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Documentary Awards Race Comes Into Focus with Fall Festivals

Documentary Awards Race Comes Into Focus with Fall Festivals

As the film industry continues to churn out more and more high quality documentaries, the fall festivals are key curators and gatekeepers, winnowing through the rich offerings available these days. Press attention, reviews and award wins will push the leaders of the pack lucky enough to get a robust 2015 theatrical release into Oscar contention. The others will have to land distribution in time to book qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles. Docs already launched at Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes have a head start.

READ MORE: Oscar Predictions 2016

One powerful player in the doc world is Toronto and DOC NYC programmer Thom Powers, who also curates the SundanceNow Doc Club subscription series. Powers got on the phone to highlight some must-sees in the TIFF program. This year’s TIFF documentary selection has expanded to 31 features, including the late-opening night world premiere from Michael Moore, “Where To Invade Next?” 

“We haven’t had this many since 2007,” said Powers. “It’s nice to be able to expand out the spectrum particularly of international cinema. Thirteen are directed by women, which is better than a third. In the past the ratio was a quarter and a third, we’re now getting closer to half.”

Read More: New York Film Festival Adds Documentary Dozen

Still to come is the final selection for DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival (November 12-19, 2015), which kicks off on November 12 with the second annual luncheon Visionaries Tribute presenting Lifetime Achievement Awards to three lauded doc veterans: New York’s Downtown Community Television founder Jon Alpert, Frederick Wiseman (Venice, TIFF and NYFF entry “In Jackson Heights”) and Barbara Kopple (more below on TIFF world premiere “Miss Sharon Jones!”).

Check out some of Powers’ TIFF doc selections below:

“Amazing Grace”

In 1972, a year after their massive hit “Woodstock,” Warner Bros set out to produce this Aretha Franklin concert doc. Producer Alan Elliott finally completed the film that was shot by Sydney Pollack back when Franklin was recording her classic gospel album. Pollack filmed with more than five cameras, “but when they got back in the edit room,” said Powers, “the audio was running at a different speed than the 16mm film cameras.” This was an insurmountable challenge at that time (and makes the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker look good). Due to the difficulties syncing the footage, the movie was shelved into the vaults. “I’ve seen the letter Pollack wrote in 1998 to Aretha Franklin to reopen this,” said Powers. “It was on his mind in the last decade of his life. It got taken up by producer Alan Elliott, who’s made it a passion project. And technology caught up—I’m sure it was an extraordinary chore, but it’s a lot more possible than it was 45 years ago. If it had come out then I’d think of it as a classic along with Woodstock and Wattstax.” WME is selling global rights.

“Being AP”

Anthony Wonke profiles one of the world’s most successful horse racing jockeys, AP McCoy, as he’s turning 40. “Visually thrilling,” said Powers, “‘Being AP’ follows him over a season as he contemplates whether to retire at the end. The camera technology used to capture horse racing from every angle is quite amazing.” Hanway Films is handling worldwide sales. 

“Bolshoi Babylon”

A Russian true-life “Black Swan,” UK filmmakers Nick Read and Mark Franchetti’s “Bolshoi Babylon” is airing later this fall on HBO. “This beautiful film gives an inside look at what went down in Bolshoi Ballet,” said Powers, “when there was a terrible incident as their leader was attacked with acid.”

“Heart of a Dog” (Venice world premiere)

Director Laurie Anderson’s doc follows up her last concert film in the 1986 “Home of the Brave,” which is no longer available these days. “This is not a concert film,” said Powers. “She’s more of an essayist. ‘Heart of the Dog’ is about her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, who passed way a few years ago. The dog’s passing is a starting point for a meditation on love and grief. It’s an opportunity for Laurie to tell stories that are poetic, philosophical, funny and moving.” Cinetic Media is selling U.S. distribution rights.

“He Named Me Malala”

Oscar-winning (“An Inconvenient Truth”) documentarian Davis Guggenheim’s portrait of Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize-winning education advocate MalalaYousafzai boasts “very skillful use of animation from Jason Carpenter,” said Powers. “We’ll certainly be seeing this get out there this fall.” (Fox Searchlight) 

“Janis: Little Girl Blue” (Venice world premiere)

Powers was talking for over a year to prolific docmaker Amy Berg about her music biodoc “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” which is produced by Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions. Oscar-nominated for her Catholic sex abuse doc “Deliver Us From Evil” (2006) and acclaimed for “West of Memphis” (2012), her deep-dive into Arkansas’ imprisonment of the teenage West Memphis Three, Berg debuted at DOC NYC 2014 the controversial Hollywood sex abuse doc “An Open Secret” (June 5, Rocky Mountain Pictures) and at Sundance 2015 her Mormon expose “Prophet’s Prey” (September 18, Showtime).

