TIFF 2023: Exclusive Interview with TIFF Docs Lead Programmer, Thom Powers!

You can usually count on TIFF’s Documentary program (TIFF Docs) to be populated with films that often go on to be Oscar contenders and this year’s program is no exception. Thom Powers, who has been programming TIFF Docs since 2006, has put together a Doc slate that has something for everyone. Thom was nice enough to answer a few questions for as TIFF is right around the corner,

Image Credit: Chris Buck

BBP: Which films would you suggest to viewers who normally don’t watch feature length documentaries?

TP: I’ll pick three of this year’s most entertaining documentaries, including TIFF Docs Opening Night selection COPA 71, about an international soccer tournament held in Mexico in 1971 that had a record-setting crowd for women’s sports, but was largely erased from history. That film is executive produced by Serena and Venus Williams. If you’re looking for a dose of middle age crisis comedy, check out FLIPSIDE, in which filmmaker Chris Wilcha attempts to save the used record store where he worked as a teenager; Judd Apatow is the film’s executive producer. Every festival line-up needs a good WTF story and this year’s is THE CONTESTANT, about the early days of reality TV in Japan when one participant was confined to a room, naked for over a year, required to fill out magazine sweepstakes coupons to earn his food, clothing and everything else he needed to survive. What he didn’t know is that it was all being filmed for a weekly TV show that became a national sensation. 


BBP: On the other end of the spectrum: what would you recommend to hardcore documentary fans?

TP: Three picks for the most dedicated doc lovers come from three TIFF Luminaries, a subsection honoring film’s most influential filmmakers. Frederick Wiseman at age 93 is the most senior director at this year’s festival with his new observational look at a 3-star Michelin restaurant in France, MENUS-PLAISIRS LES TROIGROS. Another veteran director is the trailblazing Indian documentarian Anand Patwardhan who delivers his most personal film yet, profiling his parents, in THE WORLD IS FAMILY. Finally, the Oscar-winning director Errol Morris presents his latest film THE PIGEON TUNNEL that features the last interview given by the writer David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre.

BBP: Both DEFIANT and IN THE REARVIEW relate to Ukraine. What do these films show viewers that they haven’t seen covered in other media?

TP: DEFIANT is directed by Karim Amer, known for his work on the Oscar-nominated film The Square about the Arab Spring. In this new work, he’s embedded with Ukraine’s foreign minister and other government officials to capture how they are battling a war against disinformation and pursuing peace through diplomacy. IN THE REARVIEW puts us in the passenger seat of a car driven by filmmaker Maciek Hamela as he helps Ukrainian refugees flee the war. As well, there is a third film with the war as a backdrop: WALLS by Kasia Smutniak, who is focusing on refugees trying to enter Poland from countries other than Ukraine. That film is paced like a thriller as she tries to evade the police to show the dramatic difference in treatment depending on whether a refugee is welcomed or not.


BBP: Mainstream audiences are conditioned to seeing documentaries on smaller screens. Are there selections this year that really show off the benefits of experiencing a documentary on a large screen?

TP: If you want a cinematic experience immersing yourself in nature that’s unlike any other doc at the festival, seek out Margreth Olin’s SONGS OF THE EARTH. For people looking for a grand adventure, look to MOUNTAIN QUEEN: THE SUMMITS OF LHAPKA SHERPA, about the climber who has reached the top of Mount Everest more times than any other woman. Thirdly, I’d point to THE MOTHER OF ALL LIES by Asmae El Moudir that won two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival for its cinematic look at a Casblanca family’s buried memories. 

BBP: Is there anything else you’d like to share about this year’s Documentary program?

TP: There are three films that cover indigenous stories from around the world. From Canada, BOIL ALERT by Stevie Sales and James Burns follows the activism of Layla Staats to campaign for drinkable water on First Nations reserves. From Panama, GOD IS A WOMAN by Andrew Peyrot looks at the Kuna community as they seek access to a French documentary made about them in the 1970s. And from Finland, in HOMECOMING, directors Suvi West and Anssi Kömi share a personal and insightful story about the return of Sámi artifacts — long held in a museum — to their homeland.

Find information about the Festival, including schedule and ticket information at TIFF.net ! The Festival runs from September 7-17, 2023 and you can find coverage right here at Biff Bam Pop!

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