10 must-see documentaries at TIFF 2017

TIFF’s doc lineup has some truly eye-catching, stomach-turning, heart-warming and eyebrow-raising titles. We can't wait to see these non-fiction films.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight And Bami

In a memoir published last year, Grace Jones lauded director Sophie Fiennes‘s films about Slavoj Žižek for “reaching to the edge of thinking.” So it’s safe to expect that this hugely anticipated world premiere won’t be a typical talking-head rock doc. But given the music trailblazer is one of the best live acts around – her recent concerts featured hats by milliner Philip Treacy and costumes by the late Eiko Ishioka – arresting performance scenes are a safe bet.

It’s also an especially appropriate opener for the TIFF Docs program given the number of docs screening this year about celebrated Black and African-American figures, including Sammy Davis Jr., Jean-Michel Basquiat and Lorraine Hansberry.

Sep 7, 9:30 pm, Elgin Sep 8, 4:15 pm, Scotiabank 2 Sep 15, 6:15 pm, Scotiabank 2




Last year, a horror film about cannibalism made headlines after someone reportedly fainted at a Midnight Madness screening. Well, get ready for the real thing.

Filmmaker/anthropologist duo Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s doc promises an unflinching and graphic look at the connection between cannibalism and sexual desire via the life of a notorious Japanese cannibal. In 1981, Issei Sagawa was arrested for murdering a 25-year-old Dutch student in Paris and, although he confessed to eating parts of her body, he avoided prosecution and became a minor celebrity in Japan.

Now semi-paralyzed from a stroke, he lives with his brother on the outskirts of Tokyo. Given the visceral abstraction that was Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan, expect this film to probe much deeper than a biopic.

Sep 10, 9:30 pm, AGO Sep 12, 10:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Face Places.jpg

Faces Places

For her first feature in nine years, Belgian auteur Agnès Varda teamed with French street artist JR (on screen and as co-director) to take a road trip across rural France and create massive photo prints of local villagers using a van JR has turned into a mobile photo booth.

It’s all about mortality, remembrance and art, but the trailer has the tone of a lively, life-affirming and bittersweet buddy comedy, as Varda and JR encounter a cast of oddballs during their travails and pay homage to old friends (they also stop by the home of her French New Wave peer, Jean-Luc Godard).

Critics have been hailing the film – which snagged the Golden Eye prize for best doc at Cannes – as a late-career masterpiece for 89-year-old Varda.

Sep 13, 6:30 pm, Elgin Sep 15, 12:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 Sep 17, 9:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2


Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

Jim And Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story Of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman With A Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention Of Tony Clifton

Annoying long title aside, there were a few reasons to raise an eyebrow when this doc from American Movie filmmaker Chris Smith emerged in TIFF’s lineup.

Why a movie about the making of Miloš Forman’s 18-year-old Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon starring Jim Carrey? Isn’t Carrey a washed up anti-vaxxer? Given the Canadian comedian’s descent from box office royalty to problematic tabloid figure, how honest will this be? If the blurb is to be believed, very.

Man On The Moon was meant to be Carrey’s breakout Oscar moment, but it didn’t happen. Through in-depth interviews with Carrey and others, and using a trove of never-before-seen footage shot on the Man On The Moon set, the doc promises a deep dive into Carrey’s creative process that we weren’t sure we wanted, but are curious about nonetheless.

Sep 11, 1:15 pm, Winter Garden Sep 12, 9:45 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 Sep 17, 8:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1


Ex Libris – New York Public Library

Ex Libris – New York Public Library

Bibliophiles will not want to miss Frederick Wiseman’s 42nd film: a portrait of the New York Public Library system.

The legendary documentarian is known for his humanistic and absorbing portraits of large public institutions, such as National Gallery and At Berkeley, that deploy a classic fly-on-the-wall style to show how cultural and educational hubs adapt and survive in the face of technological change and funding cuts.

At a time when public education is under assault in the U.S., Wiseman’s work – though slowly paced – is more urgent than ever. That is especially true for his last doc, 2015’s In Jackson Heights, which looked at multiculturalism and gentrification in one of New York City’s most diverse boroughs.

