Crime Hopefully Pays: Inside the first annual Toronto True Crime Film Festival

by Andrew Parker

Given the ubiquitous presence of around-the-clock re-runs of Dateline, 48 Hours, Live PD, and any number of Law and Order incarnations across multiple networks and boatloads of Netflix documentaries, it’s somewhat astounding that Toronto hasn’t had a true crime film festival of its own until now. This Friday and Saturday at The Royal and Monarch Tavern in Toronto, locals can scratch their itch for all things illegal and disturbing at the first annual Toronto True Crime Film Festival. While the festival assuredly taps into our continued obsession as a culture with the ins and outs of lawless activity, it’s also a chance to showcase some fine feature and short filmmaking that happen to revolve around real life criminal incidents.

Born out of a passion for true crime narratives and a genuine disbelief that Toronto didn’t have a true crime film festival already, Festival Director Lisa Gallagher and her team of programmers (many of whom are well known within the local film community) have given a wide definition of what qualifies as a “true crime” film. The only firm criteria that the festival adheres to is that a film being considered has to involve, discuss, or be inspired by a specific, real life criminal event. The results of the inaugural year’s programming choices are an eclectic, well curated blend of documentary, narrative, and experimental films.

The festival kicks off on Friday, June 8 at 7:00 pm with Skye Borgman’s wrenching documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, which features one of the most tragically naive families ever committed to cinema. It’s the story of the Brobergs, a Mormon family from a sleepy Idaho hamlet who find themselves under the thumb of their charming, manipulative next door neighbour, Robert Berchtold. Robert, a married man, had a romantic eye set on Jan Broberg, the family’s twelve year old daughter and sister. On October 17, 1974, Berchtold was able to abduct Jan with little resistance from the child or her parents thanks to employment of controlling techniques that ran throughout the family. To make matters worse, through a series of convoluted events and previous manipulations, Berchtold was able to abduct Jan a second time, not long after the young girl was returned home to her parents and her kidnapper evaded prosecution.

Borgman’s film is extremely unnerving, but also overwhelmingly sad. While some audience members might scoff and suggest that they wouldn’t react the same way the Brobergs did if their child was kidnapped, Borgman does an exceptional job of how manipulation often doesn’t get uncovered in the mind of the person being worked upon until it’s too late. Filled with numerous twists that are compounded by the family’s somewhat jaw dropping missteps, Abducted in Plain Sight is the film at this year’s festival that’s most likely to please true crime purists that prefer these kinds of stories told from a purely journalistic angle.

Two of the other four features from this year’s festival are a lot more playful with documentary techniques and genre conventions, blurring the line between the real and the surreal with striking results, becoming the stand-outs of the line-up.

Screening on Saturday, June 9 at 7:00 pm, Danish filmmaker Nicole Horanyi’s docu-hybrid The Stranger (which picked up a Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC) is about a different kind of emotional manipulation from Borgman’s opening night work, and is one of the few films ever made about a crime that allows the victim to have a controlled sense of agency over their narrative.

One day through a random Facebook message, Copenhagen resident Amanda Kastrup is introduced to Casper, a charming and apparently wealthy young man who might be a good romantic match. Almost immediately, clues that Casper might not be telling the truth about his background are evident, but Amanda continues with their relationship until – after approximately 100 days of dating – Casper’s lies are blown wide open, and she learns the truth about her boyfriend’s dishonest ways.

Horanyi occasionally stops to ask questions for context, and Kastrup keeps a running monologue throughout the film, but The Stranger is predominantly a point-by-point dramatic recreation of key moments in her relationship to Casper (who’s played here by an actor for reasons that will be obvious very early on) put on by Amanda, her close friends, and those who knew about her boyfriend’s previous lives. Kastrup walks the viewer through a delicate and sometimes triggering situation with great dignity, strength, and hindsight, and Horanyi matches her subject’s honesty with a great deal of empathy. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but The Stranger is a smartly constructed look at the art of deception and the hurt feelings (and bank accounts) left in its wake.

Even more daring in its approach to the true crime narrative is Gus Krieger’s My Name is Myeisha, screening on Friday night at 9:30pm. In this adaptation of Rickerby Hinds’ award winning musical play Dreamscape, Krieger tells the entrancing and highly stylized life story of a nineteen year old, Inland Empire area resident, who on December 28, 1998 in Los Angeles became the victim of a a police shooting that was sparked by a misunderstanding.

Rhaechyl Walker delivers a commanding and physically demanding lead performance as the titular young woman, who acts as the audience’s tour guide through her life and current state of limbo. A bit like a socially conscious, hip-hop riff on the final thirty minutes of All That Jazz, My Name is Myeisha is hard to talk about without spoiling the entire film, and its potency is best experienced by going into it as cold as possible. But make no mistake, this is the best film from this year’s selections.

The film component closes out on Saturday night at 9:30 with Georgian filmmaker Rezo Gigineishvili’s historical drama, Hostages. It’s the only recently produced work of pure fictional recreation in this year’s festival, but it’s an intricately designed look at life behind the Russian Iron Curtain.

Inspired by a true story from 1983, Hostages tells the story six young men and one young woman – all from relatively privileged backgrounds – attempting to flee Russian ruled Georgia by hijacking an airplane. The first third of director and co-writer Gigineishvili’s film sets the stage and the group’s plans into motion, effectively illustrating the stifling nature of the country’s restrictive laws. The middle shows how the planned hijacking goes belly up in spectacular, harrowing fashion, and the finale outlines the trial and fallout from the incident.

While the middle section of Hostages will likely offer casual viewers the most thrills, the film functions wonderfully as a complete, rigorous picture of a tragic, potentially avoidable event. Every step of the way, better solutions present themselves – both for the hijackers and those seeking to stop them – but no one seems capable of doing the right thing, and if they do manage to do something to better the situation, all their efforts will be undone moments later by someone else with differing plans. It’s a good choice to close out the festival.

The festival will also host a screening of filmmaker Patty Jenkins’ Monster on Saturday at 4:00pm in honour of the film’s 15th anniversary. Arguably the film to put the future Wonder Woman director on the Hollywood map, it’s most noted for Charlize Theron’s multiple-award-winning performance as notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos. It’s unquestionably one of the most transformative and harrowing turns of the century to date, marking the first time the multitalented Theron fully shed her frequently remarked upon good looks to fully embody a character. It’s also worth noting, however, that the film also boasts Christina Ricci’s career best performance as Wuornos’ girlfriend. Next to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, there hasn’t been a film based on a real life serial killer as visceral and unnerving as Jenkins’ work here, and if you haven’t seen it yet, that needs to be rectified immediately.

But while the features (and the short films programmed to accompany each of them) will be the main attraction at The Royal both nights, Saturday afternoon offers plenty of other true crime activity at the venerable Monarch Tavern, which plays host to a series of symposiums and forums curated by noted film historian, writer, and cultural critic Kier-La Janisse.

It kicks off Saturday morning at 11:00 am with a panel discussion entitled “Why Do Women Love True Crime?” Moderated by author, radio personality, podcaster, all around swell human being, and fellow true crime enthusiast Anne T. Donahue (whose first book of essays will hit stores in September), this symposium will look at what makes women the primary demographic that consumes true crime stories in all forms, and the history behind this frequently feminine obsession. Joining Donahue will be Investigation Discover producer Keila Woodard, filmmakers Catherine Legge and Rémy Bennett, and Concordia University lecturer Karen Herland.

At 12:45 pm will be “L.A. Despair: Cheating Death with John Gilmore,” a multi-media presentation that was originally created for Janisse’s Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. Returning from the day’s previous panel, filmmaker Rémy Bennett will take attendees through the life and times of late true crime author and genre pioneer John Gilmore, who worked in the city of Los Angeles starting in the 1950s, a time when the city was rife with material for pulpy stories, seedy exposés, and the journalistic discovery of long dormant and repressed secrets. A fascinating figure that’s more than worth of getting his due with such a large scale presentation, John Gilmore is a perfect figurehead to study something that often goes overlooked in true crime writing: how an author can be both a product and reflection of the environment they came from.

The final panel at the Monarch kicks off at 2:30 pm and looks at something most true crime buffs can relate to: The Rise of the Armchair Detective. While most fans of true crime stories and films will try to piece together the big reveals, revelations, twists, and outcomes of the cases long before the final moments, this panel will discuss how authors, filmmakers, and podcasters have become investigative allies for law enforcement, often blowing long dormant cold cases open with their research and sometimes fearless work. Book critic and crime story author Naben Ruthnum (who recently published his first mystery Find You in the Dark under the pseudonym Nathan Ripley) will moderate this discussion alongside filmmaker Joshua Zeman, journalist Christine Pelisek, author Kevin Flynn, and podcasters Bek and Tyler Allen, all of whom bring a wealth of true crime experience to the table. Those who want to take their sleuthing game to the next level would do well to attend and try to pick up some pointers.

It should also be noted that while the Toronto True Crime Film Festival is a celebration of pulpy stories based on real life tragedies, it’s not one that rests solely on salacious, heartbreaking narratives along, or an event that distances itself from the tragedy at the heart of each film being screened. Keenly aware that each of this year’s selections tell stories that are rooted in victimization, the organizers of the festival have agreed to donate 15% of all ticket sales from both films and panels to a range of victims’ rights organizations. Since crime doesn’t exist without victims, the festival hopes that by bringing some of these stories to a wider audience, change and reform can still be possible through the help of the ticket buying public.

Considering the sheer amount of material out there, one hopes that this year’s inaugural Toronto True Crime Film Festival is a resounding success. Proving that not every true crime story has to be a work of baiting made-for-television journalism, the festival really gets to the heart of why people have become so obsessed with the darker side of human nature, and why these stories are important to culture as a whole. Here’s hoping audiences appreciate their efforts and for many years of continued (legal) success.

The Toronto True Crime Film Festival screens their selections on Friday, June 8 and Saturday, June 9, 2018 at The Royal and holds symposiums on the Saturday at Monarch Tavern. For tickets and more information, check out the Toronto True Crime Film Festival website.

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