It’s become a tradition. As the Toronto International Film Festival (September 4 to 14, 2014) documentary lineup is announced, programmer Thom Powers lays out the selection for us. What are the likely Oscar hopefuls, big buys, trends of the season? “This year’s selection is heavily populated with rebels, resisters and risk-takers,” Powers says, admitting that winnowing down hundreds of submissions to get to a couple dozen is difficult indeed. “You’re inevitably saying no to worthy films.” He also notes that several filmmakers such as Joshua Oppenheimer (Indonesia-set “The Look of Silence”) and wine enthusiast Jonathan Nossiter (“Natural Resistance”) return to subjects that “really get the most out of their expertise.” More details below.
As always, Powers gets into the thrill of the chase, landing the world premiere of “Aileen Wuornos: Portrait of a Serial Killer” filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s searing true crime investigation into the disparity of police protection between rich and poor in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper.” Working with his son, skilled cameraman Barney Broomfield, the filmmaker looks at LA serial killer the Grim Sleeper and his victims, “believed to be as high as 100 women spread over decades of time,” says Powers.
Broomfield takes a back seat, says Powers, to the film’s “real standout character, a former prostitute named Pam who he enlists to go into South Central neighborhoods. Sheopens up the lives of the street characters who were at most risk from that killing spree. What the film does show is American apartheid, where law enforcement has one kind of treatment for more wealthy neighborhoods and neglect for South Central.”
Another revelation for Powers is writer-actor-director Ethan Hawke’s “Seymour: An Introduction,” a portrait of Seymour Bernstein, a former concert pianist in his day who received wonderful notices for his performances in New York City, says Powers, “but he gave up performing in order to be a piano teacher.” Hawke appears in the movie describing how much he enjoyed talking to Bernstein at a dinner party. “He had a lot of insights into the questions that were present in Hawke’s mind, about performance, why they do what they do, the act of putting yourself out there,” says Powers, who compares the film to “My Dinner with Andre.” We watch Bernstein talking with some of his illustrious students who went on to fame and other things, like New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. “It’s a very talky and yet quiet and restrained film, full of meditations about art and life what those things mean,” says Powers, “and filled with beautiful piano music. If the acting thing doesn’t work out for him, Hawke has real promise as a documentary filmmaker.”
“The Look of Silence,” Oppenheimer’s follow-up to Oscar-nominee “Act of Killing,” was shot at the same time in Indonesia, a country to which it is not safe for him to return. The film (which world premieres in Venice) focuses on the family survivors of the Indonesian genocide. “What’s striking is the focus on the families of the victims,” says Powers. “The main character is the brother of someone who was killed in the 60s who today works as an optometrist. He uses his job as he goes around the small villages testing eyes to engage them in conversations about what took place 1960s.” Oppenheimer, whose visual sense was expressed “The Act of Killing,” “makes the most of the motif of people wearing that strange contraption as they are having their eyes tested. Anyone with great expectations for Josh after ‘The Act of Killing’ will be fulfilled by this film, although the tone is different and less morbid.” “Act of Killing” sales rep Philippa Kowarsky is selling.
“Sunshine Superman” is from artist-turned-director Maran Strauch, who follows a pioneer in BASE jumping, the daredevil act of leaping off a fixed position, cliff or skyscraper by parachute. “Carl Boenish was the father of the BASE jumping movement,” Powers says. “He started as aHollywood stuntman and was compulsive about filming all of his jumps on 16 mm –the footage is so gorgeous in the film. The entire time I was watching the film, my hands were clammy from the suspense of these jumps. This is a beautiful film that encourages people to think about risk-taking in their own lives, not just physical risks.” Submarine’s Josh Braun is selling this acquisition title.
Another discovery was “National Diploma,” which reveals the struggles of students in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Films about Africa are often from the perspective of outsiders,” Powers says. “This filmmaker young filmmaker from the DRC has remarkable observational skills that would be cherished in any country. He’s following a group of students preparing to take their state exams; like high school students all over the world they feel anxiety, but more so in the DRC where the diploma holds the key to their future.”
A collection of films around environmental themes includes comedy-laced “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” which is the third film to follow these activist-pranksters who impersonate government and corporate officials, “getting up on podiums and saying the things that we wish these officials would say,” says Powers, “taking accountability for various crimes and malfeasances. The new film has plenty of examples of Yes Men pranks, but it has a different layer –we’re getting deeper into the lives of two Yes Men, who at this stage of their life in middle age, are trying to balance their activist lifestyle while maintaining relationships and family. There’s a lot of self-reflection about what it means to be an activist. What value does it have? And how you square that with growing up.” John Sloss’s Cinetic Media is selling.
