Sean Farnel’s basement is a far cry from the red carpet glamour of the Toronto International Film Festival, but this is where it all starts, at least for the 35 plus doc-makers with work screening at this year’s event. As programmer of the festival’s Real to Reel lineup, Farnel ensures the docs chosen to play at TIFF properly represent and celebrate the form. The festival doesn’t issue official invites until June, but Farnel works around the calendar, screening everything from amateur home videos to polished features from experienced producers. Although he attends other film fests and actively curates docs that pique his interest, most of the projects Farnel sees are unsolicited (TIFF doesn’t charge a submission fee). He has an office at TIFF headquarters, but finds the inevitable and frequent interruptions counterproductive. As a result, most docs compete for the fest’s highly coveted screening slots on Farnel’s own 27-inch TV.
Films invited to the festival have a huge advantage in the marketplace. In a crowded calendar, TIFF remains one of the largest film fests, attracting industry big shots from around the globe. For docs seeking a theatrical or a broadcast release, a TIFF screening can mean the difference between a film that makes money and one that doesn’t.
So, how does one decide which docs are TIFF material and which ones aren’t? ‘The process is strange,’ says Farnel, sifting through a column of tapes. It’s two weeks before TIFF announces its doc lineup and the programmer has a carefully crafted filing system in place: the tapes stacked on the TV will be invited to the fest, the tapes on the floor will not. ‘You’re sitting there in hypercritical mode, but nobody goes to the movies in that state of mind,’ he continues. ‘You have to step outside of that and let the filmmaker do the work.’
Farnel likens the selection process to piecing together a puzzle that, when it’s complete, reveals more than just the best films. ‘I’m cognizant of the fact that it’s an international festival and we have to represent a wide body of work,’ he explains. One of the biggest challenges is whittling down the U.S. submissions. ‘I have to be really careful about issuing those invitations to American films, because there’s so much depth. There’s no quota, but you want balance,’ says Farnel. ‘Once you have a piece of the puzzle, you’re eliminating other films that may be good, but that overlap with films that are better.’
One of Farnel’s favorite aspects of programming Real to Reel is finding small docs that have lingered under the radar of global buyers. ‘I’m a big fan of championing little underdog films and trying to use the leverage we offer at the fest to give those films a chance in the marketplace,’ he says. Unlike other festivals, Farnel explains, TIFF doesn’t choose films by committee. Each programmer works autonomously, although collaboration is frequent. ‘Often, with selection by committee, you end up with the lowest common denominator,’ he says. ‘We can take risks and walk the plank for a film. That’s how we avoid a middle-of-the-road program. Every year is different.’
This year, many of the films share an immediacy of emotion. ‘Most are documenting events as they unfold,’ observes Farnel. ‘A lot of the filmmakers are engaged with their subject in complex and interesting ways, so there’s a visceral emotion to the films. The barriers have been stripped away. These films are pressed up close against their subjects.’
Surprisingly, docs dealing directly with 9/11 are absent from the lineup. ‘We didn’t see any films we thought were different enough from what we’ve already seen on TV,’ he says. ‘It’s probably too early for the necessary clarity of thought about those events, for a filmmaker to really articulate what happened.’
What follows is a behind-the-scenes snapshot of why Farnel chose six of this year’s TIFF docs, what his first impressions of the films were, and how he pieced together the festival’s doc program.
Director: Jeff Blitz
Farnel pops a tape in the VCR and presses down on the fast forward button until a boy’s face appears on the TV screen. The boy is standing in front of a microphone twisting his lips into tortured poses. ‘This is a great first shot,’ says Farnel. ‘The editing is terrific, as is the music. Right away you know you’re in a good film.’
Spellbound follows eight U.S.-based teenagers about to compete in the National Spelling Bee. Each profile is peppered with rich cultural insights, but the documentary ultimately winds up revealing the complex nature of the American dream.
‘I almost gave up on this film, because it begins by introducing lots of characters. I was thinking ‘When is this going to start?” recalls Farnel. ‘But, there was too much interesting stuff going on for me to turn it off. The more I watched, the more I appreciated the structure of the stories themselves, and the film as a whole.’
Farnel anticipates Spellbound will be an audience favorite, and was pleased to find a ‘fun’ film for the Real to Reel program lineup. ‘Obviously I see a lot of tough, wrenching material,’ he notes. ‘This is a very accessible film, so I can take a few more risks with other documentaries that may be a bit more challenging to audiences. It became an important part of the puzzle that I started to build around.’
Directors: Sami Martin Saif and Phie Ambo-Nielsen
Farnel believes in breaking the rules, even his own rules, if a film warrants the infraction. This year, he broke the rules for Family, a doc on director Saif’s search for his dad. Aware of a phenomenon Farnel calls ‘festival euphoria’ – which involves getting swept up in a film because it hit a chord at a particular event, only to discover later that it falls short of expectations – the TIFF programmer avoids committing to films at fests. But, when Farnel saw Family at IDFA last November, he immediately invited the film to screen at TIFF.
