Defiant| TIFF

Thom Powers on the Buzz and Biz of TIFF Docs

Previewing the documentary slate at this year's festival

15 mins read

If the recent announcement of the Sylvester Stallone documentary Sly as the Closing Night Gala of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival is any indication, this year’s edition of the festival promises a big year for documentaries. TIFF recently unveiled its TIFF Docs line-up and the bounty includes some major names on both sides of the camera, along with hot-button topics that should be among the Festival’s talking points.

TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers, speaking with POV, says the line-up draws from over 800 documentaries submitted this year. That’s up from about 700 last year and inches closer to pre-pandemic numbers. “From talking to filmmakers about the gestation of their projects, there are a number of things that were slowed down in the pipeline by COVID and now are coming to fruition,” says Powers. At present, the TIFF Docs line-up boasts 22 titles, while two docs appear in the Galas, three in Special Presentations, and others are expected to be announced with the full slate.

Moreover, audiences feeling Zoom fatigue needn’t worry about seeing many “COVID cuts” on the ticket. “A year ago, I was seeing some films that felt largely constructed out of Zoom interviews,” says Powers. “But you would not necessarily know that a pandemic just took place watching these films.”


COPA Kick Off

This year’s TIFF Docs programme starts with a soccer pitch as COPA 71 tells the overlooked story of the 1971 women’s World Cup, which drew record crowds but remains unacknowledged by FIFA and undervalued in history. “For opening night, we’re often looking for a film that’s going to kick off the lineup on a high note. That certainly felt true of COPA 71 this year,” notes Powers. “It’s film that makes you feel good and it is a revelation about this event that drew the largest audience for women’s sports in history and yet has largely been erased from history.” The archival doc directed by James Erskine (Billie) and Rachel Ramsay in her feature debut offers little-seen footage of the games, along with interviews from players who electrified the crowds in Mexico.

COPA 71 credits tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams among its executive producers along with World Cup soccer player Alex Morgan. Add those names to Stallone and one can speculate that docs could be bringing the buzz and star power to TIFF amid SAG-AFTRA strikes over residuals and A.I., among other issues. Powers says it’s too far out to the festival, which starts September 7, to say how strike talks and waivers will shape the red carpets.

“In the documentary world, there’s a different landscape because very few documentaries are made under WGA or SAG agreements,” Powers observes. “For the most part, documentaries are not affected by this directly. Certainly there are larger issues involved in these labour negotiations that documentarians and people in documentaries take a great interest in.”

Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa | TIFF

Spotlight on Women’s Stories

Powers also says that COPA 71 marks an appropriate TIFF Docs opener since many films in the line-up spotlight notable women. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is Lucy Walker’s Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa. Oscar nominee Walker shares the unique story of Lhakpa Sherpa and her feats climbing some of the world’s greatest summits before landing at Whole Foods in the USA. “Mountain Queen has another extraordinary woman athlete most readers probably aren’t familiar with, but I think after this film comes out, many more people will know the name Lhakpa Sherpa,” says Powers.

Similarly, the programmer taps Sorry/Not Sorry, directed by Caroline Suh and Cara Mones as a TIFF Docs highlight about women in the entertainment industry. “It’s a story of women whose careers have been overlooked,’ notes Powers. “The women in Sorry/Not Sorry are comedians who brought allegations against Louis C.K., and paid a real price in their careers for bringing those allegations.” Sorry/Not Sorry comes to TIFF after falling through the cracks at Showtime amid the US broadcaster’s restructuring.

Like COPA 71, Mountain Queen and Sorry/Not Sorry highlight the hotter tickets in a line-up that should attract sales. With Dogwoof representing COPA 71 and CAA handling Mountain Queen and Sorry/Not Sorry, the fest is a buyers’ market with only four of the TIFF Docs titles distributed by the streamers: Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, directed by Rob McCallum, will play on CBC and Prime Video, while Oscar winners Roger Ross Williams and Errol Morris have their docs Stamped from the Beginning and The Pigeon Tunnel set for Netflix and AppleTV+, respectively. Meanwhile, Raoul Peck, who had one of the most notable TIFF Docs sales in 2016 for I Am Not Your Negro is back with the Amazon title Silver Dollar Road.


Acquisition Titles in Toronto

MRC, meanwhile, has sales for The Contestant. The former is the feature debut of British filmmaker Clair Titley. It tells the gonzo story of a Japanese man who submitted to 24/7 surveillance for a game show. Powers says it’s sure to be among the TIFF Docs titles that have audiences buzzing. “Especially in a film festival context, The Contestant opens up all kinds of questions about the relationship between filmmakers and the figures in their work,” notes Powers. “It’s an extreme case of someone who had their life under surveillance broadcast to a television audience for over a year, and had a lot to process over what that meant to be so exposed. Those questions of what to reveal, who controls the process, and how an audience responds are themes that many of us are dealing with every day.”