Middle East conflict looms large in “This Is My Land,” about the role of education in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; “Iraqi Odyssey,” a profile of a middle-class family; and “Silvered Water, Syria Self- Portrait,” a chronicle of ordinary Syrians during the ongoing civil war.
“Food Inc.” director Rob Kenner’s “Merchants of Doubt” looks into “the peculiar industry of skeptics who go on TV shows,” says Powers, “people who work in think tanks and write reports and take contrarian positions on topics like climate change, the health effects of tobacco and othertoxins.” Kenner interviews some of the better-known pundits, says Powers, “trying to find out if they are motivated by ideology or money or a combination of the two.”
While many of these films will depend on critics, audiences and juries to launch them into the awards race, Powers singles out two films likely to be in the Oscar conversation: “Merchant of Doubt” (rumored to be a Sony Pictures Classics acquisition) and another SPC film, Cannes hit “Red Army,” about a hockey captain’s transition from national hero to political enemy during the rise and fall of the Soviet game.
The Oscar field is open this year with no obvious frontrunners emerging so far. Steve James’ moving Roger Ebert profile “Life is Sweet,” agitprop “The Case Against 8” and “The Overnighters” emerged from Sundance with some momentum. Others with some early festival support include well-reviewed Toronto 2013 title “Finding Vivian Maier,” which will get a boost from anew big book on the photographer to be published in the fall, and Tribeca debut, heart-tugger “Keep On Keeping On,” about resilient trumpeter Clark Terry’s mentoring of a young blind jazz pianist, which has been championed by influential music branch Academy member Quincy Jones, and has RADiUS behind it.
See full list of documentary titles below, as well as the Midnight Madness, Modern Masters and Vanguard programs.
Big Game Jalmari Heleander, Finland/United Kingdom/Germany
Cub Jonas Govaerts, Belgium
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films Mark Hartley, Australia
It Follows David Robert Mitchell, USA
The Guest Adam Wingard, USA
Midnight Madness Opening Night Film. Tokyo Tribe Sion Sono, Japan
Tusk Kevin Smith, USA
What We Do in the Shadows Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, New Zealand/USA
Alleluia Fabrice Du Welz, France/Belgium
The Duke of Burgundy Peter Strickland, United Kingdom
￼Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh) Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Austria Hyena Gerard Johnson, United Kingdom
Luna Dave McKean, United Kingdom
Over Your Dead Body Takashi Miike, Japan
Shrew’s Nest (Musarañas) Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roel, Spain Spring Justin Benson/Aaron Moorhead, USA
They Have Escaped JP Valkeapää, Finland
Waste Land Pieter Van Hees, Belgium
The World of Kanako (Kawaki) Tetsuya Nakashima, Japan
“Beats of the Antonov”Hajooj Kuka, Sudan/South Africa World Premiere. “Beats of the Antonov” follows refugees from the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan as they survive displacement and the trauma of civil war. Music, a cornerstone of their traditions and identity, becomes itself a vehicle for survival.
“I Am Here” (“Wo Jiu Shi Wo”) Lixin Fan, China International Premiere. During the summer of 2013, 12 young boys battle each other for the No. 1 spot in “Super Boys,” a decade-old American Idol-style TV talent show in China. They discover who they are and learn to love each other in the process. From the director of “Last Train Home.”
“Iraqi Odyssey” Samir, Iraq/Switzerland/Germany/United Arab Emirates World Premiere. Tracing the emigrations of his family over more than half a century, this riveting documentary epic from acclaimed expatriate Iraqi filmmaker Samir (“Forget Baghdad”) pays moving homage to the frustrated democratic dreams of a people successively plagued by the horrors of dictatorship, war, and foreign occupation.
“Merchants of Doubt” Robert Kenner, USA Canadian Premiere. Documentarian Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”) investigates the shadowy world of professional skeptics, whose services are bought and paid for by corporations, think tanks and other special interests to cast doubt and delay on public and governmental action on climate change.
