The Toronto International Film Festival 2015 documentary program presents a diverse mix of international works featuring a wide array of award-winning directors. The TIFF Docs line-up includes revelatory looks at celebrated performers like Yo-Yo Ma, Arcade Fire and Sharon Jones; fresh global perspectives on Ukraine, Haiti, China, and the Middle East; films about film; and loving attention to horses and dogs.
“Emotions run high in this year’s documentaries from passionate performers to angry protestors,” said TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers. “These films truly command the big screen with their artistry across many forms of documentary — observational, essayistic, historical and investigative.”
Several films focus on music: Miss Sharon Jones! follows R&B queen Sharon Jones during her battle with cancer; The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble profiles the legendary cellist and his international musical collective; Amazing Grace captures the recording of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling album of the same name; The Reflektor Tapes provides insight into the making of the Arcade Fire international #1 album Reflektor and Janis: Little Girl Blue delves into the life of late rock legend Janis Joplin.
The worlds of art, dance, and performance are explored in films such as Bolshoi Babylon which looks at upheavals in Russia’s world-famous company; Our Last Tango chronicles the stormy career of Argentine tango legends Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves; Horizon is a portrait of influential Icelandic landscape painter Georg Gudni; and Thru You Princess documents the composer Kutiman creating a viral sensation on YouTube.
The lineup includes a trio of films in which animals feature, including Heart of a Dog, a personal essay film by Laurie Anderson that explores themes of love, death, and language; Being AP, a portrait of legendary British horse-racing jockey AP McCoy; and Dark Horse, about a small town group of friends who take on the elite ‘sport of kings’ and breed themselves a racehorse.
Global current events make hot topics in several films. In P.S. Jerusalem, filmmaker Danae Elon confronts the tensions of living in Jerusalem after the death of her father, the writer Amos Elon. A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, focuses on three Muslim women who join a UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom takes a closer look at the Ukrainian Revolution and the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Je Suis Charlie offers an account of the brutal attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, while He Named Me Malala profiles Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived a Taliban assassination attempt to become an outspoken, globally recognized advocate for girls’ rights.
The program’s global outlook can also be seen in Sherpa, exploring the uneasy relationship on Mount Everest between foreign expeditions and their local guides; Nasser, providing an in-depth history of Egypt’s pivotal and controversial leader Gamal Abdel Nasser; A Young Patriot, examining modern China through the eyes of a nationalistic university student; In Jackson Heights, offering a closer look at the diverse immigrant neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York; and Return of the Atom, taking a closer look at the remote ‘nuclear town’ in Finland.
Four films intersect with the art and legacy of filmmaking. Hitchcock/Truffaut examines the importance of the epochal book that transcribed the 1962 interview between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut. A Flickering Truth follows a group of dedicated Afghan cinephiles who are literally excavating their country’s cinematic past. Women He’s Undressed pays tribute to legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly. It All Started At The End recounts the history of El Grupo de Cali, the prolific bohemian artistic collective that revolutionized Colombian film and literature in the 1970s and ’80s.
Films screening as part of the TIFF Docs programme include:
Sydney Pollack, USA International Premiere
Sydney Pollack’s film of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace.’ Filmed during church services in Los Angeles on January 13 and 14, 1972, the footage was never seen until now. Featuring Reverend James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir and the Atlantic Records rhythm section.
A Flickering Truth
Pietra Brettkelly, New Zealand/Afghanistan North American Premiere
As Afghanistan teeters on an unpredictable future, A Flickering Truth uncovers the world of three dreamers and cinephiles, the dust of 100 years of war and the restoration of 8,000 hours of film archive that they risked their lives to conceal. What surprises will emerge from the cloak of time?
A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers
Geeta Gandbhir and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, USA/Pakistan World Premiere
A unit of Bangladeshi female police officers leave their families to join a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti and challenge stereotypes about the capabilities of Muslim women. The film focuses on three of the women as they grapple with the harsh realities of becoming foot soldiers in a UN Peacekeeping Mission, and the pressures on their families left behind.
A Young Patriot
(Shao Nian * Xiao Zhao) Du Haibin, China/USA/France Canadian Premiere
This intimate documentary chronicles five years in the life of a young Chinese student, whose fervent idealism and dedication to Mao’s legacy stands in stark contrast to contemporary China’s turn towards state capitalism.
