Toronto International Film Festival 2006

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What’s Up With Docs

TIFF’s documentary programmer gives us the lowdown

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing is one of the buzz documentaries at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. (PMK/HBH)
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing is one of the buzz documentaries at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. (PMK/HBH)

Michigan native Thom Powers has attended most of the last 16 Toronto International Film festivals “as a visitor, avid filmgoer and sometime journalist.” This year, the writer, director, producer, programmer and New York University professor of documentary filmmaking is doing something different: he is in charge of programming the festival’s Real to Reel and Maverick selections. His Real to Reel team’s documentary program, culled from hundreds of international submissions, includes 34 features from filmmakers in 18 countries. Twenty-eight of the titles will experience their international or North American premieres. CBC Arts Online asked Powers for pointers on which docs to watch out for at this year's TIFF.

Q: How are documentaries selected for the Real to Reel program?

A: I started to pay attention to stuff as far back as January — keeping an eye out for things, talking to people I know in the industry. Of course, most of the submissions are sent blind, from people I don’t know. Myself and a team of pre-screeners go through the submissions to create our A lists and B lists of films. Then it comes down to balancing out a schedule. We want to have documentaries that represent very serious, politically engaged topics, and we want to have documentaries that represent other aspects of the human condition — stuff that is humorous, stuff that pays attention to pop culture.


Q: What specific challenges were involved in shaping this year’s lineup?

A: Music-related documentaries has always been a strong genre, but this year more than ever. We have [programmed] a great range, from Kurt Cobain: About a Son to Made in Jamaica to several others, not to mention the biggest attention-getter of all the docs at the festival, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing.

There is always a lot of filmmaking around music, and often it tends to be a lot of formulaic filmmaking — the Behind the Music, VH1 [kind of thing]. None of these documentaries follow those kinds of formulas. They’re all very solid and deep films unto themselves. They’re not just being carried by the fact that there are celebrities in them. They have other things to say.

Q: What does it mean that pop culture seems to be experiencing its fourth consecutive Year of the Documentary?

A: I should tell you that one of the highlights of our programming this year is the new Doc Blog. I have an entry on there called “Spellbound Bursts on the Scene,” where I talk about how TIFF 2002 was the real turning [point] for theatrical documentaries, because that was the year when we had Spellbound and Winged Migration and Bowling for Columbine. Those were the documentaries that burst on the [mainstream] scene within the next year and really changed the course of things.

I agree we are in year four. I think that you see a greater and greater [sense of] expectation among distributors coming to this year’s festival looking for films to buy. Already the Dixie Chicks film has sold to the Weinstein Company. The U.S. vs. John Lennon is already coming here with a distributor, Lionsgate Films. Lionsgate has [acquired] another documentary we’re showing called Deliver Us From Evil, about a pedophile priest. And American Hardcore is distributed by Sony [Pictures Classics].


Q: Have any Canadian documentaries stood out from this year’s crowd?

A: My bailiwick is covering some of the other titles. My very esteemed Canadian programmers are the ones who select the Canadian titles. But among Canadian titles, I would say look out for Manufactured Landscapes. It’s not playing in the Real to Reel section. [Neither is Dixie Chicks.] Doc fans should keep an eye out, because there are great documentaries playing outside Real to Reel in many different sections [of TIFF’s schedule].

But Manufactured Landscapes is a stunning film by Jennifer Baichwal about the photographer Edward Burtynsky, following him for the creation of some of his most memorable photographs in places like China and Bangladesh. And [Jim Brown and] Gary Burns’s Radiant City is a very interesting, critical look at suburbia. And then, of course, our Canadian retrospective this year is devoted to Peter Mettler, a great filmmaker.


World-famous mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, left, and blind mountain climber Tashi are featured in the documentary Blindsight. (Robson Entertainment) World-famous mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, left, and blind mountain climber Tashi are featured in the documentary Blindsight. (Robson Entertainment)
Q: As TIFF begins, what five docs do you expect will spark distributors’ interest?

A: I could be famously overlooking one, but I would say watch out for Blindsight, which is an amazing film about blind mountain climbers, and Ghost of Cité Soleil, which is a remarkable film about gang leaders in Haiti around the time of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s overthrow in 2004. The director is Asger Leth, who is the son of the great Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth, who is best known as Lars von Trier’s mentor. The calibre of storytelling is so high that there are going to be many times when you’re watching this film and going to think, “Is this fiction? What is going on here?”

Kurt Cobain: About a Son — there’s going to be major distribution interest in that. I would keep an eye on The Killer Within, which is a film about an esteemed psychology professor who confesses to the world that he committed a murder 50 years ago. And also Summercamp!, by Sarah Price and Brad Beesley. ... [It] makes delightful use of the songs of the Flaming Lips, who are going to be in town the weekend that TIFF kicks off. So there’s a lot to see. I’ve been telling distributors that they’d better bring two chequebooks this year.


Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window.

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