This month, the Toronto International Film Festival (September 6 to 15) will draw thousands into movie theaters around the city. Thanks to the festival’s Real to Reel program, a growing number of these film enthusiasts will seek out docs.
Three years ago, due to an increasing number of documentary submissions, TIFF organizers asked Sean Farnel to become the dedicated programmer of the Real to Reel program. Since then, documentaries have continued to gain prominence within the festival. This year, a total of 15 documentary feature films and four shorts will screen under the Real to Reel banner, with an additional seven playing in TIFF’s Midnight Madness, Perspective Canada and Nordic Visions programs. Of these, six are world premieres and six are North American premieres.
Farnel explains that the program reflects the breadth of filmmaking seen in the submissions, but those chosen to screen for TIFF showed a particular ability to engage audiences. He also notes that the bulk of the films explore material in which the film’s director has a personal stake. Pointing to Tony Zierra’s Carving Out our Name (about four young actors struggling to understand themselves and their chosen profession), Bruce Weber’s Chop Suey (an autobiographical film about the director’s career as a photographer) and Bradley Beesley’s Okie Noodling (about the art of catching catfish with your hands) as examples, Farnel says, ‘The subject is still up front, but the filmmaker hasn’t eliminated his voice from the work. In the past, documentary filmmakers used all sorts of strategies to negate their presence. Now, all the layers of irony are being removed and the films are speaking more directly to an audience, because they’re stripping away some of these barriers.’
Farnel estimates half the docs are digibeta films that will be projected digitally for the festival. ‘Our filmmakers always tell us our projection system is outstanding,’ he says. ‘Now we need to get digital projection into commercial theaters. One of the things we’re trying to do at the festival is show that there’s an audience for these films and that there are a lot of different types of filmmaking going on. These films deserve a theatrical window; they shouldn’t just be targeted for broadcast.’
In the meantime, Farnel puts the onus on filmmakers and distributors to find creative alternatives to the established, commercial infrastructure for releasing films. To speed things along, TIFF has organized a panel dedicated to the matter. ‘There’s no experience like seeing a film in a theater, projected without interruption, with a group of like-minded seekers,’ he continues. ‘There’s a lasting power there that can’t be replicated when documentaries are broadcast. They sort of vanish in people’s living rooms.’
When Barbara Kopple attended TIFF last year with her film My Generation, she repeatedly substituted the term ‘non-fiction’ for ‘documentary’. When pressed as to why, she explained that people think documentaries are boring classroom films. Farnel (who relayed the above story) admits the stigma exists, but insists the tide is turning: ‘Every year I watch people come out of the theater and see that they’re sold. Every year the audience has increased for documentaries. It takes time, but I think with the type of work that’s being produced, everyone is going to wake up and get these films audiences.’ For his part, Farnel spreads the word in communities where a film’s subject matter may resonate.
‘The idea is to make sure we connect these films with their audience, not just the general festival-going audience,’ he explains. ‘I did this last year with pro-life groups, because we had a doc on an anti-abortion group. I also went to veterans, because we had a doc on Vietnam veterans. And, I’ll do it again this year.’