Laura Poitras will make her TIFF Docs debut with All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Thom Powers Talks TIFF Docs

2022 fest spotlights veterans and emerging talents

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20 mins read

New documentaries by Laura Poitras, Werner Herzog, Patricio Guzmán, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite are among the additions to the TIFF Docs line-up for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). TIFF announced the international slate of the 2022 TIFF Docs programme today with seventeen films joining the line-up.

The programme will open with the world premiere of Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues. Directed by Sacha Jenkins, the film is a portrait of the influential jazz trumpeter and music icon.

“It’s both a serious film and a joyful film, and that makes for a really strong kickoff to the program,” says Thom Powers, International Programmer, TIFF Docs. “Like last year’s opening night film, Attica, which went on to become an Oscar nominee, I think this film will gain worthy attention in awards conversations this fall. Sacha Jenkins comes with a deep history in music journalism and is ideally matched to be the director of this film.” Jenkins previously directed the acclaimed doc series Wu Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men. Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues is produced by Apple Original Films and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Documentaries. Powers says the doc should appeal to die-hard fans of the jazzman and casual viewers alike.

This year’s TIFF Docs line-up draws from over 700 hundred submissions, whereas 2019 yielded approximately 900, but Powers doesn’t feel the COVID years have had an impact on programming. “The overall number of films that really captured my imagination stayed pretty consistent through those years,” notes Powers. Combined with the five Canadian titles announced last week, TIFF Docs has 22 titles this year compared to 25 in 2019. There are additional docs among the Galas, Special Presentations, and Wavelengths films.

 

Laura Poitras and Awards Contenders

September’s festival, moreover, will give a big Toronto welcome to Academy Award winner Laura Poitras. The Citizenfour director will bring her latest doc, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which chronicles photographer Nan Goldin and her fight against the Sackler family and their notorious Big Pharma dynasty of Purdue Pharma and Mundipharma. The film will have its North American premiere at TIFF between its Venice premiere and Centrepiece screening at the New York Film Festival. The selection marks Poitras’s TIFF debut.

“In the case of Citizenfour, we’d been in deep discussions about bringing it to Toronto and it just wasn’t ready in time,” explains Powers. “She wound up editing until right before that film showed at the New York Film Festival. For this film, I’ve been in conversation with her and Participant [Media] for several months. I’m really happy that we’re going be able to bring it to Toronto.”

Powers speculates that All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is one of the films to watch as the festival reaffirms its muscle as a launchpad for Oscar hopefuls. “It’s a multilayered film, a deep exploration of the art and life Nan Goldin, but there’s also a strong thread about her recent work leading protests against the Sackler family,” explains Powers. The film features many of Goldin’s protests at institutions, like the MET, the Guggenheim, and the Louvre to raise awareness of the Sacklers’ profiteering from the opioid crisis. “We watch the real consequences that that come out of the protests that she helped organize,” adds Powers. “Poitras’s work always has a high rigour of both artistry and reporting. This one, I think, is an exceptional work.”

Another film that Powers thinks could be in the conversation come awards time is My Imaginary Country from Chilean master Patricio Guzmán. The film has its North American premiere at TIFF following its debut at Cannes. Powers says it should appeal to fans of the Battle for Chile and Nostalgia for the Light director’s uniquely personal works. “He’s looking at the new generation of people who took to the streets a few years ago in Chile leading to a democratic movement that brought the country’s youngest president to power,” notes the programmer. “In his essayistic way, Guzmán reflects back on his generation that brought Allende to power and lost power, and he sees this movement 50 years later as a completion of his generation’s hopes and vision.”

The Grab Leads Acquisition Titles

TIFF goers looking for a timely exposé à la Citizenfour, meanwhile, can anticipate Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s The Grab. The film is Cowperthwaite’s first feature doc after her acclaimed Blackfish (2012) brought renewed attention to the plights of whales in captivity. The film, which is one of the major acquisition titles in the TIFF Docs slate and is repped by WME, is a years-in-the-making work that draws upon leaked documents that will  be made public with the film’s premiere. The Grab looks at the global land grab for the future of food and water, and promises more of the investigative rigour of Blackfish.

