At the midpoint of the festival feature films are facing stiff competition from the documentary selections in the battle for critical affection. The advantage tilted briefly toward the latter on Monday, when Toronto's recently opened Lightbox Theatre dedicated its first full day of operation to documentary panels and screenings. One of those events, a conversation between Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, became one of the hottest tickets at the festival.
Herzog's latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (pictured), also screened for the first time yesterday, and drew some of the longest lines I've seen here: No one was going to miss the opportunity to experience Herzog in 3-D. Composed of rare footage of drawings made inside a French cave over 32 000 years ago, it's also another fascinating assemblage of the eccentric scientists and excavators who have dedicated the last 15 years to drawing out human mysteries and possibly the first known origins of art itself from the work of our Paleolithic ancestors. To my right, a woman periodically whipped off her 3-D glasses to avoid a case of the bends (handheld cameras and 3-D technology can make nauseating bedfellows); to my left, a gentleman was eased into a nap by the soothing, Teutonic exuberance of Herzog's narration.
I was taken by the film's exploration of a theme another TIFF film, Never Let Me Go, touches on to less satisfying effect: artistic ability or impulses as evidence of a human soul. Were these beings what we think of as human, Herzog wonders, pointing out the skill and expressionistic features (they are mainly drawings of animals, some of them given eight legs, it is suggested, to replicate movement) with which they were drawn. He lingers over the images with the limited light, equipment, and crew he was permitted to bring into the cave. Rather than providing a brightly lit, informative excavation of the cave and its content, the effect is hauntingly à propos: Perhaps there are still some things on this earth that can retain their mystery, or what Herzog would call their ecstatic truth.
“Nothing is real; nothing's certain,” Herzog says in the film's astonishing post-script, which involves a nuclear reactor near the cave, the biosphere created there, and the albino crocodiles flourishing as a result. The figurative impulse, an anthropologist notes, is one that connects humans to each other throughout the ages; it is when those earliest humans began drawing not just animals but themselves that those connections began. And so were those first images drawn from a documentary impulse or were they part of an imagined story? We'll never know, and as Herzog points out, ultimately it hardly matters.