At a press conference announcing the Canadian line-up for the 41st Toronto International Film Festival on Wednesday (August 3), realscreen caught up with a handful of filmmakers to discuss the challenges associated with their respective films.
Among the more than 60 filmmakers named to this year’s Canadian roster is Vancouver-based filmmaker and television news veteran Fred Peabody (pictured, left), who will present his debut feature-length documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone.
The 91-minute film, exec produced by White Pine Pictures president Peter Raymont, paints a portrait of American investigative journalist I.F. Stone while exploring his legacy, which lives on in the work of such contemporary filmmakers and journalists as Laura Poitras, Michael Moore, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, Mother Jones’s David Corn and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi.
“Peter Raymont and I both, as it turned out, subscribed as teenagers to I.F. Stone’s weekly, a four-page newsletter put out every week,” Peabody tells realscreen. “It was often the only place you could find the truth about what the U.S. government was doing, particularly in the Vietnam era.
“The focus we have is really to tell people the values that I.F. Stone represented, and how and why he’s inspired a whole new wave of independent investigative adversarial journalists working today.”
However, securing financial backing for a political film like All Governments Lie comes with its share of difficulties.
Peabody and Raymont say some Canadian broadcasters and funders distanced themselves from the adversarial nature of investigative journalism, though support came from the Ontario Media Development Corporation, Super Channel, CBC’s Radio-Canada and the Canada Media Fund. The pair obtained the bulk of funding from a number of U.S. foundations, including the Park Foundation in Ithaca, the Knight Foundation in LA and the Catalytic Diplomacy in San Diego.
“Access to people was one of the biggest production challenges – these are journalists that are very busy,” explained Raymont. “They’re not people who normally are happy being interviewed about something else other than their own work, but because it was I.F. Stone, and because Fred Peabody is so dogged and determined and doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, we managed to get them, but it took a long time.”
Meanwhile, Jamie Kastner‘s (center) docu-thriller The Skyjacker’s Tale chronicles the infamous murder trial of Ishmael Muslim Ali, formerly Ishmael Labeet, who hijacked a plane to Cuba after being convicted of murdering eight people on a golf course owned by the Rockefellers. With softening political relations between the two nations in recent years, Ali is on the cusp of extradition to the U.S. more than 30 years later.
The subject of the 75-minute film came to Kastner’s attention via his mechanic, who informed him that a fugitive was interested in detailing his story.
With unprecedented access to Ali, the doc is focused around the contemporary framework of his secretive life in Cuba and how it’s now threatened with imprisonment. It further provides jumping-off points to investigate the crime originally committed in 1972, the turbulent trial that ensued in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the skyjacking of 1984.
“I’d never done anything like this before – dealing with a guy who’s on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ list and a fugitive in Cuba,” Kastner says. “There were an infinite number of challenges. There were witnesses that had to be dug up, lawyers that had to be tracked down, and cops who were involved…that had to be contacted and encouraged to speak on film.
“On top of this, I had to be filming in Cuba, in the Virgin Islands, going down and building those relationships, building people’s trust and finding former FBI agents,” he continued. “But I think we have an incredible film of an incredible story that just fell right into my lap.”
Elsewhere, Hugh Gibson‘s (right) doc The Stairs shadows the struggles of three habitual drug users in Toronto’s Regent Park as they attempt to overcome their past and assist their community in the present.
“There are a lot of preconceptions and stigma surrounding people who use drugs, people who’ve worked in the sex trade, but what I hope with the film is that people will change the conversation and see that individuals involved are complex, funny and intelligent,” Gibson explains, noting that the doc was filmed over a five-year period.
Though the 95-minute film labored for funding outside of arts council grants, Gibson was afforded time to craft intimate relationships with the film’s characters, transforming disadvantages into advantages.
“I had a great but small team of people that worked really hard with me – one of them was executive producer Alan Zweig,” he said. “He had a film called A Hard Name years ago which was a big influence, and that’s the closest in terms of the level of intimacy with the characters, and that it exists in a similar milieu as this film.”
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 8 to 18. Further documentary announcements are expected in the coming weeks.