In just two days, the international film industry and cinephiles alike will descend on our neighbor to the North at the Toronto International Film Festival. The 38th edition of the event, which was known as the Festival of Festivals for its first two decades, runs through Sunday, September 15, providing North American audiences with their first opportunity to sample some of the standouts from key European fests like Cannes, Venice, and Locarno, as well as a staggering number of world premieres. Over 40 documentary features, including new films, hybrids, and retro classics, will screen out of nearly 300 titles, giving nonfiction junkies plenty to pay attention to. I’ll be in attendance for the first half of the festival, which also includes the two-day Doc Conference, checking out as much as possible. What follows here are the films on the top of my must-see list:
The bulk of the festival’s nonfiction programming appears in the dedicated TIFF Docs section, programmed by Thom Powers. Among the 22 films here are several highly-anticipated new works from notable TIFF alumni: Frederick Wiseman’s portrait of the mechanics of higher education, AT BERKELEY (pictured); Errol Morris’s Donald Rumsfeld interview, THE UNKNOWN KNOWN; Claude Lanzmann’s revisitation of a controversial Holocaust figure, THE LAST OF THE UNJUST; Sarah McCarthy’s exploration of the challenges of intercultural adoptive family bonding, THE DARK MATTER OF LOVE; and Jehane Noujaim’s indepth look at the Egyptian revolution, THE SQUARE, which won an audience award in a previous form earlier this year at Sundance.
Powers’ section spotlights a number of protagonists with outsized personalities or reputations: Barry Avrich’s FILTHY GORGEOUS: THE BOB GUCCIONE STORY looks at the infamous publisher of Penthouse; Allison Berg and Frank Kerauden’s decade-in-the-making THE DOG (pictured), a portrait of the legendary bank robber whose story inspired DOG DAY AFTERNOON; Emiliano Altuna Fistolera, Carlos Federico Rossini, and Diego Osorno’s THE MAYOR, a profile of a controversial Mexican millionaire-turned-no-nonsense-politician; and Jody Shapiro’s BURT’S BUZZ, about the reclusive founder of Burt’s Bees.
TIFF Docs also includes quite a few investigations into people, places, and the past, including: John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s captivating FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (pictured), a recently-discovered amateur street photographer of the 1950s and ’60s; Teller’s TIM’S VERMEER, following the efforts of an inventor to use 17th century techniques to recreate the Dutch master’s work; Frank Pavich’s JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, an exploration of the cult director’s never-realized adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi epic; Lara Zizic and David Turner’s MISSION CONGO, an exposé of Pat Robertson’s Congo charity; and Chris Jordan and Sabine Emiliani’s MIDWAY, multi-year exploration of the albatrosses nesting among WWII detritus on the Pacific atoll.
Moving over to TIFF’s high profile Galas, the single doc is comedian Mike Myers’ directorial debut, SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON, about the well-connected Hollywood manager. The fest’s massive Special Presentations section includes just three docs: Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s WATERMARK, focused on the noted photographer’s expansive studies on water; Godfrey Reggio’s VISITORS, the director’s signature dreamlike essay applied to man’s connection to technology; and Alex Gibney’s THE ARMSTRONG LIE (pictured), an intimate look at the cycling champion’s reckoning with the truth about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Half of Wavelengths, TIFF’s avant-garde section, consists of documentary or hybrid works. Top of my list here is Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s MANAKAMANA (pictured), an immersive cable car ride to and from the titular Nepalese temple. Also screening here is Rithy Panh’s distant but accomplished Cannes winner THE MISSING PICTURE, a personal meditation on growing up under the Khmer Rouge; Wang Bing’s ‘TIL MADNESS DO US PART, a chronicle of life in a Chinese asylum; and Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian’s PAYS BARBARE, a found footage exploration of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.
The festival’s Mavericks section, screenings accompanied by in-depth, extended conversations, is dominated by nonfiction and concert films . The latter have never been of particular interest to me, but I’m curious about Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor’s OUR MAN IN TEHRAN, a look at the true story behind ARGO; and Chuck Workman’s WHAT IS CINEMA?, a consideration of cinematic form featuring an impressive line-up of new and archival interviews with auteurs. While single doc (or hybrid) selections also appear in Masters, Discovery, Contemporary World Cinema, and City to City, I’m more drawn to the retrospective offering from TIFF Cinematheque, Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s soon-to-be-rereleased and restored LE JOLI MAI (pictured), a direct cinema portrait of 1962 Paris.