The overwhelming amount of films to see in Toronto means that it’s impossible to have a perfect fest. Personally, I wish I had made more room for documentaries this year, as my nearly-40-movie schedule only finalized with three non-fiction flicks. While none of the three matched the brilliance of the Sundance docs I saw this year (like “All That Breathes,” “Navalny,” “Descendant,” and more), they’re all powerfully emotional films, the kinds of work created by filmmakers with a clear passion for their subject.
The best of the three is from Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of the award-winning “Blackfish.” This time, the investigative journalist filmmaker turns her camera on a subject that I think most people vaguely know about, but the director and her subjects lay it all on the table. This is the “holy shit” documentary of the year, the one that’s designed to be a wake-up call as to where we’re headed in terms of natural resources.
“The Grab” makes a convincing case that the world powers that went to war over oil in the last few decades will be doing it over water and food in the ones to come, even linking the fight for resources to the conflict in the Ukraine. Cowperthwaite sometimes gets a little lost in the vastness of her subject matter—there’s a tighter version of this that focuses more on one country or major player involved in the issue—but it’s hard to blame her for wanting to express the entire scope of how much trouble we are all in when it comes to the dwindling supplies provided by Mother Earth.
Cowperthwaite trains her camera on investigative journalist Nathan Halverson, an engaging interview subject who explains the work he’s doing with the Center for Investigative Reporting, starting with the purchase of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, by a Chinese company in 2014. Why is it important to discuss that a world power has influence over the food supply? Halverson uncovers that the Chinese government greatly influenced the deal, and the fact that China basically owns one out of four American pigs is a bit unsettling, especially when it comes from the people who run the country. Halverson uncovers land grabs all over the world, including right here in the United States, wherein countries are buying up land to drain it of resources, damaging nearby farms. One of Cowperthwaite’s smartest moves is to tie the Chinese actions back to the Great Chinese Famine of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, revealing how that tragedy led to action today to ensure it doesn’t happen again. While the idea of Chinese bureaucrats impacting the U.S. farm economy is inherently problematic, who can blame them for wanting to make sure their people don’t starve again?
Clearly, the China angle is enough for an entire doc, but it’s only part of “The Grab.” Cowperthwaite and Halverson try to capture the massive canvas of the resource wars that are on the horizon, or more accurately already happening. The centerpiece of the film comes when Halverson gets a gigantic email drop that reveals how much Erik Prince (yes, that Erik Prince of Blackwater “fame”) and his Frontier Services Group have been involved in essentially pillaging Africa for their resources. “The Grab” really illuminates how much is happening behind the scenes to position world powers like China, Russia, and the United States as the ones who will control who gets what resource. And, of course, Cowperthwaite gets to the fact that there’s plenty for everyone if we would all work together and ration, but that’s not how it works. It’s too tempting to grab more than we need.
A very different kind of documentary unfolds in Ryan White’s inspiring “Good Night Oppy,” a film that embraces the people who dream big, those who had the idea to send two rovers to Mars, leading to better results than they ever could have hoped for in the end. “Oppy” is a bit slow and direct for my taste, telling a relatively familiar story in a straightforward way with admittedly great special effects and interview segments but also little to write about in terms of form. It improved for me when I thought about it as a family film, something that entire homes can watch when it drops on Prime Video and be inspired by the display of scientific intelligence that did the impossible. It’s a little dry, but anything that values the big brains at NASA that pulled this off deserves some attention.
Directed by Ryan White (“Assassins”), “Good Night Oppy” chronologically recounts the development, execution, and hurdles of Operation Rover, gathering some of the architects of one of the most landmark space missions of all time. After receiving approval, the team behind Rover set about to design two robots—named “Spirit” and “Opportunity” (or “Oppy”)—that would be sent to the red planet in search of water. There had been theories for years that Mars once had water, and so likely once had life. Launched in 2003, Spirit and Oppy would go to Mars for 90 days and return the data on what they found under the soil, sending it back over 34 million miles. Well, the mission actually lasted 15 years, taking risks with travel that the team never thought possible and revealing so much more than we’ve ever known about Mars.
Intercut with the talking head segments about the project are sequences that recreate the journeys of Spirit and Opportunity through the visual effects mastery of Industrial Light & Magic. There’s undeniable power in seeing a project like this succeed beyond its creators’ wildest dreams, but I found a lot of “Good Night Oppy” repetitive, the kind of subject that I think would have worked better in a book, a form that could really dig into the roadblocks that the scientific team overcame with more detail. White favors emotion over that kind of detail, likely trying to take what could have been a dry subject matter and bring it to the widest audience possible. One of the key players in the later years of Operation Rover was encouraged to dream bigger by the initial launch. If the movie can do the same for young future NASA visionaries, it will have done something valuable.
Finally, there’s Babak Payami’s deeply personal “752 is Not a Number,” an expose of the cover-up around Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down in January 2020 on its way from Tehran to Toronto. All of the 176 people onboard were killed instantly, and world powers started to fight over who was responsible. Iran initially denied any responsibility for the missile that destroyed the plane, but eventually (and surprisingly) admitted to taking the regrettable action. Even after that admission, it felt like there were unanswered questions, including why the Iranian government took such violent action against a commuter plane.
Payami centers a friend, the moving and vulnerable Hamed Esmaeilion, an Ontario resident who lost his wife and child on that plane, and the footage of his daughter in home movies is absolutely heartbreaking. The haunted Esmaeilion made it his mission to keep the memory of his loved ones, and the other 174 people on that plane, in the public eye, starting foundations, going to Iran to investigate, and insisting on bringing their bodies back to Canada. He became the voice of the families who were torn apart that day, asking Iranian officials the tough questions, even if they refuse to answer.
Esmaelion’s story is a moving one, and Payami has palpable sympathy for the man, especially as he gets beset upon by scam artists who claim to have information about the crash for cash. Imagine thinking you may learn the truth about the worst day of your life, only to be the target of a criminal. Payami’s film becomes more of a study of one man’s heroism than an expose about a crime committed by the Iranian government. It’s the kind of doc that feels like it’s not quite weighty enough for a feature—it would make a fantastic “60 Minutes” segment but doesn’t sustain for a feature run time—but I’m haunted by Esmaelion’s plight, a man who will likely never have all the answers about the deaths of his wife and daughter but refuses to give up trying to find them.