Toronto film fest documentaries embrace the news feature

Tue Sep 10, 2013 2:40pm EDT
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By Cameron French

TORONTO (Reuters) - Documentaries have enjoyed increased profile over the last decade thanks to personality-driven hits by directors such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, as well as big-budget films such as U2's "From the Sky Down", which headlined the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011.

The documentary slate at this year's festival - led by Jehane Noujaim's "The Square", which follows activists in Cairo's Tahrir Square in the wake of the 2011 overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - leans more towards the kinds of news features that in years past might have been found on network TV.

"I think what we're seeing is as traditional news media is going through a transformation and cutbacks... we see documentary makers kind of filling that void," said Thom Powers, documentary programmer at the Toronto festival.

He points to films such as "The Armstrong Lie", which tracks cyclists Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, and "The Unknown Known", an examination of Donald Rumsfeld's run as U.S. Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, as other new-driven offerings making an impact this year.

While those films bring a fresh perspective to older stories, Noujaim has been barely able to keep her film "The Square" up to date with a still-evolving story.

Noujaim screened a rough cut of the film at the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning the Audience Award.

Even as she was accepting the accolade, demonstrations against Mubarak's successor Mohamed Morsi were growing. The protests prompted the director to return to Cairo to film events leading up to Morsi's removal in July, which became the final act of the documentary.

"Events kept catching up to it with the toppling of Morsi and then it became the story of the toppling of one (leader) to the toppling of the next," Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian actor and one of a group of revolutionaries Noujaim follows over the course of 30 months, said in an interview.   Continued...

Director Errol Morris gestures as he poses during a photocall for the movie "The Unknown Known" during the 70th Venice Film Festival in Venice September 4, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi