INTERVIEW: TIFF Documentary Programmer Thom Powers Talks 2018 Festival

Few stages are bigger than the Toronto International Film Festival. One of the largest festivals in the world, a single TIFF program can eclipse the size of many local festivals. Of these, the documentary side continues to cultivate one of the most consistently high-quality lineups for TIFF. Curator Thom Powers deserves that credit. Powers serves as the programmer for the TIFF Documentaries, a role he’s held since 2006.

Thom is rather humble about his role in the process. He openly gives credit to his team and collaborates to find the best films in the world. A couple of weeks ago, Thom and I discussed his role as the programmer for the giant festival. We also discussed the surge of documentaries in 2018, his team’s success, and how Toronto inspires them to seek out films from across the globe.

Awards Circuit/Alan French: How did you begin programming the documentary lineup at Toronto International Film Festival?

Thom Powers: So my first year was in 2006. Before that, I had about 10 years of experience directing and producing documentaries for HBO, PBS, and other outlets. I was also running a weekly series in New York City called “Stranger Than Fiction” at the IFC Center. On Tuesday nights I showed a documentary followed by a conversation with the filmmaker. I also taught documentary film at New York University. So those were my credentials when I came on in 2006.

AF: What do you make of the changing landscape for documentaries in theaters? Obviously, this year has largely been defined by some of these films making so much money at the box office.

TP: You know, it’s been a very exciting year. The peak of this year is something we’ve seen before in other years as well. It’s part of a trend that I’ve watched steadily growing over at least the last 15 years. I can’t say it is something that comes as a complete surprise, but it is still noteworthy.

AF: Do streaming platforms like Netflix help make documentaries more accessible to audiences that can help them choose a documentary when they go to theaters?

TP: Yes! I would say that there is a huge Netflix factor in the way that people are consuming documentaries right now. The great thing about that service, and the futures of Amazon, Hulu, and other streaming services, is that they remove the barriers for audiences engaging with the documentary. You think of a film like “Icarus,” which won the Academy Award earlier this year, and it’s probably a film that has a hard time selling tickets in a movie theater.

When there is a zero barrier to entry to try it out as a Netflix subscriber, the worst that can happen is you get bored in 10 minutes and turn it off. The best that can happen is you can become really engaged. Over the past 10 years, Netflix subscribers have tried out documentaries more and more and it’s moved to the top of their entertainment habits.

AF: One of the things coming out of documentaries this year is that women have stepped out into the spotlight. Obviously, “RBG” and “Whitney” were two of the big ones. When you began programming TIFF, how important was it to make sure that women’s voices were heard? 

TP: That’s honestly been something on my mind since I started in 2006. Since I started, I’ve had the pleasure to program women directors like Sophie FiennesLucy WalkerBarbara Koppel, and so many others. I work with a team of three other women pre-screeners who help me go through the submissions. This year, we had nearly 1000 feature length documentary submissions that our team watched. You know in the lineup this year, not by any planning of mine but just responding to the stories that stood out, we have quite a few strong stories about women.

I think about the film “Ghost Fleet,” [directed by Shannon Service & Jeffrey Waldron] about Thai activists freeing modern day slaves. Another that comes to mind is “Maria by Callas” [Directed by Tom Volf] a film about Maria Callas. And I think about two great films about women in film. There’s the film executive produced by Tilda Swinton and directed by Mark Cousins titled “Women Make Film” that’s four hours long. It’s the first part of a sixteen-hour project. Then there’s the film “This Changes Everything” from Executive Producer Geena Davis and director Tom Donahue which is about women in Hollywood.

AF: You brought up a great example in “Women Make Film” as the first part of a multiple part series. How do you try to incorporate long-form storytelling into the program without having people sit for a 20-hour documentary series? 

TP: You know, I’m not afraid to make people, or I guess invite people, to sit for a multiple part documentary series if we had it. In the case of “Women Make Film,” director Mark Cousins came to the festival a few years ago with “The Story of Film,” and we showed all fifteen hours of that. We showed three hours a day for free each morning and it was fantastic to see a group of people come out each morning to engage with that history. When Mark finishes all sixteen hours, I’d be very interested in showing all of that.

