Left: Kim Longinotto, Pink Saris, 2010, still from a color film in HD, 96 minutes. Right: Errol Morris, Tabloid, 2010, color film in HD, 87 minutes. Production still.

THE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL that calls Toronto home is like a city itself, hosting art and commerce in dense proximity, their acolytes each transmitting varied images of their shared world. The new downtown flagship was the clean and well-lit Lightbox building (hosting three screens, installation space, controlled milling-about zones), though the mecha-monstrous Scotiabank multiplex still did heavy lifting. Plenitude, by now the festival byword, was internalized as a theme by Guy Maddin and Michael Nyman, two artists commissioned by TIFF to help inaugurate the Lightbox. Shown nightly, Nyman’s travelogue NYMan with a Movie Camera sucked the dynamism out of Vertov’s cascading classic, but Maddin’s diverting Hauntings I crammed eleven screens into one room, displaying re-creations of lost films by Alice Guy Blaché, Josef von Sternberg, Hollis Frampton, Kenji Mizoguchi, F. W. Murnau, and more, some of which featured noted silent star . . . Udo Kier.

Set in 1845, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff also re-created the past—or two pasts, really. A band of pioneers go down a road to nowhere in rickety prairie schooners, placing themselves at the mercy of a bluffing guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The men hesitate to stand up to him; the women strain to hear privy decision-making; but one wife, Emily (Michelle Williams, mildly but productively anachronistic), dares to call bullshit. All wander a frontier that isn’t yet “America,” a rolling desert of unreadable signs (extending to the language barrier with a captured, amused Indian). The stagnant chaos and baffling leadership (“Is he ignorant or just plain evil?” goes one musing) evoke a more recent decade, too, but more disconcerting is the weary disconnect among Reichardt’s unsettled settlers.

Williams’s outspoken character is driven both by gumption and by having nothing more to lose, and other women in the festival’s selections also crossed lines. In Pink Saris, the talented British documentarian Kim Longinotto keeps up with force of nature Sampat Pal Devi, a women’s advocate in Uttar Pradesh, India. Sampat has the daunting ability to tell a runaway fiancé to stay, or to shame an abusive father, and make it stick. Yet her sound bites and “gulabi gang” of pink-clad supporters belie her conviction that she and these villagers are invisible without media recognition. What threatens to become a Judge Judy series of interventions turns dark as Sampat’s own traumas emerge. Longinotto, who uses tightly wound scenes buffered by verdant fields, unsentimentally suggests that centuries of custom can’t be resolved just like that.

Errol Morris’s Tabloid, the debut public screening for the LightBox, probably doesn’t need more exposure, so to speak, but it was wrongly rated as a nonpolitical goof-off. The film is powered by loony Southern raconteur and life-adventurer Joyce McKinney, known in the 1970s as a British tabloid phenomenon for kidnapping her Mormon husband and ensorcelling others, and then later as a millennial human-interest oddity for cloning her dogs. McKinney just seemed to make things happen, somehow, and Morris uses her to tease out the interplay between one’s fictions and one’s actions. (At the Q&A, he complicated the gonzo appeal of the movie: “I don’t think she’s any crazier than any of the men in the story.”)

In Pia Marais’s At Ellen’s Age, too, a woman breaks out, though to dubious ends: Jeanne Balibar’s stewardess walks off the job after a breakup, but gets limited mileage out of hotel nesting and taking up with an animal-rights collective. Nanouk Leopold’s serenely simmering but schematic Brownian Movement tracks a young mother and doctor (wholesome, blonde, unnervingly aphasic Sandra Hüller) who keeps a secret pied-à-terre for unsightly pickups. Dead, dying, and man-eating prisoners populate a godforsaken reeducation outpost in Wang Bing’s monotonously staged Cultural Revolution life force sapper The Ditch, but it takes someone’s wife to show up and ask where the bodies are buried.

Among the more delicate pleasures were Delfina Castagnino’s What I Most Want, a wisp of a film, a bit of a female Old Joy, about two twentysomething friends (one of them María Villar, an appealing player from this circle of filmmakers) in Argentina’s Bariloche, talking, reacting, nursing wounds, passing milestones. And, finally, Jia Zhangke’s Shanghai excavation I Wish I Knew counts, among the ranks of its superb and illuminating interviews marking midcentury and today, a gangster’s cheery middle-aged daughter and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Plenitude indeed.

Nicolas Rapold