Mon. Apr 6th, 2020

TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers on this year’s slate and the rise in popularity of documentary film

Thom Powers has been the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival since 2006. He oversaw TIFF’s Mavericks conversation series for nine years and created the TIFF Doc Conference. He serves as the Artistic Director of Stranger Than Fiction and DOC NYC and hosts the podcasts Pure Nonfiction and WNYC’s Documentary of the Week. He was the founding Artistic Director of the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey from 2012-14. He programs for the Miami International Film Festival and teaches at the School of Visual Arts. He is a co-founder of the Cinema Eye Honors and the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant. He previously spent a decade directing documentaries for HBO, PBS and other outlets; and worked as marketing director and editor at Fantagraphics Books.

I chatted with Thom ahead of the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival next month (September 6-16) to discuss this year’s slate and why we’re seeing a rise in popularity of documentary films this year. 

AW: I’m really curious about the process for including something at Toronto in the documentary section. What is it that you’re looking for the most in a film?

TP: Well, you know, I’m looking to create a balance of what I think is most interesting in documentary film around the world today. This year we’ve got some veteran directors; we have directors who are newer to me. There are films that are political; there are films that are more of a visual spectacle, so it’s really about trying to create a line up that delivers all kinds of things.

When I look at this lineup it’s a wonderful laundry list of some major filmmakers, Frederick Wiseman, Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog. I mean, those are people that are going to bring in crowds for sure.

Yes. And yeah, those are filmmakers who have had several visits to the festival over the years and always draw attention. But I’m also always excited to be bringing people who were making their first time the festival.

Definitely. I think one of the things that people enjoy about festivals the most is his discovery. It’s certainly one of my favorite parts. I’m really curious to what your thoughts are on how huge documentaries have been this year. What do you think is leading that to happen right now?

Well, I think there are several things. One is a growing appetite on the part of public for documentaries. I think that a big part of that is what’s happened over the years with VOD platforms like Netflix. They’ve really removed the barriers for people to watch documentaries and, as a result, people have really grown in their appetite for them. I would say that’s one strand.

The second strand is that documentaries have been getting better and better at delivering the kind of big screen spectacle, whether it’s a visual spectacle or just a sophistication in the storytelling, you know, delivering all the same emotions that you go to the movies for when you go to a fiction film – to be surprised, to laugh, to cry, to feel excitement and suspense.

The third thing, especially when it comes to films like Won’t You Be My Neighbor or RBG, is that we’re living in a divisive political time and people are looking for entertainment of substance and entertainment of hope and those films deliver it.

Absolutely. I completely agree. What do you think are some of the films that lend themselves to that similar kind of idea for a viewer that you have this year at TIFF?

We have a number of films that are very politically engaged; Fahrenheit 11/9, American Dharma and Divide and Conquer, the film about Roger Ailes. A film that I think has a real positive message in it is Meeting Gorbachev, by Werner Herzog. Then there are several films I think speak to the moment of what’s been happening in the growing women’s movement. Films like This Changes Everything about women in Hollywood. Films like Maiden, the extraordinary story of the first all-female a sailing team to compete in the round-the-world race. Those are some of the films that I think can speak to the moment.

I’m personally pretty excited for This Changes Everything for Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. I’m definitely ready for 240 minutes of that!

I’ll tell you, there are a lot of discoveries we made in that film.

You mentioned a lot of the political divisiveness that is happening right now and definitely that is the case. And it’s sometimes extremely geographical where, at least in the United States, it’s like the west coast and the east coast and it’s them against the Midwest. How do people from the Midwest get themselves to a movie that they don’t feel like they’re being marginalized by?

Well, I think a good Midwest figure talk about that is Michael Moore, who I think has one of the great populous touches of documentary film. I think he’s delivering that again with his new film, Fahrenheit 11/9. Frederick Wiseman continues a body of work that he’s been building for 50 years in his study of communities and institutions. Monrovia, Indiana‘s is dropping in another piece, it’s like Frederick Wiseman instilling in this grand mosaic of work he’s doing.

One third of the films in TIFF Docs this year are directed or co-directed by female filmmakers. How much of securing that many female directors was a focus for this season?

Well, it’s a focus every year and last year there were even more so it kind of goes up and down based on what we have to look at. I mean, I should say that we get nearly a thousand submissions. Three of the four people on my team screening the films are women. I think that the documentary area is one where women directors have really had a chance to thrive more than in mainstream Hollywood over the years. I think that there is a corollary on the industry side of documentaries where you see women have some of the highest-ranking executive roles like Lisa Nishimura at Netflix or Molly Thompson at A&E; there are several women executives at HBO. I think that you can you draw a direct line between the women who are empowered to at top and what’s happening in the filmmaking.

Thom, I know it’s probably somewhat of a Sophie’s Choice but what are some of your big recommendations this year?

Well, I think in terms of awards films, there are three that are opening up this fall that people should pay attention to. One would be the Michael Moore film [Fahrenheit 11/9]. Then also Free Solo directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, which has the full weight of National Geographic behind it and is an extraordinary visual spectacle. Then Quincy, directed by another duo, Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks, that Netflix will be releasing in the fall that. That’s what I was looking at. It’s quite possible that a film that does not yet have a fall release plan will get picked up at the festival and pushed into the fall season. It happened two years ago with I Am Not Your Negro, which had its world premiere at TIFF and had crazy buzz about it. Magnolia picked it up and filed their paperwork for the Oscars qualification on the last day of the festival and got a nomination.

I think one of the crucial and fantastic things about festivals is that discovery and the audience will tell you that, they’ll show you what they’re interested in. Thom, thank you so much for chatting with me today.

I absolutely agree. Thank you and thanks for your interest and I hope you have a great experience and I hope our paths cross again in the future.

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