Every year, IndieWire asks the Toronto Film Festival’s ace documentary programmer, Thom Powers, to dig into the new lineup. The doc czar’s influence extends beyond Toronto to IFC Center’s Stranger than Fiction series, The SundanceNow Doc Club, and November’s influential festival DOC NYC, which selects the infamous Short List, many of which head for Oscar contention.
This year, the TIFF doc program (September 8-18) numbers 37 titles. It’s led by four veterans — Steve James, Raoul Peck, Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog—big names who will pull audiences, playing alongside newcomers who will benefit from the TIFF spotlight. Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio have made a new documentary that they hope will push the needle on climate change. Netflix boasts four high-profile offerings likely to factor in the always intense doc Oscar race. And there’s a plethora of new titles that await discovery — and buyers.
Powers and his team try to balance making room for the all-star directors “who deliver at a high standard,” he said in a phone interview, “and making room for new voices. We do see a rising number of documentary submissions. They exceeded 600 features this year. To be honest, it’s hard to track the films that are officially submitted along with things we get from outside. It’s a very difficult decision-making process. A lot of worthy films will be seen elsewhere.”
Powers, who may have seen more documentaries than anyone, seeks the rarest of titles: “I really look out for something that takes me by surprise,” he said.
Check out some some highlights, per Powers:
“ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail” (PBS Frontline) will get a 2017 theatrical release. “Steve James is working at the top of his game,” said Powers. “It’s a terrific, important story set after the 2008 financial crisis that hasn’t been widely publicized outside of New York’s Chinatown. He gets inside the Sung family, whose patriarch founded the bank Abacus, created because other banks were not lending to fellow Chinese immigrants, which was under investigation after 2008 by Manhattan’s D.A. Its fate in the financial crisis, in a way, was that while other banks were too big to fail, this bank was small enough to jail. It’s an incredible courtroom drama. And the patriarch has four grown daughters, several of whom work at the bank. We’re watching the family’s interactions, plotting out court strategy on Chinese restaurant circular tables. It’s a delight to be inside that family.”
James hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since “Hoop Dreams” back in 1995.
“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” (Seller: Submarine) “Errol Morris is profiling a longtime friend in this surprise made with so much real affection,” said Powers, “which is not a word you associate with Errol’s filming. He’s profiling a photographer, Elsa Dorfman, who he’s known in Cambridge. She has worked in an unusual photo format with a Polaroid 20 x 24 camera. She takes portraits with two cameras, there’s no negative with this. The client picks one, she keeps the other—the B side is in her archive. We hear her story, watch her go through her archives, including the famous Allen Ginsberg, Jonathan Richman, who were close friends, and the many regular people who come through.”
Morris does not use his trademark interrotron on this one. Powers compares the movie to “Finding Vivian Maier,” “but with a different photographer. That woman was neglected in her lifetime. Elsa Dorfman hasn’t operated in complete obscurity, but this film will be a discovery for many as it was for me. Errol just finished it days ago.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” (Seller: ICM Partners) “Raoul Peck (‘Lumumba’) is bringing his cinematic version of James Baldwin’s writing to life,” said Powers. “Near the end of his life, Baldwin was working on the book ‘Remember This House,’ which was an essay about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, three great civil rights leaders who were assassinated. Baldwin would only write a small portion of the manuscript before he died at 63. Peck got his hands this manuscript from Baldwin’s estate and uses Baldwin’s own words to combine with archival footage.”
“Into the Inferno” (Netflix) returns Werner Herzog to the pursuit of dangerous exotic locations, cameras in hand. “He is partnering with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer,” said Powers, “which was originally announced at Cannes in 2015. It was one of the hottest things in market. It didn’t take much more than Herzog and volcanoes to make people want to sign up. It delivers on both expectations. Herzog has made his career out of letting us filmmakers vicariously experience these extraordinary places, whether Antartica in ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ [his only Oscar nomination] or Kuwait oil fires in ‘Lessons in Darkness.’ This film follows in that tradition, you can feel the heat off the screen. There are plenty of dazzling visuals in this film, which is in good old 2-D.”