However, this year, I didn’t see too much of that being offered to us. Clearly, episodic storytelling is on the rise. I think at my “Stranger Than Fiction” series in New York, I had never shown anything episodic in fifteen years. Just this year I ended up showing three: “Wild Wild Country“, “Flint Town,” and “The Fourth Estate” from Showtime. That really shows how episodic storytelling is on the rise in documentary film. For whatever reason, I wasn’t seeing a lot in the submissions pile this year.

AF: “The Elephant Queen” stood out to me as I was glancing over your lineup. It’s also playing in the TIFF Kids lineup. How exciting is it to have a film introduce children to documentary that early? 

TP: You know, that’ a great question because I don’t often get a lot of documentaries that are necessarily appropriate for kids. Over the years we’ve had a few, I remember the film “First Position” about young people in ballet. But “The Elephant Queen,” I would put alongside “The March of the Penguins,” in terms of being a highly accessible, beautifully shot, and very rewarding film that can be viewed by children and adults alike.

AF: Another film I’m very interested in is “Quincy,” in part because it’s directed by Rashida Jones. Do you get excited to see actors move over to documentary for some of their first films as directors? 

TP: Well Rashida has previously worked on other documentaries. She produced the “Hot Girls Wanted” series for Netflix, and of course, there’s a lot of things she does besides being an actress, including music. She also collaborated on “Quincy” with Alan Hicks, who of course did that wonderful Jazz documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On.” There are a couple instances of actors doing documentaries too. One of the most successful, in my mind, was Ethan Hawke, who came to Toronto a few years ago with his film “Seymour.” More often you see actors being supportive of films behind the scenes, either as producers or supporters. That’s certainly true of Geena Davis and Tilda Swinton.

AF: Another great thing about your lineup is that you include a lot of foreign languages and international documentaries. Tell me about that process? 

TP: Well, one that I would pick out this year is a film that my colleague Kiva Reardon brought in. Many of the programming team have regional specialties, and Kiva’s specialty is the Middle East and Africa. She uncovered this film, “Freedom Fields” [directed by Naziha Arebi] which was filmed over several years about young women football players, soccer players, who become political activists just for their desire to play. That was really gratifying to me, just because in 13 years of doing this, I’ve never had a chance to have a film set in Libya before. That’s always fascinating to see a territory that gets rarely covered and see such a great film come out of it.

Another film that was the last documentary to be announced is “Reason” from Indian filmmaker Anand Patwardhan that Cameron Bailey, the festival’s artistic director, got to see when he was in India at a private screening arranged by the director. It’s a four-hour film covering some of the more difficult social and political issues in India right now.

AF: That sounds really interesting.

TP: There are plenty of others I can keep listing, but the point I want to make is that it’s not all me that’s bringing these in. I really benefit from our staff of programmers, who throughout the year put our feet in dozens of countries on every continent of the world, except maybe Antartica, that are trying to find these films. It’s something that makes the Toronto Film Festival unique. I know people feel daunted by how many films we’re showing, but it’s only by showing that many films that you can really cover the whole globe…

For festivals that show fewer films, that just means different areas of the world go uncovered. What makes Toronto such a great city to hold a festival in is that it’s the most diverse city in the world, even more than New York City. There are so many cultures represented here, that when we put on a film from Asia, or Latin America, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, you’re going to get an audience of people who trace their heritage back to that place and know it intimately. They’re going to pick up on the nuances of filmmaking there, and you can’t do that at every festival.

AF: Now you have a handful of political documentaries this year. You’ve got “Putin’s Witnesses” and “Fahrenheit 11/9” from Michael Moore.  There’s also the Roger Ailes documentary “Divide and Conquer.” How do you go about programming the political films?

