TIFF docs program aims for attention-grabbing picks

The head of TIFF's doc slate is touting a lineup as captivating as the festival's splashy opener.
Undefeated, which follows an eventful season for a poor, inner-city high school football team, was directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin. (TIFF)

The U2 portrait From the Sky Down might have grabbed the spotlight this year as TIFF's gala opener, but the head of the festival's documentary slate is touting an entire lineup as captivating as that splashy rock flick.

Unlike a festival focusing only on docs or an event specifically showcasing emerging directors, TIFF provides specific challenges for its film programmers, says the Real to Reel lineup's chief curator, Thom Powers.

"These docs are being shown alongside the best the world cinema has to offer this year — everything from Oscar-bait films with big-name actors to international auteurs who are pushing boundaries of cinema," he said.

Hence, the bar is set fairly high. When a TIFF-goer finishes screening one film and moves over to a doc, "it has got to deliver the same level of cinematic excitement as the others."

To satisfy these lofty standards, the challenge is to program a slate of interesting, appealing, quality documentaries every year. For someone like Powers, who screens hundreds of titles in advance of each TIFF edition, a certain jaded, been-there-seen-that attitude can set in. So what still grabs his attention?

"One thing I'm looking for in any film, whether it's by a veteran filmmaker or newcomer, is something that surprises me and gives me a fresh perspective on something I knew before, or opens my eyes to something I never knew before," he said.

For 2011, he and his team have selected a wide-ranging bill, with the hope that more people than ever will venture into darkened cinemas to take in a non-fiction feature or two.

"If you're receiving information on the internet, you're probably giving a few minutes of time to [it] before you surf onto something else. When you're sitting at home watching TV, chances are you're doing it with the remote control in your hand and changing channels every few minutes. But when you sit down to a documentary in a theatre — we hope — you're putting away your BlackBerry and focusing your attention for 90 minutes on the screen," Powers said.

"It's a rare space where we give ourselves over to thinking about something for an extended period of time."

Powers shares a few choice picks from this year's non-fiction lineup.

For the politicos:

Must-watch film: Sarah Palin — You Betcha

According to Powers, Nick Broomfield "wields a microphone like a sharpshooter vigilante going after his target," so it's only natural that anticipation is high for the British filmmaker's take on the divisive former Alaskan governor.

Nick Broomfield's documentary Sarah Palin -- You Betcha takes viewers to Alaska for interviews with her friends, former colleagues and even her parents. (TIFF)

"A lot of people only experience Sarah Palin through headlines, whether they love her or hate her. People who are not fans of her tend to hope she's going to go away and treat her as a joke. She's definitely not a joke as a political force in the U.S.

"What Nick Broomfield has done that's valuable is to take us into the place where she originally rose to power, in Alaska, and interview her friends, former colleagues and even her parents for a kind of deeper portrait than we get when we're just watching news bites on TV."

Also recommended: The Boy Who Was a King, the strange tale of a man who becomes Bulgaria's tsar as a child, is forced into exile and eventually returns to become prime minister.

For the sports fans:

Must-watch film: Undefeated

This football tale from co-directors Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin is "packs a powerful emotional punch and I think it's a sort of dark horse candidate" come awards season, Powers predicted. With impressive cinematography and editing — not to mention an amazing story to tell about an inner-city Memphis team — Undefeated offers is a complex story.

"There are so many twists and turns to following this football season. If it had been scripted, you wouldn't have believed it. […] This belongs in the list of the 10 greatest sports films ever made."

Also recommended: The Last Gladiators, an exploration into the legacy of hockey enforcers told through the story of retired NHLer Chris Nilan.

For the social activists:

Must-watch film: Last Call at the Oasis

Oscar-winner Jessica Yu's latest doc Last Call at the Oasis explores the global water crisis. (TIFF)

"Last Call at the Oasis is a look at water in the way Food, Inc. was a look at the food crisis in our world," Powers says of the latest film from Jessica Yu, an Oscar-winner for her documentary short Breathing Lessons.

Yu partnered with the socially minded production company Participant Media for the film, which mixes scientific research with appearances from notable figures such as activist Erin Brockovich and actor Jack Black to examine the impending global water crisis.

"Most of us don't have time to read these books [or] compare and contrast different studies. What a film like this can do is take years of research and put it into an accessible package."

Also recommended: I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful, Jonathan Demme's portrait of a fierce New Orleans woman struggling to save her Hurricane Katrina-ravaged home, and Pink Ribbon, Inc., a critical look behind-the-scenes at the marketers and corporations involved in breast cancer fundraising.

For music lovers:

Must-watch film: Pearl Jam Twenty

Filmmaker Cameron Crowe, left, is seen in an undated image with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. The director profiles his longtime Seattle rocker friends in the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty. (TIFF)

Cameron Crowe is best known for his fictional features (Say Anything…, Vanilla Sky, Almost Famous), but he also has a long, personal history with Pearl Jam, having cast some band members in his 1991 movie Singles. His documentary portrait of the group is being released as the Seattle rockers celebrate two decades together.

"Cameron Crowe was very early on [tapped into] the Seattle music scene when he made his film Singles, which is set in Seattle in the heyday of the alternative music scene there," Powers said.

