Toronto Film Festival Dispatch: Give Me U2 Or Give Me Death

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Photo courtesy of CDTV/ A Sundance Selects release

Cameras shooting Lt. Damon Hall at the lake in Werner Herzog’s INTO THE ABYSS.

So many choices. That’s the great thing about film festivals. Too many choices. That’s the terrible thing about film festivals.

The 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival kicked off last night with the premiere of From the Sky Down, a documentary (the first ever to open the fest) about uber rock band U2 and the making of its 1991 album Achtung Baby. Both Bono and the Edge were in attendance at the screening. Sounds exciting right? Yes, it sounds very exciting. Which is why I decided to go see a documentary about the U.S. death penalty instead.

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Increasingly, Toronto has become a showcase for the upcoming Oscar season’s main contenders. In recent years, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker and Slumdog Millionaire all made splashes at Toronto on their way to Best Picture victories. The same is true for smaller films, which can also build steam coming out of Toronto. Werner Herzog, who leaps seamlessly between directing feature films and documentaries, has had a good little run up here with his fact-based movies. His last two, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, were very well-received, which is why I chose to attend the screening—pretty much at the same time as the U2 premiere—of his new documentary, Into the Abyss.

Before the film, everyone was describing it as the Herzog movie about the American death penalty. Coming on the heels of the applause that followed Rick Perry’s answer about Texas executions during Wednesday night’s debate, it seemed a good time to watch the story of Michael James Perry and Jason Aaron Burkett, both convicted of a Texas triple homicide as young men, only one sentenced to Death Row (and since executed). The film looks at the crime, the victims’ families, and documents the words of the men themselves. It is the grimmest of topics, but the theater was full and quiet and everyone was rapt. I can’t imagine there was a single person present who would have preferred to switch places with anyone watching Bono across town. I certainly wouldn’t have.

In the end, Into the Abyss isn’t Herzog’s grand anti-death penalty movie. It feels a little baggy, a little loose, which makes sense, given that it’s one tale out of a larger project (he has interviewed, and is continuing to interview, many more death row inmates). And though he does his best to complicate the issue in his film (at points, I felt equally for the victims and the criminals), Herzog was very clear about his personal opinion during the post-screening Q&A. “None of them are monstrous,” he said of Perry and Burkett. “Their crimes are monstrous. But the perpetrators are human beings. Period.” A somber, but rousing end to Day One.

(Also, if you’ve never heard Werner Herzog speak, do yourself a favor and find a YouTube clip of him reading from the book Go the F**k To Sleep. There was a very large section of the audience tonight who took great joy from just hearing the man’s incredible Teutonic accent. I was among them.)

MORE: See TIME’s Q&A with Werner Herzog