We dig into Toronto’s first film festival that’s dedicated entirely to true crime and highlight many of the triumphs from the encouraging fest.
True crime is an area that has always maintained some sort of fascination within the public consciousness. The topic is inherently interesting because these stories aren’t the murderers and boogeyman that are invented for fiction, but rather these are the monsters that lurk about in real life. This stuff actually happened and there’s obviously appeal in attempting to understand why. Even though true crime has always resonated with the public on some level, the area has exploded over the past few years. True crime has turned into one of the most popular categories for podcasts. Reddit is full of communities that are devoted to armchair detectives who are trying to solve cold cases. CrimeCon, which is essentially Comic-Con, but for true crime, has not only become a reality, but it’s become wildly popular. People have a hunger for true crime like they never have before, so it’s only natural that film festivals would start to pop up that capitalize on this sect of storytelling and the community behind it. Accordingly, the inaugural edition of the Toronto True Crime Film Festival just concluded and it amounted to a satisfying, exciting celebration of true crime and filmmaking.
The Toronto True Crime Film Festival is a two-day affair that highlights true crime stories, whether they’re told through documentary or fictionalized films. 2018’s edition was admittedly not a huge event, but it’s a respectable effort for a first-year festival. If anything, the festival’s smaller schedule actually allows audiences to see everything that’s on the docket, which is a nice feeling. The Toronto True Crime Film Festival definitely skews more towards documentary films, but that also seems like it has to do with the fact that true crime just lends itself more to that approach. The festival is effectively programmed and each feature comes with a like-minded short that precedes it. This one-two punch typically helps hammer in the themes that the films are trying to address and they’re also typically mixed up so a doc will play with a fictionalized short, or vice versa.
When it comes to the festival’s program, there are a lot of impressive films on display. That being said, Skye Borgman’s chilling documentary Abducted in Plain Sight is still giving me nightmares. It was by far the most affecting film from the festival for me. The documentary presents the nearly unbelievable story of the Brobergs, a naïve, trusting family who let their neighbor, Bob Berchtold into their lives, and he slowly begins a devastating long con to groom and kidnap Jan Broberg, a 12-year-old girl. Programs like I Survived have made stranger-than-fiction true stories of sex and manipulation almost commonplace, but the story of the Brobergs nnd Bob Berchtold is something that’s so unusual that it’s truly deserving of the feature-length documentary treatment that it gets. Jan inexplicably gets kidnapped twice with her family very much enabling the situations, but they still come from such a loving, well-meaning place, which Broberg totally preys upon.
It’s crushing to watch how Berchtold chips away at Jan and her entire family until there’s just nothing left. The whole thing is just a crazy, evil, avalanching story that somehow even includes things like aliens. This story all comes down to manipulated trust and becoming spellbound by someone’s narrative rather than opening up and talking to others. All of this is aided by the fact that the members of the Broberg family, Jan included, all take part in this documentary. Furthermore, real photographs, home videos, and phone recordings between Jan and Bob all make this even eerier and solidify the reality of it all. Borgman puts together quite the strong documentary, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that the story is so addicting.
This same idea of deception and abused trust is present in Nicole N. Horanyi’s, The Stranger. This documentary presents the unfortunately-too-common scenario where a girl meets a guy on Facebook, but it turns out that his entire story is a lie. The film comes with the preface that every thing in it is based on a true story and that barring a few exceptions, everyone in the doc actually plays themselves. It’s a strong way to kick things off and grounds you in this experience. Personally, the biggest draw for The Stranger is the film’s unusual presentation style that breaks out of the narrative and addresses the audience. The film crew become visible and they ask Amanda, the subject, questions about her experience with Casper and how all of this came along. There are visual flairs and re-enactments and ways to make the material more interesting than a straight talking head documentary. It helps because this story isn’t that complicated, it’s more about the details and the emotional pain of it all, which can arguably be sold even better through a documentary than a straight fictional narrative. The re-enactments hit hard, especially since Amanda is actually in them and she’ll segue from acting in a segment to then talking to the camera or even commenting on scenes as they happen around her. She shatters the artifice between the past and present.
Casper builds this elaborate story that involves extended family and friends getting in touch with Amanda and the reveal that Casper is the heir to a hefty fortune and it continues to take bizarre turns, like severe car crashes. Basically, an Andrew Cunanan-style liar who’s made up tons of false extravagant histories through the years to manipulate people. The thing is, Amanda isn’t stupid and she does her research and looks into each thing Casper tells her, but it turns out to all be a ridiculous, elaborate lie that he really puts the work into looking legitimate. That’s what makes this much more interesting than the usual catfishing scenario because it goes so far and is so specific. It implies something deeper.