The Grab | TIFF

“Every once in a while, a film comes along that touches upon something you sort of knew in your consciousness in the way that most of us understood that keeping large marine mammals in captivity for an amusement park was not a great thing to do, but Blackfish put a frame around it,” observes Powers. “It gave you a different lens to look at the world and The Grab has that power. It’s touching upon things that may be at the edges of our news reading, but this film shifts focus for us. It changed my perception of a lot of things that I read in the news.”

Another top acquisition title is Werner Herzog’s latest doc Theatre of Thought, repped by Submarine The new film from the prolific festival favourite, who turns 80 in September, looks deep into the human brain. “Most of us will never get to travel to the far flung territories that that Herzog has, but all of us have a brain,” says Powers, who thinks the new ’zog will hit closer to home for audiences. “Like all of Herzog’s films, this one is infused with his poetry and his wonder and his sense of imagination.”

Industry Conference Highlights

Herzog joins the documentary headliners also announced today for the documentary programming of the TIFF Industry Conference on September 13. He will appear in a Visionaries talk, tantalizingly called “Inside the Brain of Werner Herzog,” with brain scientist Rafael Yuste and entrepreneur Jamie Davies, who both appear in Theatre of Thought. The Industry programming also has Poitras on tap to discuss that she learned from Goldin while making All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

Theatre of Thought | TIFF

The Industry Conference features another TIFF Docs pick that Powers thinks could be in the awards conversation, In Her Hands, directed by Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen. The Netflix doc observes Afghanistan’s youngest woman mayor, Zarifa Ghafari, and features Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton’s new company Hidden Light among its backers. (The Clintons will also be among TIFF Industry’s programming to mark the premiere of their Apple series Gutsy.)

Also appearing in TIFF Docs and the Industry Conference is While We Watched director Vinay Shukla, who was previously at the festival with An Insignificant Man. While We Watched profiles journalist Ravish Kumar as he, like many journalists these days, fights for integrity and truth in news media amid escalating tension, including death threats. “Kumar represents a traditional fact-based journalism that is growing increasingly difficult to practice,” notes Powers, “not only in India, but in other parts of the world, be it Russia or the United States as we see this different force of media that’s all about name calling and who can shout the loudest or create the most confusion with so-called alternative facts.” Powers likens the film to Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s Oscar winning newsroom satire Network, which might seem quaint to the reality of today.

The Industry programming features a spotlight on mental health with the panel DocuMentality: The Growth of a Movement. DocuMentality’s Malikkah Rollins joins Sarah Spring of the Documentary Organization of Canada, which is spearheading a mental health initiative with the Canada Media Fund, and director Rebeca Huntt, who debuted her doc Beba at last year’s festival. While Beba was acquired by Neon at TIFF 2021 and is expected to enter the awards conversation after a theatrical release this summer, Powers says Huntt’s personal journey with the film is a perfect example to engage audiences with this conversation. “She was a first time filmmaker who certainly experienced the financial pressures of working on a project for eight years and the psychological freight that comes with that,” says Powers, noting that Beba struck him last year for Huntt’s ability to navigate the pressures to finish a feature and staying true to her vision for poetic self-expression.

New Discoveries

For audiences eager to discover new voices at this year’s festival, Powers says the line-up features some notable debuts along with second or third features from directors like Shukla who might have been overlooked. For example, Powers cites Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels from director Mila Turajlic. The director’s previous doc The Other Side of Everything premiered at TIFF 2017 before going on to win the top prize at IDFA for its portrait of divides in wartime Yugoslavia.

 Ciné-Guerrillas explores the archives of Stevan Labudovic, the preferred cameraperson of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito. “In the late 1950s, when revolution was breaking out in Algeria, Tito sent Labudovic to film what was going on in Algeria and to make news reels that would be a counterpoint to the French propaganda that was framing the war,” explains Powers. “In CinéGuerillas, Mila draws upon the incredible archives of Labudovic, tells his story, and it’s a beautiful cross-generational exchange of knowledge between them.”

The TIFF Docs programmer taps Irish director Sinéad O’Seah’s Pray for Our Sinners as another to watch. (O’Shea’s first feature, A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot, played CPH:DOX and Toronto’s Rendezvous with Madness in 2018.) Pray for Our Sinners examines the grip of the Catholic Church in Ireland and acts of resistance to corporal punishment. “At a time when the rights of pregnant women to control their own bodies are becoming even more fiercely contested in the United States and elsewhere,” says Powers, “this film resonates strongly.” The film is represented by Dogwoof for sales.

