Documentaries 2021: Toronto Film Fest 2021

Toronto’s Scaled-Down  Documentaries on Devastating Fires, Prison Uprising and Kenny G

TIFF Documentary Preview Attica Burning Kenny
Courtesy of TIFF

This year’s scaled-down Toronto Film Festival showed 14 non-fiction films in the lineup – a sizable reduction from the average of 22 in non-COVID outings.

Thom Powers, lead TIFF documentary programmer, winnowed down the list from 800 submissions, looking for films that “took him by surprise.” But with fewer slots to work with, Powers admits that “the bar was set higher” for selections this year.

There are stories about the devastating fires in Australia (Eva Orner’s “Burning”); the largest prison uprising in U.S. history (Stanley Nelson’s “Attica”); and New York’s longest hostage siege ( “Hold Your Fire,” written and directed by Stefan Forbes).

Several of his choices have screened at other major film festivals: Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee,” about a refugee who fled Afghanistan as a boy, will screen at TIFF after being an official selection of Cannes 2020 and having a world premiere at Sundance in January.

Flee, told mostly through animation, earned the grand jury prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance and was acquired by Neon, who partnered with Participant to distribute the doc in North America.

“It’s extremely rare for us to show something that has already premiered in such strong spotlight at Sundance,” says Powers. “But ‘Flee’ is also a rare film and that was what won me over this year.”

The documentary lineup will also include three films that just had their world premieres at Telluride: Liz Garbus’ National Geographic film “Becoming Cousteau” about the French sea explorer; The Rescue from Oscar winning directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) about the 2018 rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave; and “RBG” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “Julia” about the unlikely television star and chef, Julia Child.

“For the most part, we’re looking for films that are having world or North American premieres,” Powers says. “And there’s so many films that are looking for those opportunities. So, I hate to overload our section with films that have already had great opportunities but, there are certain films every year that really stand out to us that we want to bring to Toronto’s audiences.”

Garbus, who has launched many of her films at Sundance, says that “Telluride is an extraordinary weekend of cinema and largely a premiere event for America, while TIFF is really a global launch.”

In 2018, Vasarhelyi and Chin’s Free Solo screened at TIFF. But unlike “Free Solo,” their latest docu “The Rescue” relied heavily on archival materials.

“We had never made a film before where we weren’t present for the actual events,” explains Vasarhelyi, who tracked down never-before-seen Thai Navy Seals footage shot within the cave. “The first year and a half was like a scavenger hunt amongst international news stories where we could find two different angles from the same event, but one was from CNN and one was from a Thai local news source.”

Finding archival footage of Kenny G. for the docu Listening to Kenny G was not a problem for director Penny Lane. In the film, the helmer chronicles the saxophonist’s rise to fame while also, humorously exploring the backlash his easy-listening, smooth jazz provoked and continues to provoke in so many listeners.

“One of the reasons that I thought Kenny would be perfect for this project is that he has a sense of humor, and he has a sense of humor about himself. Not everyone does,” Lane says. “There’s not many artists I could have approached with this concept and gotten an enthusiastic ‘Yes,’ like I did from Kenny.”

Jazz critics, academics, Clive Davis and Kenny G fans are featured throughout the docu, part of HBO’s Music Box series. “The brilliance of this film is that you could be a Kenny G lover or a Kenny G hater and still find a lot to enjoy in this film,” says Powers.

Fellow HBO Music Box docu, Jagged, about Alanis Morissette, will premiere in TIFF’s Gala section. Alison Klayman directed “Jagged,” which examines the singer’s meteoric 1990s rise to rock stardom.

Another music documentary, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” is part of TIFF’s Special Presentations Section. Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner, the film recounts the iconic singer’s six-decade career and activism.

Wooley, who co-wrote “Dionne Warwick: My Life, as I See It: An Autobiography” with the singer, says he had no problem convincing celebrities including Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, Bill Clinton, Snoop Dogg and Carlos Santana to participate in the doc.

“So many people showed up for this film because they actually have a longstanding personal connection with Dionne,” explains Wooley. “They were not used as talking heads, but instead they narrate the story.”

Dionne Warwick: My Life, as I See It: An Autobiography took five years to make, which Heilbroner in part attributes to the singer’s ongoing career. “She’s still cooking, man,” Heilbroner says. “She’s still making history.”

While many docs submitted for consideration this year were pandemic related, Powers decided to keep the lineup COVID-free.

“I felt like we had a great film about COVID last year in ’76 days.’” says Powers. “The challenge for films about COVID are that every conversation we have is about COVID, so I felt festival audiences were interested in something else.”


But Powers maintains that “Julia” is a COVID-related film “through a different lens.”

“So many of us have had to re-engage with the kitchen or engage for the first time with our kitchen in a deeper way (in the last 18 months),” explains Powers. “It was marvelous to watch this film about a woman who dedicated her life to making people feel less intimidated about home cooking. So that hits in a very different way in 2021 then it would have two years ago.”

Gian Cassini’s “Comala” and Rebeca Huntt’s “Beba” are also part of this year’s TIFF lineup.

Says Powers: “These films share a little bit of similarity in that they are young (directors) who are looking at generational cycles and their families and asking themselves, ‘How do I change family dysfunction moving forward?’