"What makes Pearl Jam a great documentary subject is that they're a band that's never shied away from controversy or speaking their minds… In their 20-year history, there's a lot to talk about."

Also recommended: Paul Williams Still Alive, a documentary about the 70s-era actor and singer-songwriter by a former fan, who discovers the faded star is not what he had expected.

For the fine art buffs:

Must-watch film: Pina

The 3D film Pina is a masterful tribute to famed German choreographer Pina Bausch by her friend, the equally celebrated film auteur Wim Wenders, who forged ahead with the documentary after her sudden death in 2009 — just before shooting was scheduled to start.

In the 3D film Pina, master German filmmaker Wim Wenders captures the brilliantly inventive dance world of Pina Bausch and her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. (TIFF)

A "visually splendid film," Pina is naturally a treat for dance aficionados, but it's also rewarding for those unfamiliar with dance. "For people who are total newcomers to that world, it's like being introduced to one of the great artists of our time through the eyes of another great artist of our time," Powers said.

"It takes dance out of the theatre. It takes it off the stage. A lot of times, dance films feel a little stultified, because you're watching a camera film people on a stage. But a number of [Pina's] performances are choreographed outside, in the streets, in the parks — it really brings dance into the world."

Also recommended: Gerhard Richter Painting, an intimate glimpse inside the world of the prickly, influential German contemporary art icon, considered among the world's most important living painters.

For the criminal law enthusiasts:

Must-watch film: Into The Abyss and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Powers singled out two strong yet distinct crime stories in this year's Real to Reel lineup: Into The Abyss, a layered examination of a death row case from the prolific and accomplished Werner Herzog; and Paradise Lost, the third film in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's series about the West Memphis Three case.

Werner Herzog's latest documentary Into The Abyss looks at convicts on death row and the wider impact of their crimes and death sentences. (TIFF)

"In Paradise Lost, there's strong evidence that the people who were jailed for the murders were not guilty. Whereas in Into The Abyss, Werner Herzog is not challenging the guilt of the incarcerated men that he's talking to: he's just trying to look into what the impact of the crime was on everyone who was involved," Powers said.

The latter "is an interesting contrast to some of Herzog's recent documentary work, [which] has been very characterized by the heavy presence of Herzog's voice narrating it. In this film, he really pulls that back," he said.

Paradise Lost could also become one of the timeliest TIFF titles, as the three men convicted in the 18-year-old murder case were freed on Aug. 19 — with Berlinger and Sinofsky rushing down to Arkansas to film some updated scenes for their doc.

For those interested in gender studies:

Must-see film: Girl Model

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's doc Girl Model delves into the murky world of recruitment in the international modeling industry. (TIFF)

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's Girl Model, which delves into the murky world of recruitment in the international modeling industry, is a doc Powers felt strongly about.

"They found an important story — one that a lot of filmmakers have tried to capture and not been able to," he said. Though Powers doesn't consider Girl Model an exposé per se, ("the film is actually more subtle and psychologically intricate than that"), the film nonetheless plumbs the conflicted feelings of the aspiring models, who quickly discover that the glamorous business isn't what they'd expected.

Also recommended: Whore's Glory, a clear-eyed, observational glimpse into the world of prostitutes featuring honest, matter-of-fact interviews, and Dark Girls, which probes the persistence of skin-colour bias and its effect on women of African descent.

For cinephiles:

Must-watch film: The Story of Film: An Odyssey

By far the longest movie at TIFF this year, The Story of Film: An Odyssey is Mark Cousins' ambitious, 15-hour adaptation of his book of the same name, which chronicles the history of cinema around the globe.

"So often when you watch an epic, multi-part documentary, it usually has an institutional feel…like a committee made the project because it takes so many resources to make these films. [The Story of Film] stands apart that in that it has a very distinctive, individualist feel," according to Powers.

"[Cousins] made this doc in a kind of do-it-yourself spirit, carrying his own camera around the world, shooting on every continent except Antarctica and telling this 100-plus-year history of film literally in his own voice — he narrates it," he said. Powers adds cheekily: "You feel like someone's reading you a storybook for 15 hours."   Also recommended: Arirang, Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk's autobiographical documentary project, created during a self-imposed exile following a near-fatal on-set accident.

For contemporary culture fans:

Must-see film: Comic-Con: Episode IV — A Fan's Hope

Unlike previous Morgan Spurlock films, where he's a central part of the story, Comic-Con: Episode IV — A Fan's Hope sees the colourful filmmaker take a back seat to the quirky characters who make the annual trek to San Diego's Mecca of comic books, movies, television and pop culture.

"We've seen a lot of takes on the world of fandom that are either condescending or outright disdainful or ironic at best," Powers said.

"This film kind of breaks that pattern, by taking a very affectionate look at this world — not without a sense of humour, for sure, but [in a way that's] really sensitive to the very human qualities that are behind people's interest in the world of comic books and fantasy.

Also recommended: Urbanized, a film essay about modern-day urban planning and the final instalment of Gary Hustwit's popular design trilogy (which included the hits Helvetica and Objectified).

Unlike previous Morgan Spurlock films, where he's a central part of the story, Comic-Con: Episode IV -- A Fan's Hope sees the filmmaker take a back seat to the quirky characters who make the annual trek to San Diego's Mecca of comic books, movies, television and pop culture. (TIFF)