Nonfiction North of the Border: What to Expect From the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival

TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers previews this year's lineup. 

Every September, the Toronto International Film Festival instigates a mass migration of international cinephiles, industry folks, and press to the city’s gleaming downtown corridor where celebrity spotting is more popular than the Blue Jays for a brief week and documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore and Frederick Wiseman are heralded with the same gusto as Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (almost).

For the last 13 years, documentary programmer Thom Powers has helmed the selection of the festival’s nonfiction fare while also serving as the Artistic Director of DOC NYC, as a senior programmer of the Miami Film Festival, and as the co-curator of the year-round Stranger Than Fiction series at NYC’s IFC Center, plus (if that wasn’t enough) hosting the ongoing documentary filmmaking podcast Pure Nonfiction.

There are plenty of good reasons why The New York Times has called Powers “A Kingmaker for Documentaries.” In the lead up to this year’s edition of the festival, I caught up with him to talk TIFF Docs, the industry Doc Conference, and shifts in the documentary landscape in 2018.

Nonfics: You program a whole host of various festivals and series, so how is programming for TIFF different from something like DOC NYC or Miami?

Thom Powers: Well, Toronto is a very special festival. In the international landscape, it is one of the highest-profile. We have a larger collection of industry and journalists coming to the festival, more than just about any festival in the world, so there is naturally more attention paid. It’s a hotter spotlight, and documentaries are playing alongside some of the world’s best cinema in all kinds of genres — fiction, midnight, experimental — so it’s a chance to see those films in a milieu of the world’s best cinema.

This year’s TIFF Docs lineup is like some kind of nonfiction Cannes competition style A-list of doc directors. How did that happen?

You know, I’ve been doing this at TIFF for 13 years and I really do think this is one of the best slates that we’ve ever put forward. It’s an exciting mix of documentary veterans like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and Michael Moore, alongside faces that are new to me, like the filmmakers behind Ghost Fleet or The Biggest Little Farm or When Arabs Danced. We got close to 1000 submissions this year — that’s a 10% increase over what we had last year — and when I say submissions I just mean documentary feature-length submissions. That doesn’t include the shorts or the fiction that TIFF receives. I think it reflects an ever-rising production of documentaries around the world, and especially this year we’re mindful after this big summer of documentary breakouts in theaters that there is a growing public appetite for this kind of filmmaking.

Jawad Rhalib’s ‘When Arabs Danced’

Do you see any of the films you’ve programmed for this year’s festival as next year’s big theatrical hits?

You know, it’s always risky to try to predict those things. Every year there are films that surprise me, both films that I perceive to be smaller that go farther and films that I perceive to be big that don’t perform as strongly commercially. I have to say, a couple years ago when we had the world premiere of I Am Not Your Negro, I could have never predicted that it would be one of the biggest documentary box office films of the following year. So, you wait and see how the public responds, but I will say that on the industry side I’m seeing a real rise in the interest of Hollywood sales agents around documentaries this year. You have big agencies like Endeavor, CAA (Creative Artists Agency), ICM (International Creative Management), UTA (United Talent Agency), and the newer agency 30West that are all representing documentaries at this year’s festival alongside smaller agencies like Submarine, Cinetic, and Dogwoof, who have long been in this space. I count at least 13 films that are represented by major players that are going to be looking for distribution at the festival and that’s going to be exciting to watch.

A lot of the filmmakers that make up this A-list you’ve worked with in the past and have programmed their films not only at TIFF but other festivals and events as well. So when you are programming this festival, what is the decision-making process between including new work by someone like Michael Moore or Frederick Wiseman alongside some of these newer names? How much weight do you give to that?

Well, there are certain filmmakers who continue to deliver really impressive work year after year, including the ones you named whom we’ve seen a lot of at the festival over the years, but it doesn’t give you a free pass into the festival just because you’ve had things here before. One of the harder parts of the job is to turn down people who I think are great filmmakers but have a work that just didn’t fit into this year’s lineup and I think that it is an important part of the job to make room for new voices that are impressive.

I think this year’s program is incredibly diverse, even more so than is normal with topics of all sorts, though there are a few identifiable themes that crop up: concerns with prominent right-wing and Russian political figures, women in film, and duration in general. There is an abundance of lengthy work in the program this year, too. Can you speak to these themes?

Yeah, absolutely. Not just inside TIFF Docs, but if you look within our Wavelengths section, which is for more non-traditional work — talk about length, you’ve got Wang Bing’s film Dead Souls (which runs 495 minutes) — and one that is a real favorite of mine is Mark Cousins’s film. You know, a few years ago we premiered The Story of Film, his 15-hour epic global history of film, and now he’s coming back with four hours of what will eventually grow to be 16-hour work called Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. That is a super exciting film. I don’t care how big of a cinephile you are, you’re going to be discovering lots of new directors from that film.

Mark Cousins’ ‘Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema’

To pick up on some of the other themes that you were pointing out, when we’re making selections, sometimes we see films that feel too similar to each other and so we’ll pick one of the other, but sometimes there are films that are very complimentary alongside each other. That is definitely true in the case of Women Make Film alongside This Changes Everything. Where Women Make Film is really about the artistry and taking a global look at women directors over the last century, This Changes Everything is really more Hollywood-focused and it’s as much about the obstacles to women making films as it is about their creativity. So, they are two films that are really interesting to watch alongside each other.

Another great pairing is Putin’s Witnesses by Vitaly Mansky, who earlier this summer won the documentary prize at the Karlovy Vary festival, and it draws on this footage that Mansky shot with Vladimir Putin during his first months in office in 2000, with Werner Herzog and André Singer’s new film Meeting Gorbachev, where Herzog conducted three interviews this year with Mikhail Gorbachev. The contrast between Gorbachev’s outlook and Putin’s outlook is very distinct when you look at them alongside each other.

