September 9, 2011 / 8:40 PM / 7 years ago

Documentaries steal spotlight at Toronto Film fest

TORONTO (Reuters) - They’re not exactly squeezing Brad Pitt and George Clooney out onto the street, but documentaries are grabbing a larger share of the spotlight than usual at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Workers prepare the red carpet area at Roy Thomson Hall for the start of the 36th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto September 7, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

In addition to festival opener “From the Sky Down” — the U2 documentary by Davis Guggenheim — documentary royalty such as Werner Herzog, Morgan Spurlock, Wim Wenders and Alex Gibney will all unspool premieres over the next week.

“We’ve opened up more seats in our theaters for documentaries than ever before and put them in bigger venues than ever before,” said Thom Powers, documentary programer for the festival.

“It reflects the ever growing presence and importance of documentary in the culture on a number of different levels.”

Several blocks away from U2’s red carpet premiere on Thursday, more than one thousand people crammed in to a festival theater for the world premiere of “Into the Abyss”, a documentary by “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” director Herzog.

Spurlock, who gained fame with 2004’s “Super Size Me”, will premiere his latest offering, “Comic Con: Episode IV - A Fan’s Hope” about the wildly popular annual pop culture conference in San Diego.

Wenders will unveil “Pina” about influential dance choreographer Pina Bausch, while Gibney will premier “The Last Gladiators”, which examines the world of hockey fighters.

With the U.S. election year looming, Nick Broomfield’s “Sarah Palin - You Betcha!” — billed as a quest for the “real” Sarah Palin in her home state of Alaska — promises to be a big draw.

Once largely relegated to public television and repertory theaters, the nonfiction format has enjoyed increasing commercial popularity in recent years, giving celebrity status to documentary directors who in the past would likely be toiling in obscurity.

Past box office hits such as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and Guggenheim’s Al Gore film “An Inconvenient Truth” have shown the commercial possibilities of the format, while the relatively low budgets are appealing to producers.


Herzog, one of the true rock stars of the format, received a standing ovation even before the lights dimmed on Thursday.

“Into the Abyss” follows the filmmaker as he interviews the main players in a triple murder that took place in tiny Conroe, Texas, ten years ago.

Initially focusing on the two men imprisoned for the murder — including one scheduled to be executed 8 days after the interview — Herzog broadens his focus to include family and friends of both the victims and the killers, as well as prison officials who deal closely with the condemned.

Unlike many crime documentaries, Herzog does not seek to right a perceived injustice, and while his opposition to capital punishment is made clear early on, he insists the film is not meant as a call for change.

“It’s not an issue film. It’s an underlying thing going on throughout the entire film, but it’s not an activist film against the death penalty,” Herzog said in an interview.

Rather, he uses his conversational interview style — which can veer into bluntness, such as when he tells the condemned Michael Perry that “When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you” — to uncover telling details about both the victims and killers’ pasts, and the often harsh realities of rural life in east Texas.

“That’s one of the aspects of the film: the crimes are monstrous, but the perpetrators are not monstrous, they’re just human, and I allow them to be very human,” he said.

Herzog, who has alternated between documentary and fiction films for nearly 50 years, said he thinks the rising popularity of documentaries is tied to the increasing use of technologies and trends that blur the line between fantasy and reality.

“We have unbelievably powerful new tools (like) virtual reality, video games, imaginary personalties on Facebook... We have digital effects in movies which create credible dinosaurs... and so-called reality TV, which of course is all scripted,” he said.

“Documentaries have a capacity and have a task to redefine our relationship with reality and this is why probably a lot of people are moving in the direction of documentaries.”

U2's Bono and The Edge pose with director Davis Guggenheim at the gala presentation for the documentary film "From The Sky Down" at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival, September 8, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

Reporting by Cameron French, editing by Christine Kearney

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