The Toronto International Film Festival announced its documentary selections Wednesday, unveiling an impressive list of premieres from big-name directors. The films include new titles from Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Jafar Panahi, Jonathan Demme, Nick Broomfield, Alex Gibney and Morgan Spurlock.
"The headline for this year's lineup is how many veteran filmmakers have come forward with new work," said TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers, noting that directors such as Herzog and Wenders have always created documentaries as well as feature films but that the current popularity of the form makes it increasingly attractive to the auteurs. "Documentary is leading the cultural conversation."
He attributes that success to the depth and doggedness of documentaries in a world of sound bites and channel surfing. For example, Sarah Palin – You Betcha! is an attempt from the notoriously determined British documentarian Nick Broomfield and his co-director Joan Churchill to crack the story of the world's most famous hockey mom – whether the good folks of Wasilla dare to talk or not.
Here are three other highlights.
Into the Abyss
Eight days before his execution, a 28-year-old triple murderer is interviewed by the renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog ( Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God) in a Texas prison. This is not a story about wrongful conviction, but rather a documentary that faces the dark realities of crime and punishment: Herzog talks to death-row inmates but also to the families of victims and law-enforcement officials. "Herzog has this history of taking us to forbidding places but making the journey worthwhile," Powers said.
The Last Gladiators
The prolific U.S. documentarian Alex Gibney ( Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Taxi to the Dark Side) turns his attention to another highly topical subject with this post-retirement profile of Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, the vicious enforcer for the Montreal Canadiens who left the game in 1992. "Gibney looks at the world of hockey enforcers and asks a larger question about how society treats our gladiators once we are done with them," Powers said.
Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan's Hope
Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame follows seven fans as they prepare for Comic-Con. The comic-book convention, which was once a fringe event, is now a major date on the pop-culture calendar as tens of thousands of wizards, vampires and Vulcans descend on San Diego. "The media often approach fans with irony or disdain but Morgan Spurlock comes from a place of great affection for the world of fans," Powers said, pointing to a scene where one fan proposes to his girlfriend in front of the whole crazy crowd as the film's most touching moment.