The last four years have seen convulsive change in the social, political and financial spheres in the United States, coupled with recalcitrant economic stagnation – ripe subject matter, you'd think, for both documentary and feature filmmakers. Yet here we are, on the cusp of what's shaping up as one of the most bitter and ideologically driven presidential election campaigns ever, and little of what's animating that contest has found its way into the 90-plus American offerings at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
There's nothing, in other words, about Barack Obama or the Tea Party, no Romancing Callista and Newt or Getting Away with It: Banking in the Cayman Islands, no exposé of the Koch brothers, no Occupy post-mortems, no Naming the One Per Cent, not even a new rant/rouser from Michael Moore, who was last at TIFF an astonishing four years ago.
It's a touch on the odd side. TIFF always has prided itself on being timely, engaged with the world, influential. Indeed, during and in the wake of the George W. Bush regime (2000-2008), it hosted many a U.S.-made film explicitly or implicitly critical of his policies and the malaise resulting from them. Fahrenheit 9/11, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Going Upriver, Death of a President, Slacker Uprising, Rendition and A Body of War are a few examples. Outside TIFF, there was Oliver Stone's W., Syriana with George Clooney and Errol Morris's anatomy of the Abu Ghraib atrocities, Standard Operating Procedure.
This year, by contrast, there appear to be only two U.S. features at TIFF expressly concerned with America's current crises – a faux documentary, Janeane from Des Moines, about a patriotic Iowa housewife trailing Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, and Far from Afghanistan, a 129-minute omnibus work by five militant U.S. directors contesting "the virtual invisibility" of America's decade-long grind in Central Asia. Whatever other politically engaged fare there is tends to be about the past and its hauntings – such as The Company You Keep, in which a 76-year-old Robert Redford plays an attorney whose involvement with the Weather Underground in the early 1970s faces possible public scrutiny, and Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, a doc about black activist/academic Angela Davis, 69 next year.
But if U.S. filmmakers seem to be slacking off at TIFF in engaging with contemporary issues, no such failure is being demonstrated by filmmakers elsewhere. The festival is packed with films about hot-button crises in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, north Africa and elsewhere. By my count, there are at least five films on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone, including Out in the Dark, about the love between an Israeli lawyer (male) and a Palestinian university student (male).
In the U.S., the documentary has long been the domain of liberals. Certainly Bush's stay in the White House offered these liberals plenty of targets, of which they took full advantage. Their relationship with Obama, however, has been more complicated: In a recent Rolling Stone, for instance, Michael Moore vigorously lamented Obama's apparent reluctance or refusal early on in his term to pursue the aggressive "change" agenda his electors seemed to want. It's been a common sentiment among liberals, of course – but has Moore made a documentary about it at any point in the last four years? He has not.
In the meantime, conservatives are making hay over Obama's apparent inadequacies. Dinesh D'Souza's anti-Obama screed/documentary 2016: Obama's America, released earlier this summer in just one theatre in Houston, is now playing on more than 1,000 screens across the U.S. The film has yet to be released commercially in Canada. And if it is, who'll be surprised if its "Canadian premiere" isn't at the TIFF Bell Lightbox?