TIFF 2011: The documentary wrap

With the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival having now drawn to a close, realscreen offers a comprehensive wrap-up of all of the key documentary news from the past 10 days, from the red carpets and Q&As to the deal-making and closing galas.
September 19, 2011

With the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival having now drawn to a close, realscreen offers a comprehensive wrap-up of all of the key documentary news from the past 10 days, from the red carpets and Q&As to the deal-making and closing galas.

From the initial news that a documentary was to kick off the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for the first time in its history, it was clear that this year’s event was going to be an important one for the non-fiction sector.

Shortly off the back of that news came the announcement of this year’s non-fiction line-up – and what a line-up it was.

With premieres from the likes Werner Herzog, Nick Broomfield, Albert Maysles, Frederick Wiseman, Alex Gibney, Davis Guggenheim, Jonathan Demme, Lucy Walker and Morgan Spurlock – all of whom made their way to Canada for the festival – this year’s TIFF threw the spotlight on some of the biggest names in the feature doc world.

While Guggenheim’s From the Sky Down was billed as the opening night gala, his film was technically pipped to the punch by Herzog’s latest Into the Abyss, which looks at convicted felons on death row and premiered on the opening night 30 minutes earlier than the U2 doc .

Talking onstage before the film (which was excellent) kicked off, Herzog (pictured below) came out strongly against capital punishment, telling attendees that no one from his generation who remembered the Nazi era could support the death penalty.

Werner Herzog filming "Into The Abyss"

Meanwhile, at a press conference to promote the U2 documentary, Guggenheim was joined onstage by U2 band members Bono and The Edge, where the topic turned to influential music docs. Among the filmmakers given a shout-out by the panel were Demme, DA Pennebaker and Martin Scorsese, all of whom had made music docs that had affected the band.

Also dropping Scorsese’s name was Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe, in town to promote the premiere of retrospective documentary Pearl Jam Twenty. Appearing alongside the band, Crowe described Scorsese’s doc No Direction Home: Bob Dylan as his “guiding light” while making the Pearl Jam film.

Other notable music docs premiering at TIFF included The Love We Make, Al Maysles’ documentary about Paul McCartney’s response to the 9/11 terror attacks; and Demme’s Neil Young Journeys, the filmmaker’s third film about the Canadian singer-songwriter.

Following the opening weekend, the Monday of the event saw an even sharper focus on the work of non-fiction filmmakers, with the third annual one-day Doc Conference taking place.

The day began with a lively Q&A with Broomfield and Spurlock, who discussed the possibilities of digital distribution and the challenges of filmmaking; before hosting the world premiere of Lucy Walker’s superb and emotional short film The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.

Taking to the stage at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to discuss the doc, Oscar-nominee Walker told the crowd how her plans to make a short film about cherry blossom had changed radically following the March earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan earlier this year.

The day also saw Cinelan, the filmmaker-driven project focused on the distribution of professionally produced three-minute films, and GE kicking off their “Focus Forward” initiative with the announcement of further partnerships for the project, as well as the names of doc-makers, film festivals and conferences taking part in the 18-month program.

Documentarians slated to produce 30 three-minute shorts focused on “the incredible human power of ideas and invention” include Spurlock, Joe Berlinger, Barbara Kopple, Jessica Yu, Lixin Fan, Liz Garbus, Steve James, Ross Kauffmann and Alex Gibney.

The latter filmmaker was at TIFF promoting his latest effort, The Last Gladiators (pictured below), which looks at the role and history of NHL enforcers. Gibney spoke to realscreen about the doc, which is his third non-fiction effort to premiere at a major film festival this year, and discussed how he balances having so many projects on the go at once.

The Last Gladiators

Also talking with realscreen was director Léa Pool, who said that the message delivered by her NFB-backed Pink Ribbons Inc. was direct and controversial: cause-marketing campaigns by big corporations to raise money for breast cancer research are cashing in on misery.

And among the other filmmakers taking the time to chat was Ayten Amin, co-director of Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician, which looks at different stories relating to the uprising in Tahrir Square, which culminated with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepping down in February this year. Amin discussed the challenges of censorship and her hopes for the film in Egypt.

Staying in the Middle East, this year’s TIFF also played host to the North American premiere of controversial Iranian effort This Is Not a Film, a banned doc co-directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, which was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden inside a cake.

The film was presented as a free screening in Toronto, and as the festival drew to a close Palisades Tartan Films inked a deal to pick up all U.S. and UK rights for the film.

Elsewhere, on the competition side of the festival, two teams of documentary makers walked away with big smiles on their faces.

Firstly, Allan Tong and Ngardy Conteh’s Leone Stars, a documentary following the Sierra Leone Single-Leg Amputee Sports Club’s pursuit of a world championship, won TIFF’s Pitch This! Competition, and with it CDN$10,000 (US$10,100) in development funding.

Then, yesterday, Jon Shenk’s powerful climate change doc The Island President took home the Cadillac People’s Choice Documentary Award. The win came after Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldives and star of The Island President, made an appearance earlier in fest, flying in to take part in a Q&A alongside director Shenk.

“I hope that the film will give us more leverage to continue against and get an understanding on climate change,” said Nasheed (pictured below). “The window of opportunity is getting smaller but I believe there is still hope. I don’t think people should give up.”

The Island President


About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.