Anthony Wonke, United Kingdom/Ireland World Premiere
Being AP is an intimate documentary portrait of AP McCoy – the greatest jump jockey of all time. As he passes his 40th birthday, an age beyond which most jockeys are unable to continue, AP contemplates his obsession with winning, the years of sacrifice that he has endured to become a champion, the chase for a 20th successive title, and then a future without racing.
Nick Read, United Kingdom World Premiere
For the first time, Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre allows filmmakers full and uncensored access backstage. After a brutal acid attack on the ballet company’s director Sergei Filin in January 2013, Bolshoi Babylon follows the dancers and managers through a new season as they try to regain their status as the world’s leading dance company.
Louise Osmond, United Kingdom Canadian Premiere
Set in a former mining village in Wales, Dark Horse is the inspirational true story of Jan Vokes and her group of local friends who decide to take on the elite ‘sport of kings’ and breed themselves a racehorse. Raised on a slagheap allotment, their foal becomes a source of inspiration and hope.
Davis Guggenheim, USA International Premiere
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim shows us how Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted by the Taliban and severely wounded by a gunshot when returning home on her school bus, remains committed to fighting for education for all girls worldwide. Providing an inside glimpse into her extraordinary life — from her close relationship with her father who inspired her love for education, to her impassioned speeches at the UN, to her everyday life at home.
Heart of a Dog
Laurie Anderson, USA Canadian Premiere
Heart of a Dog is a personal essay film that explores themes of love, death, and language. The director’s voice is a constant presence as stories of her dog Lolabelle, her mother, childhood fantasies and political, and philosophical theories unfurl in a seamless song-like stream.
Kent Jones, USA/France Canadian Premiere
In 1962, two of the greatest minds in cinema sat down for an intimate and expansive conversation. Based on the original recordings of this meeting — used to produce the influential book Hitchcock/Truffaut — this film illustrates the greatest cinema lesson of all time and plummets us into the world of the creator of Psycho, The Birds, and Vertigo. David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorsese and other legendary filmmakers add to the discussion of Hitchcock’s enduring legacy and influence on cinema.
Bergur Bernburg and Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland/Denmark World Premiere
A documentary about the late Icelandic painter Georg Gudni Hauksson, whose innovative interpretations of forms and ideas paved the way for a renaissance in Icelandic landscape painting.
In Jackson Heights
Frederick Wiseman, USA North American Premiere
Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary is about the diverse neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York where 167 languages are spoken among immigrants from every continent, and half the population is foreign-born. The community is an example of America as a ‘melting pot’ settled and made strong by people committed to making their neighborhood work despite cultural and religious differences.
It All Started At The End (Todo comenzó por el fin)
Luis Ospina, Colombia World Premiere
Filmmaker Luis Ospina recounts the history of El Grupo de Cali, the prolific bohemian artistic collective that revolutionized Colombian film and literature in the 1970s and ’80s.
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Amy Berg, USA North American Premiere
Academy Award-nominated director Amy Berg reveals the raw, sensitive and powerful woman behind the legend in Janis: Little Girl Blue; the quintessential story of the short, turbulent, epic existence that changed music forever. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) lends her raspy Southern voice to the film, reading Janis Joplin’s achingly intimate letters.
Je Suis Charlie
Emmanuel Leconte and Daniel Leconte, France World Premiere
On January 7, 2015, French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was the victim of a terrorist attack that killed 12 people, including some of the greatest French cartoonists such as Cabu, Wolinski, Charb, Tignous and Honoré. The following day a policewoman was shot dead in the street. On January 9, another attack targeted the Jewish community. Four hostages were murdered. This film pays tribute to all these victims.
Miss Sharon Jones! (pictured main image)
Barbara Kopple, USA World Premiere
Two-time Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple follows R&B queen Sharon Jones over the course of an eventful year, as she battles a cancer diagnosis and struggles to hold her band the Dap-Kings together. Additionally, TIFF Cinematheque will showcase Kopple’s film Harlan County, USA which played at the first Festival in 1976.