You mentioned Karlovy Vary, and I know you get a ton of submissions to TIFF by itself, but I’m wondering how much you look to other festivals in the lead up to TIFF for your own program.

Well, I think we live in a global marketplace. These films have lives all over the world, and it’s meaningful for a film to have one platform in Europe and another platform in North America and other platforms in other parts of the world. So, it doesn’t factor that strongly into my thinking. Typically, the films that we’re seeing, we’re seeing at the same time as our European colleagues, who have festivals in the couple months prior to us, are seeing them. Sometimes our tastes overlap, and lots of times they diverge. There is a tremendous cluster of fall festivals, and I’m always happiest when we’re putting up different slates of films because there are a lot of really great films out there and there are a lot of great films that we have to turn down and I’m always happy when they’re getting a play somewhere else, and I’m always happy when we’re able to give a film a play that hasn’t shown somewhere else.

I didn’t mean to directly compare TIFF to Venice, but there are festivals that play in the lead-up to TIFF, and I know there are films like Maria By Callas that have been playing at a handful of festivals for a while now, so I was kind of surprised to see that.

It’s interesting with that film, the version we’re showing is a slightly, or maybe meaningfully, different version. It has an English language narration voiced by the opera singer Joyce DiDonato, and we even pondered whether it would be worth calling it a world premiere of this version, but ultimately the versions share enough in common that it felt more appropriate to call it the North American premiere, but this is the first time that this version is being shown.

Tom Volf’s ‘Maria By Callas’

Maria By Callas is actually the debut film from director Tom Volf, and there are other debuts like Ghost Fleet and Freedom Fields in the lineup. What can we expect from these new voices?

In the case of Freedom Fields, which was brought into the festival by my colleague Kiva Reardon who covers the territories of the Middle East and Africa, that’s a very special film looking at these young women in Libya starting in 2012, soon after the leadership change in that country, following them over several years as these soccer players really become activists. And I can’t think of another documentary in my 13 years of doing this that we’ve shown from Libya, so that’s a really rare opportunity to get a great nonfiction film from that part of the world. In the case of Ghost Fleet, the filmmaker Shannon Service has been following this story for many years. She did reporting on it several years ago for NPR as a radio journalist and in Ghost Fleet she teams up with cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron, who is also credited as a co-director. The film is partially an adventure story on the high seas. It’s a very meaningful human rights story about rescuing modern-day slaves — there are things taking place in this film that you can hardly believe are taking place in the 21st century. And I’ll pick one more filmmaking duo who was new to me: the filmmakers behind The Elephant Queen, Victoria Stone and cinematographer Mark Deeble, who share a directing credit. This is a film that could be compared to The March of the Penguins for its wide accessibility and its beauty and the great connection to nature that it makes.

That actually brings up a question about the lines between programs — I know that film is also listed as both a TIFF Docs selection and part of the TIFF Kids program, and obviously the more experimental works end up in Wavelengths, and then there is also Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, which is a Special Presentation. How do you determine which films go in what category, outside of the obvious?

This is getting into the mundane details of how we organize our films, but the note on the TIFF Kids designation — a few years ago we had a separate small section called TIFF Kids and then we decided to try to reframe that and now The Elephant Queen will play in the section of TIFF Docs, but we highlight with the TIFF Kids brand to signal to our audiences that this is something that will appeal to younger viewers as much as older viewers. As for some of the other films, the documentaries or nonfiction films that are playing in Wavelengths tend to have a stylistic approach that are more non-traditional, as a broad description, and in the case of the new film by Jennifer Baichwal and her colleagues playing in Special Presentations, that’s the third part of a trilogy of films that started with Manufactured Landscapes, with Watermark being the second, and it was the same team behind all of these films and all three have played over the years in the Special Presentations category. Jennifer Baichwal is a very important Canadian filmmaker and it felt like that was a good place to put it.

Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky’s ‘Anthropocene: The Human Epoch’

In the last couple years, drones and hybrid films have become major formal shifts in nonfiction filmmaking. Were there any formal trends you detected in this year’s program?

I would say that in Maxim Pozdorovkin’s The Truth About Killer Robots, he has a fascinating element in that he’s using a robotic voice to narrate the film, very much in keeping with the film’s theme of how robots are taking over so many different sectors of work. If you followed Maxim’s filmmaking from Pussy Riot to Our New President, you know that he’s a very smart and skillful filmmaker and I think really pulls this off nicely. Another very playful and inventive technique can be seen in Screwball, the new film by Billy Corben, who’s had a lot of documentary hits, from Cocaine Cowboys to The U, one of the most successful 30-for-30 films. In Screwball, he makes very playful use of reenactments with children, which some people when they hear that may scratch their heads and wonder what that looks like or how he pulls it off, but I think he pulls it off marvelously. I wrote in my notes, “The Little Rascals meets The Thin Blue Line.”

To wrap up, I know that the annual TIFF Doc Conference is a big part of your personal TIFF experience, so what can you tell us about this year’s edition?

Yeah, thanks for asking! This is the 10th year of the Doc Conference. It was something very dear to me when we started this as a way to really highlight documentary filmmaking within the larger industry programming that happens at TIFF. For the last few years, I’ve collaborated closely with my colleague Dorota Lech, who programs it along with me. We couldn’t be more pleased to kick it off this year with Werner Herzog as a keynote speaker. Within that day we kind of move back and forth from the creative side to the business side of documentary. I talked about the rise of bigger Hollywood agencies in documentary and we have a panel devoted to that, and we have a couple case studies of films, one on The Elephant Queen and one on The Truth About KillerRobots. So, you can plunk yourself down in the Glenn Gould Theatre for that day and really absorb a lot.

I’m looking forward to it!