TP: Well you brought up “Putin’s Witnesses” by Vitaly Mansky, but there’s a really nice counterpoint to that film in Werner Herzog and André Singer‘s film, “Meeting Gorbachev” which sets up a real contrast between the two films when viewed side by side. They have very different outlooks on leadership in Russia. Whenever it comes to films that are similarly themed, like with “This Changes Everything” and “Women Make Film,” they’re often complementary but have differences. “Women Make Film” is more about creativity and “This Changes Everything” is more about the power dynamics and gender that have defined Hollywood.

The same can be said for the films that are dealing with American politics, from Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Alexis Bloom’s film about Roger Ailes. Each of those films is unique, seen through a perspective of a great filmmaker. In fact, I would add to that collection, Astra Taylor’s film “What is Democracy?” which is a kind of continuation of an exploration of ideas that she began in earlier films. These films ask us to think more carefully about the political systems, specifically in the United States, that occupy so much of our attention these days.   

AF: This year’s festival is full of legends from the documentary world. You’ve got Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Herzog, Wiseman. How exciting is it to have that collection all programmed in the same year?

TP: Of course it’s a real pleasure. To see a filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman in his 80s, still churning out one impressive film after another on nearly a yearly basis is incredible. He was at the festival just last year with “Ex Libris,” his film about the New York Public Library. In some ways, his new film “Monrovia, Indiana,” feels very far from that. He’s going from a film set in the metropolis of New York City to a more homogenous small town in middle America. I think that just exemplifies the range of Wiseman’s interests. For the last 50 years, he’s created a remarkable mosaic unlike any other in cinema. His portrayals of institutions and communities, you’d have to look at Balzac’s “The Human Comedy” series to find an artistic equivalent.

AF: What are some documentaries that may not have “hype” that we should be looking out for?

TP: I love that you asked that question. I would point to the film “Maiden,” that’s about the first all-women sailing crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. I’m very excited that the skipper of that crew, Tracy Edwards, is going to be at the festival for that premiere. That’s a film that is one of the most emotional experiences I had watching documentaries this summer, and I can’t wait for audiences to experience it.

Another stand up and cheer film is “The Biggest Little Farm” by John Chester. It’s a personal documentary about him and his wife Molly, who gave up their lives in Los Angeles to buy a piece of land outside the city. It had depleted soil and they try to bring it back as a biodynamic farm. We watch them over eight years making that happen through lots of ups and downs. I’m really looking forward to the moment the lights come up after that screening.

Another I want to point to is “Walking on Water” which follows the artist Christo and his extraordinary project from 2015 called “The Floating Piers” in Italy. For many years, Christo and his collaborator Jeanne-Claude, who passed away a few years ago, would typically have their projects documented by the Maysles Brothers. Now that the Maysles Brothers are no longer with us, Christo turned to his fellow Bulgarian artist and filmmaker Andrey Paounov to direct his new film. In a way, it is an homage to the Maysles that is very satisfying.

AF: What are some of the films we should look out for during awards season? 

TP: I would include “Quincy,” which will get a qualifying run, and appear on Netflix soon after the festival. Obviously Michael Moore’s film, “Fahrenheit 11/9” is going to open in theaters on September 21st. A big one from National Geographic is “Free Solo” from directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Their previous film, “Meru” made it on to the Oscar shortlist a few years ago.

Also “Maria By Callas,” which is a beautifully made film and is being released by Sony Pictures Classics. They brought “Searching for Sugarman” to an Oscar win a few years ago. Lastly is “Angels are Made of Light” by James Longley. He’s a two-time Oscar nominee for “Iraq in Fragments,” and “Sari’s Mother,” which played the festival in 2006.

AF: Thank you so much, Thom, for your time and insight! 

TP: Thank you!

What do you think of the TIFF documentary lineup? How do you think Thom Powers and his team did this year? Let us know in the comments below! 

The Toronto Film Festival runs from Sept. 6, 2018, to Sept. 16, 2018. 

CHECK WHERE THE DOCUMENTARIES THOM POWERS DISCUSSES RANK IN OUR OSCAR PREDICTIONS!