCAR PETERSON: BLACK + WHITE – Dir. Barry Avrich
Unless you’re heavy in the jazz game, Oscar Peterson may be a name that you’re not familiar with — I wasn’t before watching this documentary. For those who don’t know, Peterson was a legendary Canadian jazz pianist whose legacy and impact still lives on today in the music of Jon Batiste, Herbie Hancock, and so many others. But after watching this doc, you’ll know a tab bit more about the influential life of this great artist who had to confront racism, health issues, and the waxing and waning tastes of the music industry.
JULIA– Dir. Julie Cohen, Betsy West
Julia was probably the documentary that I was most looking forward to watching. As someone who was never really big into the culinary world until recently, I was only vaguely familiar with Julia Childs and her iconic voice. Still, I did not really know her story or the impact that she had on the culture. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the dynamic duo who also brought us other documentaries about game-changing females (RBG and My Name is Pauli Murray — both of which I also highly recommend), Julia is a fascinating and engaging look at the life and legacy of the absolute badass Julia Childs. It shows us the many sides of Childs, as she goes against the grain, finds fame after 50, pushes back on societies expectations for women, evolves as a human being (changing her views on gays and the AIDS epidemic), and changes the culinary and pop culture game while staying relevant for decades. With a groovy intro that pulls you in, Julia is fun (I was a huge fan of the style and visual presentation — diary entries with family/friend interviews and Julia’s voiceover) and a delectable documentary about an unflappable and inspiring woman. This was a lovely tribute to a life well-lived.
ATTICA – Dir. Stanley Nelson
A good documentary educates and informs while also being engaging and eliciting an emotional reaction from the views. Stanley Nelson’s ATTICA did all of those things. This was the documentary that had the most visceral impact on me. I was familiar with the story of the 1971 5-day Attica prison uprising that is still the largest and deadliest the country has ever witnessed, but this doc took it to the next level. It was hard to keep my emotions in check while watching this one. Really seeing the archival footage from that day, going into the political and social context of the event, and hearing the survivors and others involved give their point of view and knowing that some of the same prison reform issues still exist today is what made this so impactful. Fifty years later, history is the present.
So if you get the opportunity, give these documentaries a watch — they’ll make you laugh, cry, educate you and hopefully inspire you to action.