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
Morgan Neville, USA World Premiere
This film tells the extraordinary story of the Silk Road Ensemble, an international musical collective created by legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The film follows this group of diverse instrumentalists, vocalists, composers, arrangers, visual artists, and storytellers as they explore the power of music to preserve tradition, shape cultural evolution, and inspire hope.
Jihan El-Tahri, France/South Africa International Premiere
Filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri explores the history of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the revolutionary army officer whose decade-long reign as president of Egypt saw him defy the West during the 1956 Suez Crisis, co-found the international Non-Aligned Movement, and suffer a dramatic defeat to Israel in the Six-Day War.
Our Last Tango (Un tango más)
German Kral, Germany/Argentina World Premiere
Argentina’s María Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes are the best-known couple in tango’s history and shaped the dance like no others. They danced passionately, loved and hated each other for almost 50 years, until one day they separated, and left a gap in the tango scene. Now, almost at the end of their lives, they tell their story for the first time. Executive produced by Wim Wenders.
Danae Elon, Canada/Israel World Premiere
Danae Elon grew up in Jerusalem. After many years of living abroad, she moves back with her three young sons and French-Algerian husband Philip who are fresh to the city. Over three years, she documents their experiences, bearing witness to what makes Jerusalem so fiercely contested. A looming presence is the memory of her late father, the esteemed author Amos Elon, seen in home movies. Through the prism of one family’s life, the film exposes a complex portrait of Jerusalem today.
The Reflektor Tapes
Kahlil Joseph, United Kingdom World Premiere
The Reflektor Tapes is a fascinating insight into the making of Arcade Fire’s international #1 album Reflektor. The film recontextualizes the album experience, transporting the viewer into a kaleidoscopic sonic and visual landscape. The Reflektor Tapes blends never-before-seen personal interviews and moments captured by the band to dazzling effect, and features 20 minutes of exclusive unseen footage, filmed only for cinema audiences.
Return of the Atom (Atomin paluu)
Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola, Finland/Germany World Premiere
Finland was the first country in the West to give permission to build a new nuclear power plant after the Chernobyl disaster. The film portrays the strange and stressful life in the small Finnish ‘nuclear town’ Eurajoki during an era of nuclear renaissance.
Jennifer Peedom, Australia/United Kingdom Canadian Premiere
Director Jennifer Peedom set out to uncover tension in the 2014 Everest climbing season from the Sherpas’ point of view, and instead captured a tragedy when an avalanche struck, killing 16 Sherpas. Sherpa tells the story of how the Sherpas united after the tragedy in the face of fierce opposition to reclaim the mountain they call Chomolungma.
Thru You Princess
Ido Haar, Israel International Premiere
In her late 30s, Samantha lives in New Orleans and works as a caregiver. She often uploads her songs and musings online and none of her clips get more than a few dozen hits. She doesn’t imagine that someone, on the other side of the world, is about to expand the number of listeners by millions. Kutiman, an Israeli musician, discovered Samantha’s songs on YouTube and weaves them with audiovisual symphonies composed of musical clips that people posted online.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Evgeny Afineevsky, Ukraine/USA/UnitedKingdom Canadian Premiere
Chronicling events that unfolded over 93 days in 2013 and 2014, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom witnesses the formation of a new civil rights movement in Ukraine. What started as peaceful student demonstrations supporting European integration morphed into a full-fledged violent revolution calling for the resignation of the nation’s president. The film captures the remarkable mobilization of nearly a million citizens from across the country protesting the corrupt political regime that utilized extreme force against its own people to suppress their demands and freedom of expression.
Women He’s Undressed
Gillian Armstrong, Australia International Premiere
During Hollywood’s golden age, the Australian known as Orry-Kelly was a costume designer for an astonishing 282 films including classics like Some Like It Hot, Casablanca, and An American in Paris. As a gay male during a closeted era, he was also a keeper of secrets. Director Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda; Little Women) employs inventive recreations, interviews and film clips to uncover his story.
Documentaries previously announced for the Festival were Brian D. Johnson’s Al Purdy Was Here, Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard’s Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr, Mina Shum’s Ninth Floor, Avi Lewis’ This Changes Everything, and Geneviève Dulude-De Celles’ Welcome to F.L. playing in TIFF Docs; and Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next for Special Presentations.
The 40th Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10 to 20, 2015.