Toronto: Politically Charged Films to Shake Up Festival

Michael Moore Horizontal - H 2013
Getty Images

Michael Moore Horizontal - H 2013

This year's festival will also spotlight music docs focusing on performers from Aretha Franklin to Yo-Yo Ma.

A lot of political arguments could break out at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, where documentaries on hot-button topics will claim a big share of the spotlight — alongside an equally promising group of nonfiction films that will focus on musicians and other performing artists.

Toronto, which kicks off Sept. 10, had already announced that it will present the world premiere of Michael Moore’s new film, Where to Invade Next, and today it unveiled a list of the other documentaries that have been selected for its lineup.

Both Moore and the festival are keeping mum about the exact contents of the director’s latest effort, which its title suggests confronts America’s perpetual state of war-footing. The festival website promises only “his most provocative and hilarious film yet: Moore tells the Pentagon to ‘stand down’ — he will do the invading for America from now on.”

“I think it’s going to take a lot of people by surprise, but there is not much I can say about it now,” says Thom Powers, TIFF Docs programmer. “I can tell you it’s very funny. Sept. 10 will be the first time anyone will see it. The film is for sale, and I don’t think WME agents will get much sleep that night.”

This year’s doc section contains 31 films, up from 21 last year, and Powers says the field of potential docs, particularly international docs, was so strong, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey allocated them extra slots. “I think it really paid off with a rich selection,” Powers adds.

There’s a potentially provocative lineup of politically minded films, which Powers attributed to “filmmakers taking stories they are reading in the newspapers, letting them gestate in a longer way, with more reflection and perspective, to give us a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

They include titles like Emmanuel Leconte and Daniel Leconte’s Je Suis Charlie, which pays tribute to the victims of the 2015 terrorist attack at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that claimed 12 lives as well as the subsequent attack on Jewish shoppers, and Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala, which looks at the young Pakistani woman, Malala Yousafzai, targeted by the Taliban, who has become an activist for women’s rights.

Powers also cited three other films. Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom chronicles the Ukranian uprising that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power — “It comes from Netflix and will remind people of The Square,” Powers says. In P.S. Jerusalem, Danae Elon, the daughter of the late author Amos Elon, returns to Jerusalem with her husband and three young sons and records how they experienced the tensions of the city — “It’s an intensely personal, almost diary-like film shot over three years,” the programmer says. There's also Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa offers a look at the Sherpas who assist in expeditions to climb Everest. Says Powers, “Jennifer was there during the time of the avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas, and while her cameras are rolling, we see the surviving Sherpas standing up to the expedition leaders.”

The lineup also includes a variety of music-related documentaries, following in the wake of 2013’s Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom. But Powers says that film’s success doesn’t account for the apparently sudden popularity of the doc subgenre.

“Music documentary has a long and distinguished history,” he notes, dating from Monterey Pop and the Woodstock documentary.” In fact, many of the music docs playing in Toronto this year have been in the works since long before Stardom bowed.

Morgan Neville, who directed Stardom, began work on his new film The Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, which features the legendary cellist, before he released Stardom. Similarly, Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones!, about R&B singer Sharon Jones' battle with cancer, has been several years in the making.

But the doc that’s taken the longest road to the screen is Sydney Pollack’s Amazing Grace, which documents two of Aretha Franklin’s performances in 1972. As Powers tells it, because of the success of 1970’s Woodstock, Warner Bros. commissioned Pollack, an Oscar nominee for directing 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, to shoot a film about Franklin. The production, though, ran into technical problems syncing up its 16mm film with the sound-recording technology available at the time, and the project was set aside by Pollack, who went on to an illustrious career as a director, producer and actor before his death in 2008. Completing the film became the passion project of producer Alan Elliot.