Tips on TIFF: Doc Programmer Thom Powers Highlights 'The Cave' and More Festival Standouts
Powers talks Bruce Springsteen doc, Alex Gibney's Citizen K and Feras Fayyad's latest: 'The Cave is, when you're talking about awards, probably the most noteworthy film'
Director Feras Fayyad's latest film, The Cave, is receiving a hearty endorsement from the chief documentary programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival.
"I thought it was so outstanding," Thom Powers tells Nonfictionfilm.com - so outstanding, in fact, that he gave The Cave the honor of opening the festival's documentary section Thursday evening.
Shot from 2016 to 2018, The Cave belongs to the top rank of war films.
With The Cave the Syrian-born Fayyad returns to the subject of his country's brutal civil war, now in its eighth year. His 2017 film Last Men in Aleppo, which earned an Oscar nomination, focused on the White Helmets - valiant first responders who tried to rescue civilians injured in raids from Russian warplanes and Syrian government forces.
The Cave centers on Dr. Amani, a female physician caring for patients in a network of tunnels beneath eastern Ghouta near the capital city of Damascus. She contends with the sexism of some male colleagues in the midst of the relentless bombing of the makeshift hospital.
"The Cave... is very much a film about contemporary Syria and the seemingly never-ending war that's taking place there. But, the film also, to me, has a timeless and universal quality," Powers notes. "It's almost like watching a Mad Max film of people who are literally driven underground because the surface of the earth has been made uninhabitable by warlords... It's really an extraordinary work."
National Geographic will release the film in theaters this fall.
Alex Gibney heads to TIFF from Venice with his documentary Citizen K, the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, "once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia." He made a fortune in the Wild West of post-Soviet Russia, but later fell out of favor with Vladimir Putin - a worrisome development for anyone interested in their longterm survival.
"This portrait of Khodorkovsky in Citizen K," Powers comments, "I would say is Alex Gibney working in top form."
Two-time Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple comes to the festival with Desert One, an account of the daring but ill-fated attempt to rescue Americans taken hostage in Iran after the fall of the Shah.
Kopple is one of many women documentary filmmakers showcasing work at TIFF.
"I'd also point to Eva Orner [director of Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator] who previously won an Academy award for producing Taxi to the Dark Side. I'd point to first-time filmmaker Alla Kovgan with her film, Cunningham, about [choreographer] Merce Cunningham, that's shot in 3D," Powers observes. "One of my favorite films in the selection is Love Child by Eva Mulvad, the Danish documentary maker, who I think has achieved a reputation for herself on the documentary film and festival circuit, but is relatively unknown to the broader film world. Also, I should add Bryce Dallas Howard with her film Dads. It's a very funny and poignant look at fatherhood."
TIFF will host the North American debut of Lauren Greenfield's documentary The Kingmaker, about the controversial former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos. The world premiere is happening at Venice.
"Imelda Marcos... famed for her addiction to excess, has been an iconic figure in my long-term investigation of wealth through my photography and films," Greenfield notes in a director's statement. "Astonished that she had managed to re-enter Philippine politics after being ousted by a popular uprising, I began filming her and discovered that, at age 85, she remained a skilled ‘political animal’, as her son Bongbong describes her."
TIFF has programmed several music-related documentaries, including the world premiere of Western Stars.
"The incomparable Bruce Springsteen performs his critically acclaimed latest album and muses on life, rock, and the American Dream," the TIFF program comments, "in this intimate and personal concert film co-directed by Thom Zimny and Springsteen himself."
"The thing that stands out to me about this film is the degree to which [Springsteen] is always trying to stretch himself creatively," Powers says. "The album Western Stars, for anyone who had a chance to listen to it since it came out earlier this summer, is a departure from anything he's done before. He's performing with a 30-piece orchestra. The music is incredibly lush. Some Bruce Springsteen albums deserve to be heard through a car speaker, but this album really deserves to be heard through movie speakers, and I can't wait for the audience to have that experience at Toronto in Roy Thomson Hall."
Powers offered a prediction on the film most likely to segue from TIFF into awards season contention.
"I think The Cave is, when you're talking about awards, probably the most noteworthy film," he tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "It's going to be qualifying [for Oscar consideration] this year and is coming from National Geographic, which took Free Solo all the way last year. So, that would be the main film to watch. We'll see if any others pop out from the festival the way I Am Not Your Negro did a few years ago, when it really stood out in Toronto, and then made a swift process to qualify [for the Oscars]."
Powers says a number of documentaries heading to TIFF without representation may find themselves courted by distributors.
"When it comes to films to watch out for, for acquisitions, that would include And We Go Green from Fisher Stevens, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, and co-directed by Malcolm Venville. I'd also point to The Capote Tapes directed by Ebs Burnough, whose previous career was working in the Obama administration as the deputy social secretary," Powers comments. "I would point to Citizen K that we talked about earlier, and Red Penguins [directed by Gabe Polsky]. There are some others, but those will be some of the titles to watch for what happens with distribution."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.