“Janis Joplin” has become such an icon, with t-shirts, posters and classic radio,” said Powers. “Amy succeeded in turning her into a human being. She uses a beautiful device of having the letters of Janis Joplin read by Cat Power, who does an amazing job capturing the tone of Janis Joplin’s voice that you forget you’re listening to someone else reading those letters. She includes a number of things new to even the most diehard Janis Joplin fan. There’s one sequence DA Pennebaker shot in the studio after ‘Monterey Pop’ that is intimate and precious.” Content Media is selling distribution rights. (See video of Joplin singing the title song below.)

“Miss Sharon Jones!”

When veteran filmmaker Barbara Kopple brought “Harlan County, USA” to the TIFF Bell Light Box Cinematheque program 40 years after its TIFF debut, Powers discovered that she was working on a “brand new, very emotional film about R & B star Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings,” he told me. “The year she was following her, she was fighting cancer with chemo therapy. It’s about a fighter going through tough times, and culminates with her comeback concert at the Beacon Theatre. It’s a film that makes you want to stand up and dance!” Submarine Entertainment is selling distribution rights.

“The Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”

Morgan Neville, who followed up his Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom” with political debate doc “Best of Enemies,” returns to music with this long-in-the-works portrait of cellist Yo Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble (Participant Media). “This film gives you a wonderful tour of some of the great practitioners of world music,” said Powers, “who are highly charismatic fascinating people. We go to Europe, the Middle East and Asia: a lot of miles are logged on this film.” Submarine is selling distribution rights.

“Our Last Tango”

Executive produced by Wim Wenders, this doc is about “a couple who are the Fred and Ginger of Argentina’s tango scene,” said Powers. “They exported the tango in the Broadway show ‘Tango Argentino,’ and have danced together for several decades. It’s a tumultuous relationship.”

“P.S. Jerusalem”

The new film from Israeli filmmaker Danae Elon, who is the daughter of Israeli journalist Amos Elon, follows her move with her family from New York to her home town Jerusalem. She documents in diary style, said Powers, “which helps us to understand the tensions in the city and become internalized with her family as insider-outsider.”


Joining the ranks of memorable climbing documentaries, Australian Jennifer Peedom’s “Sherpa” focuses on the 22nd ascent of Mount Everest by Phurba Tashi Sherpa, in a year when “a horrible avalanche killed 16 sherpas, which resulted in the rest going on strike and shutting down the climbing season last year,” said Powers. “Her cameras were there to capture that as it all went down.”

“Thru You Princess: Princess Shaw”

Israeli Ido Haar, known on the festival circuit for 2007’s “9 Star Hotel,” delivered this film late, said Powers, “at a point where I said, ‘I cannot take another music doc.’ You come in against the odds late in the process when I’ve already seen a lot of good films and am struggling with how to fit all in. But the power and surprise of this film overcame me. The film looks at a woman named Princess Shaw, who lives in New Orleans, happy at her job working in elder care. And her means of expression is recording onto YouTube her songs and diaries. She has followers in the two digits, but one of the people watching was the Israeli composer Kutiman, who is well-known for creating these fresh compositions out of YouTube videos. He pulls together dozens of YouTube musical clips–a 6-year-old’s piano recital, a guy on a basement playing electric guitar, a cellist performing Bach. He takes notes from the passages and creates a new musical work, which is what he did with a song by Princess Shaw. You watch the whole process unfold on film.” Submarine is selling distribution rights.

“Winter on Fire”

Evgeny Afineevsky’s Netflix original set in Ukraine documents “the three tumultuous months that led to the 2014 overthrow of president Yanukovych,” said Powers. “It will remind some of ‘The Square’ due to the intensity of what it captures on the ground. There’s also a greater perspective on what happened there, which sometimes gets lost when you’re following the story in the daily news.”

“Women He’s Undressed”

This new documentary from Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (“My Brilliant Career”) tells a “story from Hollywood’s Golden Age,” said Powers, “of costume designer Orry-Kelly.” Armstrong uses re-enactments to portray the behind-the-scenes life of the gay Australian who once roomed with Cary Grant and won Oscars for “An American in Paris,” “Les Girls,” and “Some Like It Hot.” Hollywood Classics is selling. 


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