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Toronto International Film Festival 2010: Gauging reality

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Directors Errol Morris and Werner Herzog discuss their latest films at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Directors Errol Morris and Werner Herzog discuss their latest films at the Toronto International Film Festival.
  • Tom Charity reviews some of the documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival
  • "Tabloid," "Client 9," "Caves of Forgotten Dreams" and "Nostalgia for the Light" featured
  • Charity calls "Nostalgia" "the best of the lot"

(CNN) -- Did you hear the one about the manacled Mormon, the beauty queen and the cloned Boogers?

These are just three threads drawn together into the purple tapestry of "Tabloid," the bitingly funny new documentary by Errol Morris ("The Fog of War"; "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control") and a highlight in the Toronto International Film Festival's documentary lineup.

News junkies whose memories stretch back to the late 1970s might vaguely recollect Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who became a scandal sheet sensation after she reportedly chased her boyfriend from Utah to London, kidnapped him at gunpoint, chained him to a bed and had sex with him for three days.

At any rate, that was how the British papers reported it when McKinney was arrested and put on trial. McKinney saw it differently, testifying that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had stolen away her fiancé, and that their three-day "honeymoon" in a Devon cottage was more in the way of cult deprogramming. In Britain, public sympathy swung behind McKinney, then she fled the country disguised as a deaf-mute, with a forged passport and 13 suitcases full of her own press clippings.

McKinney was going to collect a whole lot more baggage before she was done. Caught up in a circulation war between rival British tabloids, she was demonized in one and sanctified in the other.

In the movie, Morris lets McKinney do most of the talking (the Mormon didn't want anything to do with the film), but also talks to several of her associates from the time, a former Mormon who tends to prefer her version of events and a couple of Fleet Street hacks. The latter jovially confess to sexing up a story that would seem to have had more than enough sex already.

At first, "Tabloid" seems a far cry from the earnest interrogation of Morris' last film, "Standard Operating Procedure" (about the Guantanamo torture photos). Then you realize they are both essentially about the same thing: how easily partial truths become facts, and how arbitrarily the media manufactures heroes and villains. Is this a true crime story, or a tale of true love? The view would depend on which paper you read, and whose version you chose to believe. (As for the cloned Boogers -- that's a whole different kettle of fish, but you should see the film to find out.)

Similar ideas percolate through Alex Gibney's latest, "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," the New York governor who resigned after his assignations with a professional escort came to light.

Impressive and articulate, Spitzer doesn't make any excuses for his hubris or his uncharacteristic stupidity, but Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"; "Taxi to the Dark Side") builds a convincing case that his downfall had less to do with his zipper than the powerful enemies he amassed on Wall Street as New York's crusading attorney general, when he vigorously took on white collar fraud, corruption and cronyism.

A more pragmatic, conciliatory political operator might have kept his private life private, and if and when the scandal did break, probably could have survived it. But the backroom support wasn't there -- when Spitzer resigned, cheers rang through the stock exchange. Gibney poses a simple question: In the scheme of things, which is worse: paying for sex, or fleecing American investors, the labor force and the entire economy?

Spitzer harks back to Greek mythology to explain himself. Werner Herzog reaches back much further than that in his latest film, "Caves of Forgotten Dreams," a 3-D documentary about the cave paintings at the Chauvet Pont d'Arc in France, the earliest known art works in the history of mankind dating back some 32,000 years.

The cave is beautiful, an amazing discovery, and the art is a revelation, sophisticated in its line and so dynamic that Herzog describes it as "proto-cinema." But the filmmaker's access was limited, the archeologists are less eccentric than the explorers and scientists he encountered at the end of the world, and the notion of making a 3-D movie about 2-D images is a gimmick that wears thin.

Better -- indeed, the best of the lot -- is Patricio Guzman's "Nostalgia for the Light," which weaves an entrancing reverie from the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on Earth.

The high altitude and lack of humidity make this the ideal vantage point for astronomers to peer into space and into our collective past. The Atacama is also a gold mine for archaeologists, as it preserves specimens intact for centuries.

Alongside them, Guzman finds a third group -- not scientists, but the bereaved relatives of the victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. The victims are the "disappeared," many of whose remains were ground up and dumped in this same desert.

Decades later, these relatives continue to sift the earth for evidence of their loved ones, without the cooperation of authorities who prefer to draw a veil over the past. Guzman, in contrast, insists on remembering, on taking the long view.