This morning, Toronto announced most of their line-up (there's always room for a few stragglers as we move closer to the September festival) - and we'll have a look at this year's nonfiction titles in the coming days. But we asked our colleague Thom Powers to talk about some of the titles that were unveiled this AM and he was kind enough to offer a preview:
ATWT: One thing that I think Toronto has been very successful with has been the balance of the various nonfiction genres. You certainly have your share of films that deal with weighty issues, but it doesn't seem to weigh down the program as a hole. And, as indieWIRE noted a few weeks ago, your populist titles have shown that Toronto can launch several films that can go on to have a high profile and that can do well in theaters. Can you talk about your programming strategy a bit?
Thom Powers: Curating a film line-up is like preparing a restaurant menu. You want to serve many different tastes in a way that’s distinctive. When it comes to documentaries this year, we saw a lot of films giving fresh insights to current headlines. I’m thinking of films like COLONY – that follows bee keepers dealing with colony collapse disorder; VIDEOCRACY – that looks at the world of Berlusconi; BASSIDJI – that interviews Iranian religious fundamentalists; and HOW TO FOLD A FLAG – that profiles American veterans of the Iraq war. To name just a few.
Those films share another quality besides their urgency. They all deliver as a theatrical experience. That’s a big concern at TIFF because audiences are watching docs alongside big budget fiction work and bring high expectations.
But current events are only one component. Anyone who loves art or political intrigue will be riveted by THE ART OF THE STEAL – that looks at the power struggles over Albert Barnes’ famous painting collection. Audiences who enjoy a great adventure will want to see SNOWBLIND following the 23-year-old Rachael Scdoris who competes in the Iditarod dog sled race across Alaska - even though she’s blind. And in our Family Zone section, we’re showing TURTLE: AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY which ranks among the great nature documentaries. That should be of special industry interest given the tremendous box office of Disney’s EARTH.
ATWT: When we talked earlier you noted that there were a lot of films by first-time filmmakers as well as pointing out that many of the films have an immediacy to them - with some of the shooting done just a few months ago. Do you think there's a parallel? Perhaps many new filmmakers have a different sense of the process generally, having worked exclusively with digital media.
TP: We’re living in a time of rapid change that instills a sense of urgency. Younger filmmakers might have some edge at adapting to this speed. But we also see rapid response from a seasoned veteran like Marc Levin in SCHMATTA: FROM RAGS TO RICHES TO RAGS. He interviews people who have very recently been laid off in the garment industry and gives their stories a historical context with a feeling of immediacy.
Another example is Chris Smith who has previously shot on film in titles like AMERICAN MOVIE. In his new work COLLAPSE, he interviews the radical thinker Michael Ruppert who was ahead of the curve predicting the economic collapse. In this film, Ruppert offers a vision of the future that sounds like apocalyptic science fiction. But when you listen to him after watching films like COLONY and SCHMATTA, his extremist ideas start to sound more plausible.
ATWT: The change that the Academy made this year (allowing films to complete their Academy qualifying runs after Toronto, so long as they had the dates booked in advance) was something that you and others fought for. I'm wondering if you've noted any films that are part of this year's Toronto line-up that will try to take advantage of that.
TP: Thanks for asking, because I’m proud of this effort. For anyone who doesn’t follow these arcane rules closely, it deserves some background. In past years, in order to qualify for the Oscars, documentaries had to play in theaters by the last week of August - whereas fiction films can wait until the end of the year. At TIFF, we were especially aware of the problems it caused for films like RELIGULOUS or WALTZ WITH BASHIR that were slated to open in the fall. So we organized a petition of 75 esteemed filmmakers – almost all of whom had Academy experience being awarded, nominated or short-listed; they weren’t outsiders. Our hope was make the documentary qualification more on par with fiction. The Academy responded by extending the theatrical deadline by one month to the end of September (for details, read the Academy rules). That’s a small step forward. I’m hoping the Academy will see it as progress and give a later extension next year.
Regarding specific titles, I don’t know the details of each film’s awards strategy. But I would point out that many high profile docs are planning to open in the fall, including THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, CRUDE, MORE THAN A GAME, GOOD HAIR, MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA and CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY. I suspect many of those will take advantage of the Oscar deadline extension. And several would be better served if the deadline was later.
Speaking of awards, I’m extra pleased that this year TIFF has added a category for Cadillac People’s Choice – Documentary. Because TIFF doesn’t have a jury prize, this audience award has always been the most highly coveted. It’s also been a key indicator of a film’s success such as last year’s winner SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. For the last two years, the runner-up to the People’s Choice was a documentary (MORE THAN A GAME in 2008 and BODY OF WAR in 2007) and I was always crushed that they couldn’t capitalize on that distinction. Now the award will have a separate recognition for non-fiction.