The Contestant | TIFF

Meanwhile, Flipside follows director Chris Wilcha as he fights to save a New Jersey record story. “Chris Wilcha previously worked on the TV version of This American Life, and Flipside, which has an executive producer in Judd Apatow, plays in the tradition of This American Life’s style of personal essay,” adds Powers. Sales for the doc are represented by UTA at the Festival.

The sales front also includes a new work Karim Amer, who landed TIFF Docs’ first major streaming sale when 2013’s The Square, which he produced, won the People’s Choice Award, sold to Netflix, and was nominated for an Oscar. Powers cites Amer’s directorial effort Defiant as another attractive title. “Karim and his team have been embedded with several members of Ukraine’s government as they work on the war of disinformation and diplomacy,” notes Powers. Defiant features Navalny Oscar winner Odessa Rae and The Square’s Mike Lerner as producers. Other titles up for grabs include Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s music doc In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon, repped by Anonymous Content, and Jen Markowitz’s Summer Qamp, repped by Submarine, which offers a portrait of a summer gathering place for queer youths.

Silver Dollar Road | TIFF

The Business of TIFF

However, with the doc field an unusually open race as award season unofficially kicks off with TIFF, Powers says that smart business could take a TIFF title all the way to the Oscars in the way that The Square or I Am Not Your Negro did in recent years. “I think the door is definitely open for a film to jump into the race if it pops at this year’s festival in the hands of the right distributor or acquisition team.” Powers adds that doc watchers should take note of the streaming titles at the festival, which are bound to make a play, especially with recent Oscar favourites in the mix.

However, after a concerning Sundance where many acclaimed films in competition failed to make a sale—only Grand Jury Prize winner The Eternal Memory scored distribution during the fest, while some titles found a home in the months that followed—Powers remains optimistic. “Over the years, we’ve seen quite a lot of prominent sales at TIFF Docs with films like Collective, I Am Not Your Negro, The Elephant Queen, Maiden, The Square, and 76 Days, just to name a few,” Powers notes. “We are living in a year when, especially in documentary but not exclusively documentary, there is a real slowdown in film acquisition. We’re all hoping that the pendulum swings back.”

Powers says it’s all a matter of programming films that can truly benefit from the TIFF launch. “There were a number of films I saw this year that felt calibrated for commercial interest—profiles of celebrities, true crime documentaries—that I passed on because they felt, to me, like they’ll do fine,” says Powers. “They don’t need TIFF to find a distributor.”

Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros | TIFF

Talents to Watch

He cites recent films like Rebeca Huntt’s TIFF 2021 doc Beba, which sold to Neon and Hulu, and Vinay Shukla’s TIFF 2022 newsroom doc While We Watched, which sold to PBS’s POV and UK’s Met Films after winning the Amplify Voices Award at the festival, as examples of authentic voices that broke through thanks to the platform. This year, Powers sees Walls, directed by Polish-Italian filmmaker Kasia Smutniak, as an example of a filmmaker to whom festivalgoers should pay attention. Walls marks the Polish-Italian actor’s directorial debut after appearing in films like Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro and Francesca Archibugi’s The Hummingbird.

The film, which was programmed by Powers’ colleague Dorota Lech and will make its world premiere at TIFF, takes audiences to the “Red Zone” between Poland and Belarus where refugees wait in limbo amid a snarl of barbed wire. “Walls is paced like a thriller as Kasia and another camerawoman are trying to follow activists who are helping to rescue refugees,” notes Powers. “The excitement I felt around Beba, and in seeing a first-time filmmaker with great talent and passion go beyond anyone’s expectations, is how I felt watching Walls this year.”

And for audiences eager to encounter a familiar veteran, TIFF Docs once again welcomes master of immersive vérité Frederick Wiseman. His four-hour epic Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros invites audiences to tuck in with the titular restaurant that earned three Michelin Stars. “Pro tip: make sure you have a full meal before you watch this film. If you are watching an empty stomach as I did, it is torture,” laughs Powers on the doc’s food-on-film buffet. “I’m pretty sure that Fred is the most senior director at TIFF this year at age 93. It’s incredibly impressive to see him continuing to work at the level he is.”


Read more about the TIFF Docs line-up here. The festival schedule will be out August 15.



Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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