“National Diploma” (“Examen d’Etat“) Dieudo Hamadi, France/Congo North American Premiere. A group of young Congolese high-school students who are about to write the exam for their National Diploma in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo, gather in a maquis (communal house) to help each other prepare. It is common practice to be ejected from classes during the school year for failing to pay “teachers’ fees”, but the students are determined, and resort to all means at their disposal to earn a diploma, a stepping stone out of a life of poverty.
“National Gallery” Frederick Wiseman, France/USA North American Premiere. Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman (“Crazy Horse,” “At Berkeley”) takes the audience behind the scenes of this London institution, which is inhabited by masterpieces of Western art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. In a perpetual and dizzying game of mirrors, the film presents a portrait of a place, its inner workings, and its relationship with the world, its staff, its public and its paintings.
“Natural Resistance”Jonathan Nossiter, Italy/France North American Premiere. A group of Italian vineyard proprietors live a life many can only dream of. In their converted 11th-century monastery and winery in Tuscany, Giovanna Tiezzi and Stefano Borsa find a way to grow grains, fruit and wine that create a link to their ancient Etruscan heritage. Ten years after Mondovino, the wine world has changed just like the world itself. The enemy is now far greater than the threat of globalization. But against the new world economy, these natural wine rebels offer a model of charmed and joyous resistance.
“Red Army” Gabe Polsky, USA/Russia Canadian Premiere. “Red Army” follows the most successful dynasty in sports history: the Soviet Union’s Red Army hockey team of the 1980s. Told from the perspective of its captain Slava Fetisov, the story portrays his transformation from national hero to political enemy. From the USSR to Russia, the film examines how sport mirrors social and cultural movements, and parallels the rise and fall of the Red Army team with the Soviet Union. An inspiring story about the Cold War played out on the ice rink, and the man who stood up to a powerful system and paved the way for change for generations of Russians.
“Seymour: An Introduction” Ethan Hawke, USA International Premiere. Director Ethan Hawke explores the life and lessons of pianist, teacher and sage, Seymour Bernstein. Since giving up a career as a concert pianist at age 50, Seymour has dedicated his life to teaching his students about music, happiness and the power of detaching satisfactionfrom success.
“Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait” (“Ma’a al Fidda”) Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, Syria/France North American Premiere. The collaboration between exiled Syrian filmmaker Mohammed and young Kurdish activist Bedirxan distills footage from thousands of clandestine videos to create a shattering, on-the-ground documentary chronicle of the ordeal being undergone by ordinary Syrians in the ongoing civil war.
“Sunshine Superman” Marah Strauch, USA/Norway/United Kingdom World Premiere. “Sunshine Superman” tells the story of Carl Boenish who pioneered and popularized the activity of BASE jumping (jumping from fixed objects with a parachute). Carl married Jean Campbell and together they travelled to Norway in 1984 to jump from the cliffs of Trollveggen. Against the backdrop of the midnight sun, tragedy strikes.
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” Nick Broomfield, USA/United Kingdom World Premiere. Broomfield investigates the 2010 arrest of Lonnie Franklin following a 25-year killing spree in South Central Los Angeles, in which it is thought he could have killed over a 100 victims, potentially making him the most prolific serial killer in history.
“The Look of Silence” (“Senyap”) Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/United Kingdom Canadian Premiere. Through Oppenheimer’s work with perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide, a family of survivors discover who killed their son. The youngest brother is determined to break the spell of silence and fear under which the survivors live, and confronts the men responsible for his brother’s murder.
“This Is My Land” Tamara Erde, France World Premiere. This film follows several Israeli and Palestinian teachers over one academic year, observing their exchanges and confrontations with students, their debates with their respective ministries’ curriculum and its restrictions, and offering an intimate glimpse into the profound and long-lasting effect that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict transmits onto the next generation.
“The Yes Men Are Revolting” Laura Nix and The Yes Men, USA World Premiere. For two decades, The Yes Men have pulled off hilarious and spectacular media hoaxes to expose corporate crime. In this intimate portrait, they are now approaching middle age and struggle to stay inspired as the worst crime of all threatens the planet. Can they get it together before the ice caps melt?
“Roger & Me” Michael Moore, USA Special 25th Anniversary Screening. “Roger & Me” is Moore’s satirical account of one of America’s greatest urban disasters in Flint, Michigan, General Motors’ birthplace. Moore chronicles thwarted efforts to interview then GM Chairman Roger Smith and reveals truths about the economiccruelties of corporate America. The film celebrates its 25th anniversary, having debuted in 1989 at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award.