TIFF ’21: Doc programmer Thom Powers on this year’s lineup

The documentary lineup for the 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival is shaping up to be a strong one, with more than 20 non-fiction films screening at this year’s event. ...
September 7, 2021

The documentary lineup for the 46th annual Toronto International Film Festival is shaping up to be a strong one, with more than 20 non-fiction films screening at this year’s event. That includes the TIFF Docs program, which will open with Stanley Nelson‘s Attica, about the infamous 1971 prison riot.

Once again running as a hybrid digital- and in-person event due to the ongoing pandemic, the 2021 edition of TIFF features a number of high-profile documentaries premiering and screening at the festival, including a pair of documentaries that are part of HBO’s recently-announced Music Box strand of music documentaries: a gala premiere of Alison Klayman’s Alanis Morissette doc Jagged and a screening of Penny Lane‘s Listening to Kenny G.

Screening as part of TIFF’s Special Presentations program is Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, a feature documentary about the iconic singer’s six-decade career in both music and Black and LGBTQ activism.

As for the TIFF Docs program itself, there are films about well-known media figures like Becoming Cousteau from director Liz Garbus, about the legendary aquatic explorer, and Julia, about iconic cooking show host and cookbook author Julia Child, from directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West; documentaries exploring climate change such as Eva Orner‘s Burning, about the recent Australian wildfires, and Heather Hatch’s Wochiigii lo: End of the Peace, about a contentious dam project in British Columbia.

The 46th Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 9 to 18, 2021.

Realscreen spoke with documentary programmer Thom Powers (pictured) ahead of the festival to discuss this year’s films.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

This is the second year that TIFF has had to run an event during the pandemic. How much did the process change from 2020 in terms of the selection and preparing for the event? Did last year’s experience help?

One of the big adjustments under the pandemic is that our programming team is no longer on the road meeting filmmakers face to face, which is how a lot of discoveries happen. For instance, I first met the Mexican filmmaker Gian Cassini in 2018 at a ChileDoc event in Santiago. I was mesmerized by his pitch about his father who was a hitman in Tijuana. Now three years later, that film, Comala, is making its world premiere at TIFF.

Under the pandemic, we’ve had to shift to networking online, which has advantages along with setbacks. In recent months, without leaving my home, I was able to meet on Zoom with filmmakers from China, Eastern Europe and South America while my colleagues covered other regions. So I feel that the core work continues.

How are the festival’s efforts to increase diversity reflected in this year’s TIFF Docs program?

Speaking statistically, of the 14 films in TIFF Docs, eight are directed or co-directed by women. Even though the program is about half the size of pre-COVID years, we are representing perspectives of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Arab and Asian directors. Clearly, there is much more work to be done as we discussed at last year’s Industry Conference in the talk “Creating a Better Documentary Industry” with Sonya Childress and Jesse Wente. I feel encouraged by growing programs like those of Firelight Media, founded by Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith, that support underrepresented directors. We have the world premiere of Nelson’s new film Attica that continues his long career of documenting Black struggle against white supremacy.

The fact that TIFF takes place in one of the world’s most diverse cities has always set it apart from festivals in more homogenous locations. It’s always been part of TIFF’s mission to serve a multiplicity of audiences. That made a strong impression on me when I first started attending the festival in the 1990s and explored the regional programs of Planet Africa, Asian Horizons, and Latin American Panorama. Today the mission driving those sections is spread across the festival.

Saying “it’s been a crazy year” is a cliche at this point, but has the past year or so impacted the sorts of subjects you’re seeing in this year’s lineup? What themes are emerging?

I watched several documentary submissions about healthcare workers around the world battling COVID. Ultimately, I opted not to program any, partly because I felt we’d already shown an excellent one last year in 76 Days about the lockdown in Wuhan. But I also feel that it’s hard to bring a fresh perspective on COVID when all of us are processing it every day with a constantly changing prognosis. I wanted to make room for confronting other crises. We see that in Becoming Cousteau about Jacques Cousteau’s awakening to the destruction of oceanic life; or in Burning about the denialism of climate change that creates conditions for mass fires.

In a year when we’ve experienced so much loss and bad news, I also wanted program films to raise our spirits. I feel that in The Rescue, about the human feat that saved the lives of children trapped in a Thai cave. And I feel that in Julia profiling Julia Child, who dedicated her life to making people feel more comfortable in the kitchen. All of us can use more cooking encouragement in these days of quarantines.

Are there any new voices in this year’s lineup that you think will make an impact?

At TIFF’s Industry Conference, I’m moderating a talk called “Telling Family Stories” with two young directors whose work dazzled me. One is Rebeca Huntt making her debut with Beba, a personal exploration of her Afro-Latinx background. After the TIFF lineup was announced, she was signed by UTA and I look forward to watching her career blossom. The other director in that discussion is the previously mentioned Gian Cassini, whose film Comala explores several generations of killers in his family. Both Huntt and Cassini use individualized stories to grapple with a universal question of how do we stop cycles of family dysfunction?

Another pair of newcomers I want to highlight are the directing team Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty who made The Devil’s Drivers that plays like a car-chase thriller set on the border between the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel.

What’s got you particularly excited this year?

I’m excited by the acts of perseverance that I see across the documentary field. I think of the film Hold Your Fire that gives multiple perspectives on the longest hostage siege in the history of the New York Police Department. The filmmaking duo of director Stefan Forbes and producer Tia Wou have worked for years on that film, building a team around them that includes producer Fab Five Freddy and consulting producer Sam Pollard. Forbes will be in conversation with Stanley Nelson at our Industry Conference talk “Documenting History.” Every film in the TIFF Docs line up has comparable behind-the-scenes stories of overcoming obstacles, with the added complexity of finishing a film during a pandemic. I’m excited by acts of perseverance among distributors finding new ways to connect with audiences; among critics staying dedicated to their craft against economic upheaval; and among advocacy groups like Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Alliance of Documentary Editors and Documentary Producers Alliance that are working to change our industry for the better.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.