TIFF ’18: Thom Powers on this year’s timely doc lineup

The 43rd annual Toronto International Film Festival announced its 2018 documentary lineup yesterday (Aug. 8), which includes Michael Moore’s latest Fahrenheit 11/9, Errol Morris’ American Dharma, and Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks’ Netflix-bound Quincy. TIFF ...
August 10, 2018

The 43rd annual Toronto International Film Festival announced its 2018 documentary lineup yesterday (Aug. 8), which includes Michael Moore’s latest Fahrenheit 11/9, Errol Morris’ American Dharma, and Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks’ Netflix-bound Quincy.

TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers says that, as with every year, major recurring themes emerge in the program, which this year was crafted from a vast body of submissions — nearly 1,000, up from under 900 submissions last year.

“This year there’s a distinct cluster in our lineup of films that you could group as political,” he tells realscreen. These include Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, about the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and its impact; Morris’s American Dharma, about former White House advisor and head of Breitbart News Steve Bannon; Alexis Bloom’s Divide and Conquer, about the rise and fall of Fox News founder Roger Ailes; Vitaly Mansky’s Putin’s Witnesses, and Werner Herzog and André Singer’s Meeting Gorbachev.

“And then there’s another big headline at the festival that you could group as ‘women’s achievement,’” he adds. “That includes Mark Cousin’s Women Make Film. It includes Tom Donahue’s film This Changes Everything, executive produced by Geena Davis,” Powers says. While those projects look directly at women in the film industry, other films highlight the triumphs of women in other fields. Powers cites Maiden, about the first all-women crew of sailors to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race, as well as “a terrific film” about opera singer Maria Callas, Maria by Callas.

According to Powers, it’s no coincidence that timely subjects such as Trump’s presidency and the #MeToo movement are appearing in many films in 2018.

“In the case of politics, I think it makes sense that we’re seeing these films two years after the U.S. presidential election,” he says. “Typically it takes about two years for filmmakers to process those kinds of events, and honestly that’s what makes documentary film a more enriching experience than regular news often is. News is something that has to be processed quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours or minutes. It’s like the difference between having fast food versus slow food. Documentary is really more the slow food kind of experience, and it’s a more nourishing experience for that.

“It makes a difference for a filmmaker to have two years to reflect and to test their ideas and to challenge their ideas, and to bring a degree of artistry to their storytelling,” he adds.

Powers is excited to welcome new faces to the festival and hopefully introduce emerging filmmakers to TIFF’s audiences.

“Amongst films by directors that were new to me and probably new to others, I’d include the film Ghost Fleet by Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldren, about a crusading Thai activist who is helping to free modern-day slaves,” he says.

In addition to the aforementioned Maiden, “I’d point to the film The Biggest Little Farm by John Chester, which is a personal journey that he and his wife Molly undertook to create a biodynamic farm outside of Los Angeles. The film follows them over eight years of trying to do that.”

It’s also been a big year for documentaries at the box office, with major hits indicating a hunger for non-fiction.

“There’s been so much excitement around documentaries this summer with the box office successes of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and others. I know from talking to buyers throughout the summer, they are looking for the next round of hits. It was something that was on my mind as I was programming this lineup, of wanting to be able to put some films in the lineup that could feed that demand,” says Powers.

“I would say that there are more documentaries being represented for sale by major sales agents than any other year in the 13 years I’ve been doing this,” he adds. “You see a number of the Hollywood agencies, including Endeavor Content, CAA, UTA, ICM, 30West, all repping documentaries along with some of the boutique firms that have long been active at TIFF, including Submarine out of New York, and Cinetic Media.”

Of the 27 docs announced, 10 are world premieres, demonstrating TIFF’s continued commitment to bringing brand new titles to its audiences.

“We evaluate that on a film-by-film basis,” says Powers. “I think that there is a certain kind of film that really benefits from debuting to the big, diverse, public audience that TIFF has. There are other festivals that are more industry audiences or take place in a homogeneous community. TIFF takes place in the most diverse city in the world, and you really feel that in the movie theater.”

And that diversity has to show up on screen, too. Beyond TIFF’s commitment to diversity, Powers sees added value in hearing from new voices.

“I think one of the great experiences of going to a film is to encounter perspectives different from your own,” he tells realscreen. “Roger Ebert called film the great empathy making machine. And sometimes the commercial marketplace isn’t conducive for letting in a wide range of voices, but a film festival is, and it’s been part of the DNA of the Toronto International Film Festival since its beginning to celebrate international voices and voices from all kinds of different backgrounds.”

The 2018 edition of TIFF runs Sept. 6-16 in Toronto, Canada.

TIFF will also announce the lineup for the TIFF Doc Conference next week, along with the Wavelengths program, “which increasingly has more non-fiction in it,” says Powers.

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