Given that Wiseman’s films are often lengthy and immersive (and hard to find on streaming sites in Canada), Ex Libris will be best experienced on the big screen.

Sep 8 , 12 pm, AGO Sep 16, 12 pm, AGO




All-archival biopic films have become a popular sub-genre within documentary thanks to the commercial successes of Senna and Amy. One filmmaker that has become known for archive-led doc portraits is Brett Morgan, who made archive-heavy docs about music icons the Rolling Stones (Crossfire Hurricane) and Kurt Cobain (Montage Of Heck).

Now he has turned his attention to a rock star of the science world, British primatologist and foremost chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall. In Jane, Morgen had access to more than 100 hours of never-before-seen footage shot by late National Geographic cinematographer (and Goodall’s former husband) Hugo van Lawick and he has paired it with all-new interviews as well as an original score by composer Philip Glass.

Sep 10, 12 pm, Winter Garden Sep 12, 4:30 pm, Scotia 14 Sep 16, 9:45 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1


Mrs. Fang

Mrs. Fang

The winner of the Golden Leopard award at this year’s Locarno Festival, Mrs. Fang is the latest film from celebrated Chinese documentarian Wang Bing. His work has chronicled the lives of factory workers, refugees and survivors of forced labour-camps in classically observational films that are often as pointedly political as they are non-intrusive.

In Mrs. Fang, politics and economics loom in the background as the director trains his camera on the face of an elderly woman who lay dying surrounded by family in a tiny room. If you’ve never seen one of Wang’s films and are generally intimidated by slow cinema-style docs, Mrs. Fang is a good entrée into his work given its compact running time and universal and instantly familiar subject matter.

Sep 13, 6:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4 Sep 15, 6:30, AGO


The Gospel According to André

The Gospel According To André

No fashion documentary is truly complete without at least a passing cameo – if not a sound bite – from former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley.

If you’re more into fashion docs than actual fashion and have always wondered what the hell he does and why he’s everywhere, this is the doc you (and I) have been waiting for. Docmaker Kate Novack is making her solo directing debut with the film, which features interviews with famous people such as Anna Wintour, Valentino, Marc Jacobs and Whoopi Goldberg as well as archival footage from Talley’s early days in Warhol’s Factory and throughout his prolific career.

Here’s hoping he saved some of his best anecdotes for his own film.

Sep 8, 9:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 Sep 10, 12:45 pm, Scotiabank 14 Sep 16, 9:15 pm, Scotiabank 2


Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood

Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood

Sex worker and fixer for closeted Hollywood royalty in the 50s, Scotty Bowers published a New York Times-bestselling memoir in 2012 that named names while dishing on the sex lives of mostly dead celebrities from the pre-Stonewall Golden Age of American moviemaking.

Among the book’s more sensational claims was that he hooked Katherine Hepburn up with more than 150 women over 50 years. Matt Tyrnauer, who has made documentaries about Valentino and Jane Jacobs, has given the now 94-year-old Bowers the cinematic treatment with a doc that promises to reveal previously unpublished dirt on celebs such as Bette Davis, Estelle Getty, Gore Vidal, Ava Gardner and others.

Sep 9, 10 pm, Scotiabank 2 Sep 12, 9:45 pm, Scotiabank 2 Sep 16, 3:30 pm, Scotiabank 4


A Skin So Soft

A Skin So Soft (Ta Peau Si Lisse)

Denis Côté has racked up awards at major film festivals in recent years, but unlike many other filmmakers to breakout from Quebec, he has stuck to the auteur path with strange arthouse fare such as Curling, Bestiaire and Vic + Flo Saw A Bear.

His latest mixes documentary and fictional elements to examine the lengths six bodybuilders go to get those perfect pecs, but despite the subject matter’s clear cult appeal he has said this film is more loving portrait than freak show.

Sep 12, 9:45 pm, AGO Sep 13, 9:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4 Sep 17, 11:30 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @kevinritchie

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