The Disaster Artist, James Franco's very funny and just-heartfelt-enough movie about the making of so-bad-it's-good cult movie The Room, opens with a strange string of celebrity endorsements. Faces beloved (Adam Scott), not-so beloved (Kevin Smith), and moderately beloved (J.J. Abrams) speak passionately about The Room, oddball writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau's mangled melodrama that acquired a new life as the biggest cult movie sensation of this century.
These ecstatic talking-head blurbs serve an obvious narrative function, by introducing a prospective audience who is unfamiliar with The Room to the film, and the phenomenon around it. They are essentially character references for the movie's cult bona fides. (And they are, to my mind anyway, totally inessential, especially because The Disaster Artist 's story works so well that it doesn't really necessitate this set-up.) Yet they underscore another phenomenon that I've noticed throughout my Toronto International Film Festival 2017 filmgoing: images of people speaking at, or even just looking directly into, the audience. These are movies as testimonials.
One of this year's most striking testimonial films is Violeta Ayala's doc Cocaine Prison. Filmed over five years in the open-air, surprisingly lax San Sebastian prison in Bolivia, Cocaine Prison captures the lives of inmates, many of them young and non-violent, holed up for running drugs. Armed with video cameras, the prisoners document their daily lives, often directly addressing each other's viewfinders, and the audience in turn. It's a clever portrait of the global drug trade that focuses on a little seen, and totally unsensational element: the kids who run packages up and down the continent in hopes of making a little extra cash. It puts a human – and often, incredibly young, and often very innocent (albeit not technically) – face on a crime syndicate which, from Scarface to Narcos Season 3, is so often depicted in snarling, stupid caricature.
The latest from American experimental ethnographer Ben Russell offers a different kind of testimonial. Good Luck, which screens in TIFF's Wavelengths section, bisects its narrative across two mining communities. One is a Serbian state-owned operation, and the other is a Surinamese illegal gold-digging outfit. (The subject matter also connects to another conspicuous theme across the Wavelengths program: work. Different configurations of work and physical labour are also central Denis Côté's A Skin So Soft, Kazik Radwanski's Scaffold, Pedro Pinho's The Nothing Factory, and more than likely a few others I haven't seen.)
Among scenes of the labourers (who are separated by geography and context, but united by the sheer extremity and precocity of their work) digging, chatting, smoking, palling around and playing music – including one this festival's most fulsomely cinephilic sequences, featuring a Serbian man, or someone acting as one, performing Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" on a wonkily tuned accordion, deep beneath the Earth's mantle – Russell features scenes of the workers staring directly at his camera.
Filmed in stark monochrome, the miners look into the camera, not saying anything, maybe taking clipped drags off cigarettes. These are powerful interludes, which pluck the film's "characters" out of the context of their lives and work, and put them face-to-face with the viewer, as real people, unmoored from narrative or theme or anything like documentary storytelling convention. These, too, are testimonies. But they're worlds away from the gushing of The Disaster Artist 's intro. They're solemn and silent, yet their simple message that THIS IS A PERSON resounds loud and clear.
It occurs to me that these testimonials proceed from a larger trend in image culture. And by "image culture" I mean not just movies and TV but all images: the faces we Skype, the people we FaceTime on our iPhone Xs, the ads that talk at us while we stride up to urinals in downtown bars, the holographic flight attendant at the airport who tells us about how we're not allowed to bring bottles of water on board because of 9/11.
Despite claims of technology alienating us from one another, and how we're all heads-down staring into our shiny rectangles all day long, etc., I feel like we've become accustomed to being addressed face-to-face, even if it's mediated by a screen, even if it's just to say hello to a friend who lives across the country or be told to not bring liquids or gels on a commercial flight. We're so used to it, perhaps, that it becomes easy to tune out the intimacy inherent in being looked at, straight-on. (In recent years, I find myself almost physically unable to sit across from someone at a table in public, and would much rather drink, dine, chat, joke, etc. at the bar, where we can relate on a three-quarter swivel.)
These cinematic testimonials are arresting precisely because they make head-on, direct-address testimonials feel totally engaging. They're intimate, sometimes invasive, and even a little uncomfortable. And they accomplish what we can only hope from movies: shake us out of our boredom and passivity, and make stale images and modes feel somehow new again.