All four Netflix docs at TIFF — “Into the Inferno” (Oct. 28), Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst’s juicy true-crime deconstruction “Amanda Knox” (Sept. 30), Orlando von Einsiedel’s Syrian volunteer rescue saga “The White Helmets” (Sept. 16, from the Oscar-nominated director of “Virunga”) and Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson’s illegal African ivory trade exposé, “The Ivory Game” (Nov. 4, executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) — will get fall releases as they head for awards consideration. In recent years, Netflix skillfully pushed TIFF debuts “Winter on Fire” and “The Square” to nominations.
“The Turning Point” (National Geographic, fall) DiCaprio has another, high-profile movie at TIFF, which he and Stevens have been working on for several years. “This film has the potential to reach a wide audience,” said Powers. “It is not a dry environmental documentary of the likes we’ve seen. It’s an impassioned film with Leo traveling the world and bringing his election-season power to bring climate change strongly into the conversation. His own passion for the subject comes to the fore.”
“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” (Seller: Submarine) Journalist Matt Tyrnauer, who was at the festival in 2008 with “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” is back with a movie about urban activist Jane Jacobs (“The Death and Life of Great American Cities”) on the 100th anniversary of her birth.”This film focuses on her epic battles in New York City against developer Robert Moses,” said Powers. “She’s rightfully credited for saving Washington Square Park and parts of Soho and Greenwich Village from a major highway.” Jacobs is well-known in Toronto, where she moved with her family after taking on the great powers in New York.
Emerging Women Directors
“Girl Unbound” (Seller, UTA) Erin Heidenreich’s first film is among several breakthrough titles by emerging female directors. “She used to work for Cinetic Media as a sales agent and transformed herself into a filmmaker,” said Powers. “This film looks at Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir, who recently published her memoirs, at the age of 25, this spring. She grew up in Waziristan under Taliban influence. Her parents were encouraging, they let her do what she wanted to do, dressing as a boy in order to play sports and do weightlifting. She found her real game—squash—and competes at an international level. She’s had experiences with death threats. We follow her to Pakistan and on the international circuit of competition as she tries to navigate having a sports career with pressure back home.”
“Beauties of the Night” (acquisition title) “María José Cuevas’ film examines aging Mexican burlesque stars,” said Powers. “She’s been working on the film for eight years. There was era in the ’70s when Mexican TV had as a popular feature burlesque showgirls. Today we meet those showgirls who are now in their older years, as they try to reconcile their past identities as beauties with their moving into the aging process.”
“Forever Pure” (acquisition title) “Maya Zinshtein is focusing on an Israeli soccer controversy,” said Powers. “This film made its debut at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where it was well-received. Beitar is a Jerusalem soccer team that has fiercely nationalist prejudiced fans who are proud of the fact that their club had never signed an Arab player before. The team surprised fans by recruiting two Muslim players from Chechnya. Maya gets into this club and follows them over a season as fans defect against their own team.”
“This trio of films shows the incredible dedication of filmmakers really putting themselves out there,” said Powers. “With ‘Girl Unbound,’ Erin was putting herself in dicey situations in Pakistan; on ‘Forever Pure,’ Maya was in the middle of real mob violence. We‘ve recently talked about closing the gender gap for female directors. You can see with these directors that these films were a long time coming — making your first feature project is not something you do quickly. But it was notable to me to see this work rise to the top of our very large pile of submissions.”
“I Called Him Morgan” (Seller: Submarine) “The film is about the jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan,” said Powers, “who was shot and killed by his wife in 1972. Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin uncovers an audiotape of his wife Helen Morgan telling her story. It’s a beautiful dual bio of Helen and Lee Morgan.”
“The Sixth Beatle” (Seller: Submarine) “I didn’t think I could be surprised by a Beatles film,” said Powers. “This is an untold story. Pete Best was the fifth Beatle. This is the sixth Beatle, early manager Sam Leach, who got pushed out when Brian Epstein came along. These filmmakers take us into the world of Liverpool and the surviving group of musicians and fans who have memories of 50-plus years ago, including Pete Best, who gives a memorable interview.”
“Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary” (Seller: WME) “This is a leading prospect for buyers,” said Powers. That’s because Denzel Washington, who will be on hand for his opening night movie “The Magnificent Seven,” will also promote John Scheinfeld’s music doc, for which he supplies the voice of John Coltrane.