Horanyi makes it enthralling to learn Amanda’s story and it’s easy to get invested just like how she did with Casper. While this sort of thing happens all the time on the Internet, this story still connects and hits hard. It might not be worthy of a documentary per se as arguably each catfishing instance that goes this far is equally fascinating (that’s why Catfish has had over 100 episodes). But this weird doc-narrative hybrid approach does make the material play even better and become a worthwhile experience. More than anything The Stranger made me want to see a syndicated true-crime series that’s presented in the doc’s unique style.
Shifting away from documentaries, Rezo Gigineishvili’s Hostages presents another incredible true story that should to anyone that’s been a fan of this final season of The Americans. Hostages looks at the disturbing events surrounding three Russians that just wanted to leave the country and start new lives. The film is set during a time where leaving the Soviet Union was illegal for Russians and it plays into that danger and yearning for freedom. Hostages strengths lie in how it juxtaposes the innocent lives and the innocence of youth with these Russians as they simultaneously plan a violent, dangerous scheme. A growing sense of paranoia mounts throughout the picture in a fantastic way and it reflects the mentalities of the tortured, yet empathetic, characters. The film’s final act turns into a bit of a morality play of what should be done with these people, their trial, if they’re traitors, and if their parents should be held responsible, too. Hostages explores some interesting questions, especially in the climate of the ‘80s, but it can’t help but feel a little dated now considering these problems have been solved for the most part. At times the experience can be a little dry and get more caught up in the political and cultural climate of Russia, but it’s very well acted and these youths truly feel vulnerable, even when they hold people hostage.
My Name is Myeisha is also probably the most unique film from the festival. Gus Krieger tells the real-life story of the ’98 California shooting of teen, Tyisha Miller as a hip-hop musical, of all things. Krieger’s ambitious project might not be for everyone, but it’s a beautiful medley of sensibilities and talks about a devastating, relevant issue in a creative, passionate way.
Short films can often make a big impact and even be more successful than features when they figure out how to sell their ideas in the right way. All of the shorts featured at TTCFF 2018 are accomplishments that deserve to be seen, but Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s Traffic Stop and Jill Gevargizian’s 42 Counts are particularly powerful. Traffic Stop examines a rough case of racial profiling and police brutality and the way that it’s presented is so thoughtful and eye-opening. It uses staggering actual dashcam footage of a police car on a ride along and the unnecessary horrors that happen to Breaion King afterwards. The short uses interviews with the victim, Breaion King, as she continues to not trust this cop, and see where this abuse of power leads. It moves into Breaion’s life and highlights how kind she is and how she’s clearly not a bad person, but then plays this in juxtaposition to how the police treated her. The most eye-opening scene is when Breaion just has an earnest conversation in the back of the police car about racist cops and how to fix this unequal situation, while both of their different viewpoints get clearly put on display. Traffic Stop doesn’t necessarily bring attention to a new problem, but it does highlight how terrible and prevalent racial profiling still is in today’s society. Traffic Stop was even nominated for an Academy Award last year in the short documentary category, so this should certainly be mandatory viewing.
Gevargzian’s 42 Counts looks at the under-discussed topic of voyeurism and the psychological damage that it can cause to its victims. In a slick, economical way Gevargzian shows a chilling dramatization of invaded privacy that speaks to the idea of violated trust and how dangers lurks in very normal, unexpected places that’s been consistent through the festival. Other shorts like Don’t Be A Hero, What If It Were A Nice Room, and The Sandman also touch on these growing very real fears in succinct ways.
Most people likely attend TTCFF for the films, but the festival also offers up a handful of enlightening panels and symposiums that attempt to examine some growing sub-categories in true crime. One such discussion explores why women are so fascinated with true crime and charts the gender’s relationship with the area from the Victorian era all the way to the present day. Another engrossing talk looked at the rise of non-professionals solving crimes and the growth of true crime obsessives who can actually make a difference. There was also a tribute to the late true crime and noir author, John Gilmore, which also examined the connection between true crime and pop culture and celebrity, with some curious revelations about how fame fits into the equation.
Overall, Toronto True Crime Film Festival 2018 allowed a nice glimpse into filmmaking’s relationship with true crime and found many unique ways to exhibit this passion. The film’s schedule was varied and challenging and it was able to unpack many of the different facets of the complex genre. It also contained some of the most stirring documentary crime films that you’ll see all year. It’s encouraging to think about the ways in which 2019’s TTCFF will improve on all of these already-enjoyable categories for next year. The first Toronto True Crime Film Festival is smart to not attempt to overextend itself, but it still presents a strong core that certainly prompted discussion after people were leaving the cinema. The true crime maniacs that took part in the festival without a doubt left more obsessive and informed than when they entered and isn’t that what it’s all about?