The Toronto International Film Festival is known for its Oscar bait prestige dramas, major Hollywood studio releases, a focus (appropriately) on Canadian film and, to a lesser extent, its Midnight Madness program. One thing it doesn't have a strong reputation for is documentaries. That's why it's no surprise that only six of the initial 15 documentaries announced for the 2014 festival this morning are world premieres.
Even with a 25th anniversary screening of Michael Moore's “Roger & Me” on deck, this year's documentary slate appears weak. Joshua Oppenheimer will screen his Indonesian genocide doc “The Look of Silence,” Ethan Hawke has his nonfiction directing debut “Seymour: An Introduction” and Cannes favorite “Red Army” will be on hand, but all of those films debuted or will debut somewhere else first. Intriguing new docs include “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” about a serial killer's 25-year run in Southern California; “Sunshine Superman,” about BASE jumping pioneer Carl Boenish; and “This Is My Land,” which chronicles Israeli and Palestinian educators over the course of a calendar year.
Here's a complete rundown of this year's selections announced so far.
“Beats of the Antonov”
Hajooj Kuka, Sudan/South Africa
Beats of the Antonov follows refugees from the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan as they survive displacement and the trauma of civil war. Music, a cornerstone of their traditions and identity, becomes itself a vehicle for survival.
“I Am Here (Wo Jiu Shi Wo)”
Lixin Fan, China
During the summer of 2013, 12 young boys battle each other for the No. 1 spot in Super Boys, a decade-old American Idol-style TV talent show in China. They discover who they are and learn to love each other in the process. From the director of Last Train Home.
Samir, Iraq/Switzerland/Germany/United Arab Emirates
Tracing the emigrations of his family over more than half a century, this riveting documentary epic from acclaimed expatriate Iraqi filmmaker Samir (Forget Baghdad) pays moving homage to the frustrated democratic dreams of a people successively plagued by the horrors of dictatorship, war, and foreign occupation.
“Merchants of Doubt”
Robert Kenner, USA
Documentarian Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) investigates the shadowy world of professional skeptics, whose services are bought and paid for by corporations, think tanks and other special interests to cast doubt and delay on public and governmental action on climate change.
“National Diploma (Examen d”Etat)”
Dieudo Hamadi, France/Congo
North American Premiere
A group of young Congolese high-school students who are about to write the exam for their National Diploma in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo, gather in a maquis (communal house) to help each other prepare. It is common practice to be ejected from classes during the school year for failing to pay “teachers” fees”, but the students are determined, and resort to all means at their disposal to earn a diploma, a stepping stone out of a life of poverty.
Frederick Wiseman, France/USA
North American Premiere
Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman (Crazy Horse, At Berkeley) takes the audience behind the scenes of this London institution, which is inhabited by masterpieces of Western art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. In a perpetual and dizzying game of mirrors, the film presents a portrait of a place, its inner workings, and its relationship with the world, its staff, its public and its paintings.
Jonathan Nossiter, Italy/France
North American Premiere
A group of Italian vineyard proprietors live a life many can only dream of. In their converted 11th-century monastery and winery in Tuscany, Giovanna Tiezzi and Stefano Borsa find a way to grow grains, fruit and wine that create a link to their ancient Etruscan heritage. Ten years after Mondovino, the wine world has changed just like the world itself. The enemy is now far greater than the threat of globalization. But against the new world economy, these natural wine rebels offer a model of charmed and joyous resistance.
Gabe Polsky, USA/Russia
Red Army follows the most successful dynasty in sports history: the Soviet Union”s Red Army hockey team of the 1980s. Told from the perspective of its captain Slava Fetisov, the story portrays his transformation from national hero to political enemy. From the USSR to Russia, the film examines how sport mirrors social and cultural movements, and parallels the rise and fall of the Red Army team with the Soviet Union. An inspiring story about the Cold War played out on the ice rink, and the man who stood up to a powerful system and paved the way for change for generations of Russians.
“Seymour: An Introduction”
Ethan Hawke, USA
Director Ethan Hawke explores the life and lessons of pianist, teacher and sage, Seymour Bernstein. Since giving up a career as a concert pianist at age 50, Seymour has dedicated his life to teaching his students about music, happiness and the power of detaching satisfaction from success.
“Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (Ma'a al Fidda)”
Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, Syria/France
North American Premiere
The collaboration between exiled Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed and young Kurdish activist Wiam Simav Bedirxan distills footage from thousands of clandestine videos to create a shattering, on-the-ground documentary chronicle of the ordeal being undergone by ordinary Syrians in the ongoing civil war.
Marah Strauch, USA/Norway/United Kingdom
Sunshine Superman tells the story of Carl Boenish who pioneered and popularized the activity of BASE jumping (jumping from fixed objects with a parachute). Carl married Jean Campbell and together they travelled to Norway in 1984 to jump from the cliffs of Trollveggen. Against the backdrop of the midnight sun, tragedy strikes.
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper”
Nick Broomfield, USA/United Kingdom
Nick Broomfield investigates the 2010 arrest of Lonnie Franklin following a 25-year killing spree in South Central Los Angeles, in which it is thought he could have killed over a 100 victims, potentially making him the most prolific serial killer in history.
“The Look of Silence (Senyap)”
Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/United Kingdom
Through Joshua Oppenheimer's work with perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide, a family of survivors discover who killed their son. The youngest brother is determined to break the spell of silence and fear under which the survivors live, and confronts the men responsible for his brother's murder.
“This Is My Land”
Tamara Erde, France
This film follows several Israeli and Palestinian teachers over one academic year, observing their exchanges and confrontations with students, their debates with their respective ministries” curriculum and its restrictions, and offering an intimate glimpse into the profound and long-lasting effect that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict transmits onto the next generation.
“The Yes Men Are Revolting”
Laura Nix and The Yes Men, USA
For two decades, The Yes Men have pulled off hilarious and spectacular media hoaxes to expose corporate crime. In this intimate portrait, they are now approaching middle age and struggle to stay inspired as the worst crime of all threatens the planet. Can they get it together before the ice caps melt?
The 2014 Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 4-14.