"The Look of Silence"
Drafthouse Films "The Look of Silence"

It's become a tradition. As the Toronto International Film Festival (September 4 to 14, 2014)  documentary lineup is announced, programmer Thom Powers lays out the selection for us. What are the likely Oscar hopefuls, big buys, trends of the season? "This year’s selection is heavily populated with rebels, resisters and risk-takers,” Powers says, admitting that winnowing down hundreds of submissions to get to a couple dozen is difficult indeed. "You're inevitably saying no to worthy films." He also notes that several filmmakers such as Joshua Oppenheimer (Indonesia-set "The Look of Silence") and wine enthusiast Jonathan Nossiter ("Natural Resistance") return to subjects that "really get the most out of their expertise." More details below.

As always, Powers gets into the thrill of the chase, landing the world premiere of "Aileen Wuornos: Portrait of a Serial Killer" filmmaker Nick Broomfield's searing true crime investigation into the disparity of police protection between rich and poor in "Tales of the Grim Sleeper."  Working with his son, skilled cameraman Barney Broomfield, the filmmaker looks at LA serial killer the Grim Sleeper and his victims, "believed to be as high as 100 women spread over decades of time," says Powers. 

Broomfield takes a back seat, says Powers, to the film's "real standout character, a former prostitute named Pam who he enlists to go into South Central neighborhoods. She opens up the lives of the street characters who were at most risk from that killing spree. What the film does show is American apartheid, where law enforcement has one kind of treatment for more wealthy neighborhoods and neglect for South Central." 

Another revelation for Powers is writer-actor-director Ethan Hawke's "Seymour: An Introduction," a portrait of Seymour Bernstein, a former concert pianist in his day who received wonderful notices for his performances in New York City, says Powers, "but he gave up performing in order to be a piano teacher." Hawke appears in the movie describing how much he enjoyed talking to Bernstein at a dinner party. "He had a lot of insights into the questions that were present in Hawke's mind, about performance, why they do what they do, the act of putting yourself out there," says Powers, who compares the film to "My Dinner with Andre." We watch Bernstein talking with some of his illustrious students who went on to fame and other things, like New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman.  "It's a very talky and yet quiet and restrained film, full of meditations about art and life what those things mean," says Powers, "and filled with beautiful piano music. If the acting thing doesn't work out for him, Hawke has real promise as a documentary filmmaker."

Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke

"The Look of Silence," Oppenheimer's follow-up to Oscar-nominee "Act of Killing," was shot at the same time in Indonesia, a country to which it is not safe for him to return. The film (which world premieres in Venice) focuses on the family survivors of the Indonesian genocide. "What's striking is the focus on the families of the victims," says Powers. "The main character is the brother of someone who was killed in the 60s who today works as an optometrist. He uses his job as he goes around the small villages testing eyes to engage them in conversations about what took place 1960s." Oppenheimer, whose visual sense was expressed "The Act of Killing," "makes the most of the motif of people wearing that strange contraption as they are having their eyes tested. Anyone with great expectations for Josh after 'The Act of Killing' will be fulfilled by this film, although the tone is different and less morbid." "Act of Killing" sales rep Philippa Kowarsky is selling. 

"Sunshine Superman" is from artist-turned-director Maran Strauch, who follows a pioneer in BASE jumping, the daredevil act of leaping off a fixed position, cliff or skyscraper by parachute. "Carl Boenish was the father of the BASE jumping movement," Powers says. "He started as a Hollywood stuntman and was compulsive about filming all of his jumps on 16 mm --the footage is so gorgeous in the film. The entire time I was watching the film, my hands were clammy from the suspense of these jumps. This is a beautiful film that encourages people to think about risk-taking in their own lives, not just physical risks." Submarine's Josh Braun is selling this acquisition title. 

Another discovery was "National Diploma," which reveals the struggles of students in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Films about Africa are often from the perspective of outsiders," Powers says. "This filmmaker young filmmaker from the DRC has remarkable observational skills that would be cherished in any country. He's following a group of students preparing to take their state exams; like high school students all over the world they feel anxiety, but more so in the DRC where the diploma holds the key to their future."

A collection of films around environmental themes includes comedy-laced "The Yes Men Are Revolting," which is the third film to follow these activist-pranksters who impersonate government and corporate officials, "getting up on  podiums and saying the things that we wish these officials would say," says Powers, "taking accountability for various crimes and malfeasances. The new film has plenty of examples of Yes Men pranks, but it has a different layer --we're getting deeper into the lives of two Yes Men, who at this stage of their life in middle age, are trying to balance their activist lifestyle while maintaining relationships and family. There's a lot of self-reflection about what it means to be an activist. What value does it have? And how you square that with growing up." John Sloss's Cinetic Media is selling.

Middle East conflict looms large in "This Is My Land," about the role of education in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; "Iraqi Odyssey," a profile of a middle-class family; and "Silvered Water, Syria Self- Portrait," a chronicle of ordinary Syrians during the ongoing civil war.

"Food Inc." director Rob Kenner's "Merchants of Doubt" looks into "the peculiar industry of skeptics who go on TV shows," says Powers, "people who work in think tanks and write reports and take contrarian positions on topics like climate change, the health effects of tobacco and other toxins." Kenner interviews some of the better-known pundits, says Powers, "trying to find out if they are motivated by ideology or money or a combination of the two."

While many of these films will depend on critics, audiences and juries to launch them into the awards race, Powers singles out two films likely to be in the Oscar conversation: "Merchant of Doubt" (rumored to be a Sony Pictures Classics acquisition) and another SPC film, Cannes hit "Red Army," about a hockey captain’s transition from national hero to political enemy during the rise and fall of the Soviet game.

The Oscar field is open this year with no obvious frontrunners emerging so far. Steve James' moving Roger Ebert profile "Life is Sweet," agitprop "The Case Against 8" and "The Overnighters" emerged from Sundance with some momentum. Others with some early festival support include well-reviewed Toronto 2013 title "Finding Vivian Maier," which will get a boost from a new big book on the photographer to be published in the fall, and Tribeca debut, heart-tugger "Keep On Keeping On," about resilient trumpeter Clark Terry's mentoring of a young blind jazz pianist, which has been championed by influential music branch Academy member Quincy Jones, and has RADiUS behind it.

See full list of documentary titles below, as well as the Midnight Madness, Modern Masters and Vanguard programs.