‘I program in the context of an international festival that plays a lot of drama, so the docs have to hold their own against those films,’ explains Farnel. ‘Already you know that most historical work isn’t going to cut it. It’s going to be films that are really immediate, are really engaged, have strong narratives – all the things that make drama so successful. Family does that; it plays like a feature. It’s very pictorial, and also personal.’
The film’s dialog is in several languages, but Farnel says subtitles are not a problem for TIFF attendees. ‘Toronto audiences are sophisticated. They tend to gravitate towards films they may not otherwise have a chance to see.’
Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story (U.S.)
Director: Garrett Scott
Farnel flips through an index box of cue cards that catalog his first impressions of every film. Among the scribbled notes are how long he watched each film, important plot points or characters, and the answers to four key questions: what, when, why and how. ‘For most submissions you can figure out the ‘what’ in 10 minutes,’ says Farnel. ‘Once you know that, you’re looking to see if it works well.’
Farnel pulls out the card for Cul de Sac and points to it, ‘I watched this film all the way through. [Scott] kept finding doors in the story and opening them up. It’s really compelling.’
The doc is about a plumber from a U.S. suburb who stole an army tank in 1995 and rode it around his neighborhood. Through him, Scott explores urban planning, drugs, war and TV news. Says Farnel, ‘We see so many films that are broadcast format… We have an obligation to support new forms. Our job is to raise the bar aesthetically. When you get something like Cul de Sac, which is different, you stick with it. Maybe in another year this film wouldn’t fit the puzzle, but this year it did.’
This Winter (People’s Republic of China)
Director: Zhong Hua
‘This film was invited late in the process,’ notes Farnel, who describes the doc as a rough stone among polished pearls. ‘We had some strong work from Europe and the U.S.; This Winter fit a certain kind of filmmaking that wasn’t represented.’
Farnel came upon the film, Hua’s first feature film effort, when a programmer with the Yamagata Film Festival in Japan recommended that he consider it for TIFF. The film follows four military recruits who are preparing to leave their friends and the Chinese army, as their training draws to a close.
Despite the doc’s qualitative issues – gritty filming, poor subtitles, and scratchy sound – Farnel was impressed with the director’s talent, and what he concludes is the film’s powerful cumulative effect. ‘I see this as a rough draft of a polished masterpiece,’ he says. ‘It’s not narrative and offers a contrast to the other docs, which are very story driven. This is more about emotion and friendship. Spellbound is an example of great editing and tight storytelling; this is an example of pauses and space between the shots.’
Apart from the film, Farnel likes the idea of introducing Hua to the global doc market. ‘TIFF is a great development opportunity for a young filmmaker who has talent,’ he says. ‘It’s not just about the films, but the opportunity we can offer.’
Director: Steve James
It doesn’t worry Farnel that a number of the docs playing at TIFF previously screened at other festivals, but he admits that premiering films is also important. ‘It’s one of the reasons people attend the festival,’ he explains. This year Stevie, the latest effort from one of the directors behind Hoop Dreams, is TIFF’s major documentary world premiere.
The film follows the director back to southern Illinois in 1995 where he reconnects with Stevie Fielding, a troubled boy for whom James was an ‘Advocate Big Brother’ 10 years earlier. The story unfolds over the next four years, after Stevie runs into trouble with the law. ‘This came with a lot of expectations,’ says Farnel, hinting that the filmmaker met all of them. ‘It’s an example of good doc storytelling. Within the first 10 minutes, all the conflicts are set out. Stevie carries the signature of a Steve James film.’
Farnel predicts that Stevie will make a big impact with audiences and anticipates that the doc will win a plum spot, and venue, in the festival’s full screening schedule. ‘Hoop Dreams was a watershed film, so people will be interested,’ he observes.
Blind Spot – Hitler’s Secretary (Austria)
Directors: André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer
Aesthetically speaking, Blind Spot isn’t a breakthrough film, but it commands the attention of its audience. Despite all the material on the Holocaust, the doc marks the first time Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, has spoken on the record. Junge was in her late teens when she worked for the Fuehrer and was in the bunker with Hitler at the end of the war. For this and other reasons, the film – essentially a 90-minute interview with Junge – is an important historical document.
‘Smartly, the filmmakers sent us a screener of the film for our screening room,’ recalls Farnel, who notes that the doc also resonates in the present. ‘It really demands the focus of a theater, which is why it’s such an important festival film. Some films, when they play a lot of festivals, drop down lower on our list. This one didn’t, because it is exactly the kind of film we need to show. It’s a film you know is essential to your program. It was selected early and again it was a building block around which I built the program.’ Blind Spot debuted at the Berlinale in October, but TIFF is the film’s North American premiere.