The documentary awards race always begins at Sundance, where “Flee” (Neon) and “Summer of Soul” (Searchlight) broke out as Oscar frontrunners; Tribeca debuted high-profile “The Lost Leonardo” (Sony Pictures Classics) and “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (Focus), while Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Underground” (AppleTV+) and “Val” (A24/Amazon) played well at Cannes.
Every September, the Toronto International Film Festival documentary lineup introduces more top non-fiction titles to the list of Oscar contenders — and this year, without many clear frontrunners, TIFF’s influence will be greater than ever. In the good old days when the TIFF selection was a sprawling smorgasbord, Thom Powers lead the TIFF documentary programmers through an enormous number of submissions to cull 22 selections. In the slimmed-down pandemic era, his team had to winnow TIFF Docs down to 13 features (announced so far). (The festival is also offering one Gala, “Jagged,” Alison Klayman’s profile of Alanis Morissette, plus a virtual screening Dionne Warwick music doc “Don’t Make Me Over”).
“Every year it’s a painful part of the process,” Powers told IndieWire, who is able to showcase a larger selection at his November festival DOC NYC. “Many worthy films we passed on. I was looking for things that took me by surprise.”
Here are some must-see non-fiction titles for TIFF 2021 with potential to shake up the awards race.
Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen debuted innovative animated documentary “Flee” at Sundance, where it scored rave reviews and the Grand Jury Prize. This moving story of a refugee survivor reveals the identity-crushing dangers and humiliations of an immigrant trying to find sanctuary in a harsh world. Neon knows how to mount an Oscar campaign.
Also likely to get a strong promo push is Amazon Studios’ “Burning,” from Australian Oscar-winner Eva Orner (she produced “Taxi to the Dark Side”). Orner tracks the many causes of the record-breaking fires of 2019-2020, when “59 million acres of land were destroyed and enveloped Sydney in clouds of smoke,” said Powers. “We know fires are caused by manmade climate change. Eva analyzes a set of entrenched powers deeply invested in energy markets. Australia is the largest exporter of coal and gas: that means the entrenched powers don’t want to confront the cause of these terrible fires.”
NatGeo will push two big titles playing on the fall festival circuit. “Becoming Cousteau,” directed by two-time Oscar nominee and Emmy-winner Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”), digs into the rich restored archives of French filmmaker Jacques Cousteau and his merry band of Calypso ocean adventurers. “It’s a complex, nuanced portrait,” said Powers, “in the same way Liz has done with Bobby Fischer, Nina Simone, and Marilyn Monroe in past films. Cousteau is a figure many of us think we know, but there’s a lot I didn’t know about his life.”
With “The Rescue,” NatGeo turned to its “Free Solo” Oscar-winners E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin to direct this behind-the-scenes white-knuckle eye-opener about how a motley crew of European and Thai rescuers figured out how to save a Thai soccer team marooned deep inside a watery cave. “It’s a story we know something about because of saturation news coverage,” said Powers. “This film tells a different side to that story, with incredible footage shot inside the cave by the rescuers.”
And HBO will push for awards (more likely the Emmys) Penny Lane’s portrait of a saxophone player, “Listening to Kenny G,” which Powers found “surprising,” he said, even from Lane, “a witty, inventive, smart filmmaker. The film is asking how do we define which music is good or bad? Kenny G. is a hugely divisive figure.”
“Attica,” the TIFF Docs opening nighter, is fittingly held on September 9, the 50th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. Showtime should qualify this archive dive from prolific two-time Emmy winner Stanley Nelson (“Freedom Riders”).
Four sales titles could become, with the right backing, awards contenders. Stefan Forbes’ “Hold Your Fire” recounts the longest hostage siege ever in 1973, a year after “Dog Day Afternoon,” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Forbes interviews the young Muslim men who were robbing a sporting goods store,” said Powers. “It went bad fast. He also interviews the people held hostage, and the police who were outside. This story signified a shift in the way the police department handled these kind of situations. It’s gripping.”
First-time New York filmmaker Rebeca Huntt recounts a personal journey in “Beba.” “Her father is from the Dominican Republic, her mother Venezuela,” said Powers. “Her boisterous family of five lived in a one-bedroom apartment. At 31 years old, she’s a voice of a generation.” And in “Comala,” rookie Mexican filmmaker Gian Cassini tells his Tijuana family’s story. “Both young filmmakers are confronting cycles of behavior in prior generations, asking how they can do better and stop a generational repeat of dysfunctional behavior.”
Set on the Israeli/Palestine border, Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty’s “The Devil’s Drivers” tracks “men who are acting as human smugglers, defying the Israeli military to help workers get across the border,” said Powers. “It’s like watching a 1970s car chase with Steve McQueen during moments when smugglers try to outwit the military. It’s a real David and Goliath battle. This film has all the cinematic qualities of a thriller, as well as human empathy and the political insight of a penetrating documentary.”
Let the Oscar speculation begin.