L.A. Weekly film critic April Wolfe is reporting for us from the Toronto International Film Festival.
The documentary section of TIFF has a reputation for programming the types of films that can easily compete for audience attention with the narrative juggernauts, and this year is no different. From Agnes Varda’s wacky travelogue Faces Places to Frederick Wiseman’s ode to the New York Public Library Ex Libris, these docs shine bright. But two particular films about two legendary women especially stand out, the pair almost in dialogue with each other about female role models — and how few of them are memorialized in the culture as “rock stars.”
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami isn’t a retelling of its subject’s exploits in the 1970s and ’80s club scenes, legends that director Sophie Fiennes says you can easily find in books and magazines. Instead, this is an intimate portrait of the artist in recent years as she returns to Jamaica, the country of her birth and childhood, for a family reunion. She and her boisterous family — brothers, sister, mother, father — travel the island, meeting with friends, telling stories. Through these conversations, a heartbreaking story emerges, as the talk turns to a man named Mas P, who was Jones’ and her brothers’ caretaker as a child, when her parents left to live in the States.
Though Mas P is long dead, his presence is like a ghost. His physical abuse took its toll on Jones and her brothers, but they attest to having somehow transformed that pain into fuel for their new lives — Jones tells us that the raging masculine persona she adopted for her stage shows comes from allowing her memory of Mas P to, in a way, possess her body. Fiennes then showcases that persona with interwoven segments of Jones performing a concert in 2016 of material from her most recent album, 2008’s Hurricane. Watching her on stage, you could not guess at her age. In platform heels, she struts and conquers her domain like a 20-year-old glitter-clad warrior. Her voice is robust and deep and still shakes you. The footage is so elective that it prompted applause after every song in my audience at the Elgin Theatre.
Jones’ playful humor lightens the film. At one point, Fiennes follows her as she prepares to perform on a French television show. She’s brought out for rehearsal, and we see that her segment includes about 10 skinny women dressed in sexy white lingerie, dancing with chairs around Jones. This is a gross miscalculation of Jones’ image, and as we watch her attempt to perform with the women, she suddenly stops dead in her tracks and just watches them with a look of horror. “Do you have any male dancers?” she asks, incredulous. This is a woman who once redefined female sexuality in pop, and now, apparently, must redefine it again.
While Grace Jones has a somewhat loose, traditional documentary feel, Brett Morgen’s Jane is a tightly woven immersive experience. He plunges you into the early life of trailblazing primatologist Jane Goodall through gorgeous footage — once thought lost — shot by Goodall’s late ex-husband Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s. We see a young Goodall quietly stalking a family of chimps in Gombe while the camera tracks her; she’s both the researcher and the subject matter. Van Lawick, who went on to become the premier photographer of the Saharan landscape after their divorce, shot all the footage as though he were making a narrative film — Goodall says van Lawick refused to turn on his camera unless the light was perfect. Morgen’s present-day interviews with Jane act as narration, so the images we see drive what Goodall will say in her voiceover, rather than the voiceover spontaneously guiding what topic might emerge next; unlike most doc directors, Morgen edited the footage of this film together before conducting his subject interview.
The chimps themselves become rich, full characters, as we get to know matriarch Flo and patriarch David Greybeard. Goodall observes Flo become a new mother and, we learn, later uses that behavior as a model for her own transition into motherhood. When it becomes clear that Flo’s parenting methods were actually disastrous for her baby chimp — culminating in a heart-rending scene of unspeakable grief — Goodall completely upturns her and her son’s life to avoid making the same mistakes. But the director doesn’t dwell too long on this or any one moment, employing the energetic montage style he’s previously used in Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture. There are no loose ends or wasted time; everything builds to a rising crescendo that makes you feel like your heart is going to burst. From the moments we see of Goodall and van Lawick falling in love and establishing their careers until we realize their perfect paradise could never last, Jane is an atypical romance between a woman, a man, a child and a family of chimps. The immense strength of this remarkable woman is on full display, so much so that, 20 minutes into the film, tears welled from my eyes and did not stop, even after I left the theater.
You might remember some heartfelt essays from women who were surprised to find themselves crying while watching Wonder Woman earlier this year. I was one of those criers. It was as though I didn’t know what I needed to see on the screen — a female hero — until I saw it before me. This is how I felt watching Jane. Around the midpoint of the film, Morgen flashes on the screen a succession of letters Goodall’s mother wrote to her, encouraging her not to follow her husband or abandon her dreams. The scene — and all the others — is heightened by a score from Philip Glass that swells and thrums. In it, the enormity of Goodall’s bravery and accomplishments hit me like a coconut on the head. “My God,” I said aloud to the bro next to me, who responded simply with, “Whoa.”
Grace Jones and Jane took me to church.