TIFF ’17: Thom Powers talks doc lineup

The world premiere of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me sequel, a film that explores the life of Eric Clapton, and Sophie Fiennes‘ latest venture, Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami were among the projects announced ...
August 3, 2017

The world premiere of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me sequel, a film that explores the life of Eric Clapton, and Sophie Fiennes‘ latest venture, Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami were among the projects announced on Tuesday (Aug. 1) as part of this year’s TIFF docs program.

Following the unveiling of the lineup, realscreen spoke with Thom Powers, TIFF Docs programmer about what filmmakers and audiences can expect from this year’s festival.

What do you look for when planning the TIFF doc lineup?

We always have a similar set of goals. First, we’re just looking for great films that surprise us and will connect strongly with audiences. We’re also looking to represent a balance of films from around the world.

There’s so much strong documentary making happening just in the U.S. that we could probably fill a slate using just U.S. films, but that’s not a way to fulfill our mission. We make an effort to find films from around the world that will perform at the same level as anything else in the festival. I’m also always on the lookout for films that are going to be for sale — filmmakers looking to take advantage of the festival and launch themselves in the marketplace.

This year we have some several really strong docs, including Grace Jones (represented by WestEnd Films), Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (Submarine), The China Hustle (UTA), Boom for Real (ICM) and Jim and Andy (WME), just to name some of the most high-profile ones.

Are there any noticeable shifts being made this year?

Across the board at TIFF, we have reduced our selection by 20%. We heard feedback over the years that TIFF was growing too big and was hard for people to manage, so this is a step to addressing that. For me, that made for a more careful deliberation. It’s always a tough process taking the several hundred films that are submitted each year and narrowing it down to 20 or 30 selections, but this year I was even more conscious that I had fewer slots to work with. Something else that’s new for a few different sections or the festival is that we are designating a film as the opening night of the section and the closing night of the section. It’s a way to give special attention to a world premiere title that we think stands out. The opening night film for the doc section is Grace Jones and the closing night film is Makala.

What does it mean for TIFF to host world premieres?

It’s a big honor, a big responsibility, and one that I take very seriously in all aspects of how we present the films. It’s not just about inviting the film — I try to pay careful attention to the way we’re writing about the film, the image that is being selected to be the first impression of it, and the support the filmmakers have from a publicist or sales agent. When they don’t have those contacts, I will try to make those contacts for them.

Then, it comes down to the positioning of the film at the festival — when it plays, trying to find a spot where it’s going to stand out at its best, nurturing an audience for that film, so knowing when a film has a specific demographic that’s going to be interested in it, and really trying to do everything we can to market the film.

How do you ensure that a TIFF doc will resonate with audiences?

At TIFF we are in a really privileged position because we’re holding the festival in the most diverse city in the world. So this year I have films from Serbia and Spain, from Turkey, Bolivia, Pakistan and India. The great thing about Toronto is that I can feel confident that there are communities specifically for those films which don’t exist in a lot of backdrops for other film festivals.

What’s the significance of having the Tragically Hip doc Long Time Running screening as a gala film?

It’s very rare for us to get a documentary into the gala section. Last year was unusual, we had two music docs — Jonathan Demme’s doc about Justin Timberlake, and The Rolling Stones Ole Ole Ole, but that is very rare. For any film to make it into the gala section, we have to feel secure that there’s a white-hot passionate audience who want to come out for a special experience. In the case of this film, we knew we would have that interest, and it’s extra special because it was directed by Jennifer Baichwal, whose career has been showcased at TIFF.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing with docs this year?

There are several films in the lineup that are going to be very prominent in this year’s Oscars discussion — films that I think will wind up Oscar-qualifying this year. They’re coming from directors that are past Oscar nominees, and they’re really delivering the goods with these films. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s One of Us, for example. Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me 2 is one of his strongest works since Super Size Me. It taps into the power of that film, but takes it further into a contemporary conversation. There’s Jane, by Brett Morgen, who was previously nominated for On the Ropes. It’s a very big film from Nat Geo this year and I can’t wait for audiences to experience it. The fourth one I should mention is The Final Year, directed by Greg Backer, who was previously on the Oscar short list.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I think it’s important to note that 10 of 23 of these films are directed by women, and that’s a very strong representation.

Sometimes it’s difficult for me to reduce all these films into a short conversation, and inevitably I worry that some of the smaller sleeper films will get lost because they’re done by emerging directors or they don’t have a big celebrity presence. Some of the other films that are very dear to me include Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, The Other Side of Everything — I was a big fan of Mila Turajlic’s previous work — and The Legend of the Ugly King. 

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