TIFF ’15: Powers previews packed, music-heavy doc slate

TIFF programmer Thom Powers talks to realscreen about the festival's doc slate, featuring the premieres of films from Barbara Kopple, Amy Berg, Morgan Neville, Davis Guggenheim and a posthumous doc by Sydney Pollack. (Pictured: Kopple's Miss Sharon Jones!)
August 11, 2015

Documentaries by Barbara Kopple, Amy Berg, Morgan Neville, Davis Guggenheim, Gillian Armstrong, Frederick Wiseman and a posthumous film by Sydney Pollack will screen at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival next month.

As the festival prepares to mark its 40th year, internal programming changes have allowed documentary programmer Thom Powers to up the number of films playing in the TIFF Docs program from 21 to 31 – the most docs to screen at TIFF in eight years.

Of the films announced today, 12 are world premieres, five are international premieres, three are North American premieres and six are Canadian premieres. The number of docs with female directors or codirectors is higher than ever, according to Powers, at 13 out of 31.

The latest film by two-time Oscar winner Kopple leads a slate heavy on music titles. Miss Sharon Jones! follows the titular R&B singer as she grapples with a cancer diagnosis while attempting to keep her band, The Dap-Kings, together. The film is making its world premiere at TIFF.

Another world premiere is Morgan Neville’s Participant Media-produced The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, which is about the acclaimed cellist and his music collective of diverse instrumentalists. The film will debut around the same time Neville’s Keith Richards doc bows on Netflix.

Meanwhile, the late Sydney Pollack’s never-finished film about the recording sessions at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church that became Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album will have its international premiere at TIFF.

Shot over two nights in January 1972, Amazing Grace was initially abandoned due to audio syncing issues with its 16 mm film stock and locked away in a vault until producer Alan Elliott convinced Pollack and late Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler to revive the project.

Powers calls it “a real documentary revelation,” but would not confirm whether the Queen of Soul would attend her belated premiere. “She is a person who makes very selective appearances,” he tells realscreen.

The festival’s guest list will be unveiled on August 25, but it’s a safe bet that Yo-Yo Ma will be on hand at TIFF as he and the Silk Road Ensemble are performing at Toronto’s Massey Hall in the middle of the festival on September 15.

The world premiere of Kahlil Joseph’s Arcade Fire doc The Reflektor Tapes; the North American premiere of Amy Berg’s doc about Janis Joplin, Janis: Little Girl Blue; and the Canadian premiere of musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson’s Chris Marker-esque essay film Heart of a Dog, round out the music docs playing at TIFF.

Other noteworthy titles include Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, which screens in Toronto following its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival; Davis Guggenheim’s Fox Searchlight-distributed He Named Me Malala, about youth activist and Noble Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai; and Gillian Armstrong’s Women He’s Undressed, about legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly.

Programming changes prompted by the introduction of the festival’s new juried competition, Platform, allowed Powers to look further afield and this year the programmer says he noticed a marked difference in the storytelling quality of international docs.

“Ten years ago we would see North American documentaries that had a chance to go far in the North American marketplace and international documentaries that had a harder [time]. That’s really changed,” he explained. “We’re increasingly seeing international films that are made with the same vivid characters, narrative pacing and complicated stories that were the hallmark of the most successful documentaries in the past.”

Docs he believes have a good shot at landing theatrical deals Stateside include director German Kral’s Wim Wenders-exec produced Our Last Tango, which profiles Argentinian tango dancers María Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes; Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa, about the plight of Nepalese Sherpas following last year’s Mount Everest tragedy; and Being AP, Anthony Wonke’s BBC Films-produced doc about horse jockey AP McCoy.

The majority of  docs screening in Toronto this year will be looking for distribution deals. Powers believes Our Last Tango will be among the potentially hot sales titles, as will Amazing Grace, The Music of Strangers, Women He’s Undressed, A Flickering Truth - Pietra Brettkelly’s doc about three teenage Afghan cinephiles - and Ido Haar’s Thru You Princess, a Submarine Entertainment-repped doc that was a hit at the Jerusalem Film Festival and which was pitched at the 2014 IDFA Forum.

However, the buzz-iest doc without distribution going into TIFF is Michael Moore‘s previously announced Where to Invade Next, which buyers will get to see for the first time on the first day of the festival.