TIFF Docs also welcomes Kenyan director Sam Soko to the festival with the world premiere of Free Money, directed with American filmmaker Lauren DeFilippo. Soko’s Softie was tapped at the opening night film for Hot Docs 2020, but the festival was among the first events to pivot online due to COVID. Free Money, repped for sales by CAA, observes a campaign for universal basic income in Kenya.

Pray for Our Sinners | TIFF

Whales, Waves, and Coffee

Other fresh faces include director Mark Fletcher. His first feature Patrick and the Whale has its world premiere at TIFF and will be represented by Submarine. In a storyline reminiscent of the Oscar winner My Octopus Teacher, the film follows whale lover Patrick Dykstra as he has a life-changing encounter with a female sperm whale in Dominica. Powers says Patrick and the Whale bucks the trend of the recent wave of whale docs. “We’ve seen a lot of documentaries about whales in peril for good reasons. This film is more a celebration of whales.” Powers likens it to the popular TIFF 2018 doc The Elephant Queen for its celebration of the animals in the face of man-made adversity.

For sports fans, Maya and the Wave profiles Brazilian surfing champ Maya Gabeira. “We see not only the athletic challenges that she’s up against, but also the challenges of sexism in sport that she has to face,” notes Powers. The film is directed by Stephanie Johnes, who served as cinematographer on the TIFF 2012 doc Venus and Serena. Maya and the Wave is represented for sales by 30 West.

Finally, audiences looking for films that expand notions of documentary form will find unexpected inspiration from a product of the COVID years, the wonderfully titled Self-Portrait as a Coffee Pot by South African William Kentridge. The fest will screen three parts of the nine-part series that observes the artist’s creative process during the pandemic. His considerations of portraiture and landscape art expand into wider examinations of colonialism and apartheid, told in an essayistic fashion with nods to fellow mavericks like Vertov and Méliès. “At the start of COVID, we all wondered what kind of art will come out of this period of lockdown,” says Powers. “This is a very thrilling answer to that question.”

 

The full TIFF Docs line-up is as follows

*752 Is Not A Number –  Babak Payami | Canada | World Premiere

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed –  Laura Poitras | USA | North American Premiere

*Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On –  Madison Thomas | Canada | World Premiere

Casa Susanna –  Sébastien Lifshitz | France, USA | North American Premiere

Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels – Mila Turajlic | Serbia, France, Croatia, Montenegro | World Premiere

*The Colour of Ink –  Brian D. Johnson | Canada | World Premiere

Documentary Now! –  Alex Buono, Rhys Thomas, Micah Gardner | USA | World Premiere

*Ever Deadly –  Tanya Tagaq, Chelsea McMullan | Canada | World Premiere

Free Money – Sam Soko, Lauren DeFilippo | Kenya, USA | World Premiere

The Grab – Gabriela Cowperthwaite | USA | World Premiere

In Her Hands – Tamana Ayazi, Marcel Mettelsiefen | USA, Afghanistan | World Premiere

Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues – Sacha Jenkins | USA | World Premiere

Mariupolis 2 – Mantas Kvedaravičius | Lithuania, France, Germany | North American Premiere

Maya and the Wave – Stephanie Johnes | USA | World Premiere

Miúcha, The Voice of Bossa Nova – Daniel Zarvos, Liliane Mutti | Brazil, France | Canadian Premiere

My Imaginary Country (Mi País Imaginario) – Patricio Guzmán | Chile, France | North American Premiere

Patrick and the Whale – Mark Fletcher | Austria | World Premiere

Pray for our Sinners Sinéad O’Shea | Ireland | World Premiere

Self-Portrait as a Coffee Pot –William Kentridge | South Africa, USA | World Premiere

Theatre of Thought – Werner Herzog | USA | International Premiere

*To Kill a Tiger – Nisha Pahuja | Canada | World Premiere

While We Watched – Vinay Shukla | UK | World Premiere

*previously announced

 

TIFF runs Sept. 8 to 18, 2022.

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, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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