By Brian Brooks | Indiewire August 26, 2009 at 6:50AM
Within this year's doc line up at the Toronto International Film Festival is a familiar elephant in the proverbial room, with Michael Moore's latest, "Capitalism: A Love Story," set for its North American premiere - at North America's preeminent film festival - sure to capture headlines, accolades, tongue lashings and endless chatter from blogs on the left and right.
But while "Capitalism" will surely get its headlines, the film will screen separately in TIFF's Special Presentations section, a bit removed from the festival's other very noteworthy docs in its Real to Reel sidebar - 22 in all.
One major change at this year's TIFF is the introduction of the People's Choice Award for Documentary, which will honor a non-fiction work from this year's festival line up. Unlike most other film events of its caliber, TIFF does not have jury prizes and much fewer awards overall. Last year, the festival's People's Choice Award went to Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," which of course, went on to win the Oscar for best picture. Thom Powers, TIFF's main documentary programmer, views the creation of the prize as a significant step for TIFF and documentary in general.
"A big development this year is the creation of the People's Choice Award for Documentary. This has gone to features in the past, and has been an indicator of success, such as for 'Slumdog.' But documentaries have been popular [with Toronto] audiences and have been runners up last year and other years. So now, we have this award specifically for documentaries."
Powers, who separately spearheads the Stranger Than Fiction program at IFC Center in New York, is familiar with the Awards-season game, having helped lead a change in this year's documentary Oscar qualification rules that he believes will benefit non-fiction filmmakers. "Previously, documentary films had to have a qualifying [theatrical] run by August 31," said Powers. "I helped lead a petition to move the date up and enlisted the names of 75 filmmakers to get it moved by one month. It's a small step, but a worthy one." Powers said the move will benefit titles such as Moore's "Capitalism" as well as Jeff Stilson's "Good Hair," which will also screen in this year's line up. "The change will allow these and other films to open more naturally, and we're pleased by that."
Public screenings, concerts, a Doc Conference and more set for TIFF '09
In addition to the prize and the fest's main doc-focused Real to Reel line up, TIFF's Powers is also touting this year's roster of other documentary offerings, which he has spearheaded for the event's 34th edition, including a live conversation with comedian Chris Rock (who explores African-American hairstyles in "Good Hair"), concerts and free public screenings in addition to a "Doc Conference" focusing on issues relating to non-fiction filmmaking. As anyone who's attended the festival can attest, getting tickets to TIFF's public screenings can be a challenge and even with the economic downturn, TIFF says ticket sales continue to be brisk for this year's offerings of over 300 films.
"This year, we will screen three new documentaries in the outdoor space," said Powers this week during a conversation with indieWIRE about the festival's screening area in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square. "Jonathan Demme's new Neil Young documentary ('Neil Young Trunk Show') will debut, and both will be there."
Also on tap is a doc on singer Joan Baez by Mary Wharton, "Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound" which will also feature a performance by the artist. In addition to new work, offerings at Yonge-Dundas include feature screenings of "Shut Up & Sing," "Ziggy Stardust," "Monterey Pop," "U2: Rattle & Hum," "Truth Or Dare" and more. Check out the full schedule for TIFF's varied Yonge-Dundas Square line up.
Beyond the public realm, doc insiders will have a day devoted to a series of panels and discussions focusing on "new challenges and opportunities for documentary financing, distribution and impact" on Sunday, September 13 at the University of Toronto's Victoria College. Industry vet Liesl Copland of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment will give the key note address at the event, which is open to Guest Relations, Sales & Industry and Press pass holders. Among the offerings at the conference is what Powers describes as a "declaration of independence" given by Paradigm Consulting president Peter Broderick, whose outfit works with filmmaker and media companies to develop strategies to "maximize distribution, audiences, and revenues." Financing, always an issue no matter how great the economy is especially in non-fiction, will be given a large focus during the day, while doc ethics will have a forum, headed by Professor Patricia Aufderheide (American University in Washington, D.C.), author of Documentary: A Very Short Introduction and other work. Jonathan Demme will close the day with a discussion on his doc work, including his latest Neil Young film.