In addition to He Named Me Malala and Being AP, docs heading to TIFF with significant deals in place include Bolshoi Babylon, Nick Read’s HBO- and BBC-backed look at the troubled Russian ballet company; and Evgeny Afineevsky‘s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedoma Netflix original.

Elsewhere in the line-up, Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman‘s The Pearl Button will have its North American premiere in the Masters program. Kino Lorber has acquired all U.S. rights to the film, which debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

The festival’s Cinematheque section will screen three doc classics: Kopple’s 1976 Oscar winner Harlan County USA – which first played at TIFF 40 years ago – Wiseman’s 1967 film Titicut Follies, and Marcel Ophüls’ 1976 film The Memory of Justice. The newly restored version of the German filmmaker’s rarely seen, four-hour-plus account of the Nuremberg Trials previously screened at the Berlinale.

In past years, Powers has been responsible for programming films in TIFF’s Mavericks program but the section has since been rebranded as In Conversation and will focus exclusively on conversations.

“Mavericks used to include some films with conversations. This year the effort is for In Conversation to really strictly be conversations,” he explained, adding that he is not involved in programming that section.

Another change this year is the integration of the TIFF Doc Conference into the festival’s seven-day industry conference.

“[The conference] has become a good platform for people to make statements that can be heard farther because of the attention that TIFF gets,” says Powers. “This year we’ve really tried to curate a selection of speakers that have something new and memorable to say.”

Asif Kapadia will participate in a keynote interview with Powers called “In Documentaries Begin Responsibilities,” which will focus on way the Senna and Amy helmer has reframed public conversation around celebs Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse.

“He’s made films that have changed our perceptions of who those figures are,” says Powers. “It seems to be that’s a very big responsibility to take on. I want to ask him more about how he handles that.”

Avi Lewis and author Naomi Klein will discuss their latest doc collaboration, This Changes Everything, and Bill Hader will cap off the conference’s doc day by previewing the final episode of his IFC series Documentary Now!.

In addition to Michael Moore’s latest, other previously announced docs headed to Toronto this year include Brian D. Johnson’s Al Purdy Was Here; Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard’s Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr; Mina Shum’s Ninth Floor; and Geneviève Dulude-De Celles’ Welcome to F.L.

TIFF runs from September 10 to 20. The full list 2015 TIFF Docs titles announced today (August 11) is below.

Amazing Grace, Sydney Pollack, USA, International Premiere

A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly, New Zealand/Afghanistan North American Premiere

A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, Geeta Gandbhir and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, USA/Pakistan, World Premiere

A Young Patriot (Shao Nian * Xiao Zhao), Du Haibin, China/USA/France, Canadian Premiere

Being AP, Anthony Wonke, United Kingdom/Ireland, World Premiere

Bolshoi Babylon, Nick Read, United Kingdom, World Premiere

Dark Horse, Louise Osmond, United Kingdom, Canadian Premiere

He Named Me Malala, Davis Guggenheim, USA, International Premiere

Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson, USA, Canadian Premiere

Hitchcock/Truffaut, Kent Jones, USA/France, Canadian Premiere

Horizon, Bergur Bernburg and Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland/Denmark, World Premiere

In Jackson Heights, Frederick Wiseman, USA, North American Premiere

It All Started At The End (Todo comenzó por el fin), Luis Ospina, Colombia, World Premiere

Janis: Little Girl Blue, Amy Berg, USA, North American Premiere

Je Suis Charlie, Emmanuel Leconte and Daniel Leconte, France, World Premiere

Miss Sharon Jones!, Barbara Kopple, USA, World Premiere

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Morgan Neville, USA, World Premiere

Nasser, Jihan El-Tahri, France/South Africa, International Premiere

Our Last Tango (Un tango más), German Kral, Germany/Argentina World Premiere

P.S. Jerusalem, Danae Elon, Canada/Israel, World Premiere

The Reflektor Tapes, Kahlil Joseph, United Kingdom, World Premiere

Return of the Atom (Atomin paluu), Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola, Finland/Germany, World Premiere

Sherpa, Jennifer Peedom, Australia/United Kingdom, Canadian Premiere

Thru You Princess, Ido Haar, Israel, International Premiere

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom, Evgeny Afineevsky, Ukraine/USA/United Kingdom, Canadian Premiere

Women He’s Undressed, Gillian Armstrong, Australia, International Premiere

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.