ATWT: Looking at this year's line-up, it seems - from the premise at least - that a couple of the international titles could be entertaining, maybe in a surprising way. I'm thinking about GOOGLE BABY and THE TOPP TWINS.
TP: GOOGLE BABY shows you don’t need special connections to get recognized by TIFF’s submission process. I had never heard of the Israeli director Zippi Brand Frank until one of my pre-screeners Sarafina DiFelice told me “you’ve got to see this film.” I was hooked from the opening scene that depicts an Indian doctor conducting a caesarian section while talking on a cell phone. That sense of “I can’t believe this is happening” continues through the film. THE TOPP TWINS – about a pair of lesbian country western singers - was uncovered by my colleague Jane Schoettle on a screening trip to New Zealand. I think audiences will be as delighted by these discoveries as we were.
ATWT: I'm always interested in what Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein are doing, particuarly in that although they have been dealing with the war in Iraq in their recent films, they come at it differently each time in terms of style and approach. What can you say about HOW TO FOLD A FLAG - how does it fit in their Iraq canon?
TP: TIFF has a wonderful history with these filmmakers since GUNNER PALACE debuted at the festival in 2004. It was made at a time when people thought the war might soon be over; and was really the first film – documentary or fiction – to depict the war in theaters. Two years later, they made THE PRISONER OR: HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR that told the story of an Iraqi imprisoned at Abu Ghraib on false and ridiculous charges. While many films have covered Americans at Abu Ghraib, THE PRISONER remains the most nuanced depiction of an Iraqi.
So it’s not surprising that Michael and Petra are ahead of the curve again in examining a timely subject: how does America reabsorb young people coming home from combat? HOW TO FOLD A FLAG looks at four Army veterans who went to war together and came home alone. They are widely diverse – from a Buffalo Congressional candidate to a Texas cage fighter. The beautiful cinematography in the film offers a panorama of the country against the back-drop of the 2008 elections.
ATWT: The CLEANFLIX story is really interesting to me, because it deals with so many of the ownership issues that we talk about and that, as documentary filmmakers, we wrestle with. On the one hand, as artists, we want and believe that our work should be protected and seen the way we intended, but on the other hand, we want and need to have access to others' material in order to reflect the reality of what happens in a given situation.
TP: Films about film always have a strong place at TIFF. CLEANFLIX looks at a phenomenon in Utah where the Mormon religion discourages its followers from watching R-rated content. Several companies sprung up that re-edited Hollywood films to remove the sex, violence and vulgarity that Mormons find offensive. The “clean” dvd movement turned into a thriving video rental business – until it ran into legal problems and a sex scandal involving one of its proponents. The film raises all kinds of provocative questions and delivers a powerful ending. It’s noteworthy that the co-directors Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi both come from the Mormon community.
Other great films about film at TIFF include INFERNO – in which the French film restoration specialist Serge Bromberg brings to light astonishing footage from an unfinished film by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of DIABOLIQUE and WAGES OF FEAR.
ATWT: Finally, the Daniel Ellsberg bio, THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA. I'm really a sucker for newspaper stories set in the 1970s and early '80s because, as we talked about earlier, it was a time when the newsroom felt like it held such power and intrigue. Co-director Rick Goldsmith was nominated for an Oscar for his film TELL THE TRUTH AND RUN, which was about the late journalist George Seldes, and which really questioned the state of journalism in the mid-90s. Since documentary filmmaking is like an estranged-cousin, once removed from journalism, I'm curious if while watching MOST DANGEROUS MAN you thought about the precipitous collapse of newspapers and whether you had any thoughts for this field of nonfiction we work in?
TP: One of my favorite books about journalism is Harrison Salisbury’s WITHOUT FEAR OR FAVOR about how the New York Times handled Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers. So, like you, I was predisposed for this topic. The film puts the emphasis on Ellsberg, but the role of the New York Times and other media – including the late Walter Cronkite – are a big part of the story. Watching the film, you’re definitely aware of how the media landscape has changed.
This past spring at the Cannes film festival, I moderated a panel called “Documentary: The New Journalism” about ways in which independent filmmakers are filling the void left by other news organizations. At TIFF, we intend to explore that topic more deeply in our industry panels that are still to be announced.
In fact, there’s a lot more documentary attractions still to be announced including the Canadian entries, the Mavericks conversation section, and more. Stay tuned to the Doc Blog at TIFF.net and I hope to see you in Toronto.