Back to screenings, ESPN will debut work from Barry Levinson and "Friday Night Lights" director Peter Berg at TIFF, as part of its "30 for 30" series, in which the sports network has commissioned thirty filmmakers to create sports docs seen throughout the year in celebration of its 30th anniversary. Levinson's "The Band that Wouldn't Die," about the stalwart marching band for the Baltimore Colts who refused to disband even after the owner moved the team away from Baltimore is on tap. Said Powers about the film, "Even if you don't give a shit about [American] football, this film really connects on a particular level about people fighting for something they truly love." Peter Berg's "Kings Ransom," meanwhile, profiles the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretsky and his decision to leave Canada for L.A. The film is sure to scream attention in hockey-crazed Canada - if not some controversy...
Real to Reel and "Capitalism: A Love Story"
Among the nearly two dozen films selected for this year's Real to Reel, Powers pointed to a few to spotlight for indieWIRE earlier this week. "Stolen," which premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in June, is by two Australian filmmakers exploring modern slavery in northern Africa, and the film, according to Powers, raises issues beyond its targeted subject matter. "Filmmakers can get caught up in the story itself," he said. "It raises a lot of moral quandries that filmmakers face. If there's an underlying aspect to the documentaries screening this year, it is that they're conversation starters."
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Powers also cites "Collapse," about an independent journalist who paints a "picture of an apocalyptic future" with issues ranging from economic crisis to peak oil. Filmmaker Chris Smith was drawn to Michael Ruppert, whose blog From the Wilderness is at the center of his writings. The journalist received attention after predicting the current economic crisis, Powers said. "It turned out he was eerily correct in a lot of his predicitons."
Directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein ("Gunner Palace") return to Toronto with "How to Fold a Flag." The pair are veterans covering the Iraq war for the silver screen, but this time turn the camera on soldiers returning home. "It is set against the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential election and is a panorama of where America is today," said Powers.
Also not to be missed is "Waking Sleeping Beauty," which profiles the resurgence of Disney animation in the '90s with blockbuster hits "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" with producer Don Hahn.
"Cleanflix" by Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi profiles a small Utah-based editing company that took on the ire of Hollywood for "sanitizing" copyrighted material. "This company took the 'Matrix' and edited out areas offensive to Mormons," said Powers. "The film is made by two new directors from Utah who grew up in the Mormon community, and they understand this world from the inside. I don't think this film could've been made otherwise." Powers said the film was selected among the many submissions sent to TIFF during their call for entries process over the year and had caught his attention.
Powers said there are also a number of "capturing the headlines" titles within the line up - films that have a connection to stories making the news cycle today, including "Videocracy" by Erik Gandini which is a look at Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's TV empire. "If you think American TV is pandering, the Italians take it to a much lower bar," said Powers about the film.
Mehran Tamadon's "Bassidji," meanwhile focuses on the extremist supporters of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who have been spotlighted in the international media recently with the contested elections that brought Iranian President Masoud Ahmadinejad back for a second term. The group of militants have been accused of spreading violence against the regime's opponents.
"The director was looking into their world before the recent prominence in the news, he's been filming for the past few years," said Powers. "He was born in Iran but now lives in France. He's upfront about his secularism, but he reaches out to these hardcore fundamentalists to try and understand where they're coming from."
And back Stateside, Michael Moore's "Captitalism: A Love Story" will surely fan the flames of debate (and yelling) at many a Town Hall meeting to come. "Michael Moore fans will be very pleased," assured Powers about the controversial director's latest. "This is really him working at the top of his game. One of his focal points is last year's bailout, and his investigation of it is as radical as his look at 9/11 and George Bush in 'Fahrenheit.'" Powers goes on to say that viewers will be "stunned" by footage revealed in the new doc, which has not yet been given attention by the mainstream media. "It takes Michael Moore to bring it out," said Powers who is a friend of the director and has covered Moore's Traverse City Film Festival for indieWIRE. "He takes a fresh approach and manages to come up with new information."
[For a list of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival's documentary selections as well as films selected in all of TIFF's sections, go here.]