a still from In Restless Dreams

TIFF’s 2023 Documentary Slate Favors Oscar Contenders and Sales Titles, from Paul Simon to Frederick Wiseman

This year, non-fiction titles will be front and center at the Toronto International Film Festival, as many writers and actors will not be on hand due to the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

Opening night at the 2023 festival brings a documentary world premiere, Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine’s “Copa 71” (seller: Dogwoof), about an historic international women’s soccer tournament lost to sports history. The filmmakers bring us back to the record-setting crowds assembled in Mexico City in 1971. U.S. soccer star Alice Morgan and athletes Venus and Serena Williams are among the film’s executive producers.

That’s the sort of unexpected story that veteran TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers sought for this year’s documentary program of 22 titles from 12 countries. While it’s always painful to whittle down the selection from 800 feature submissions (the post-pandemic production boom continues), Powers looked at giving a boost to sales titles at a time when “there’s a slow market for documentaries,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It’s important for me to create a space to give the best advantage to films produced independently and looking for a platform to launch around the world.”

In fact, this year’s program highlights eight sales titles, including several high-profile directors, when TIFF 2022 only boasted three.

Anonymous Content is selling “Taxi to the Dark Side” Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s Paul Simon doc “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” a Special Presentation, which tracks Simon’s in-studio recording of his most recent album, his fifteenth, “Seven Psalms,” as he was dealing with hearing loss. “It’s the definitive portrait of Paul Simon over six decades,” said Powers.

For sale by CAA is new work from “Wasteland” Oscar-nominee Lucy Walker, who tracks a Whole Foods dishwasher who makes money on the side as a mountain climber chasing a world record on her 10th ascent of Mount Everest in “Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa.”

“As opposed to fighting in the trenches and on the front line,” said Powers, “The Great Hack” co-director Karim Amer’s film “Defiant” shows Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba and his colleagues as they wage a diplomatic war against disinformation.

And on the lighter side, “This American Life” TV director Chris Wilcha’s “Flipside” (seller: UTA), executive produced by Judd Apatow, focuses on Wilcha’s midlife crisis as he attempts to save a New Jersey record store he worked in as a teenager. “Ira Glass makes a memorable appearance,” said Powers. “Every doc lineup needs some comedy and this supplies it.”

Produced by The New York Times, Caroline Suh and Cara Mones’ “Sorry/Not Sorry” looks hard at the career fallout for the women who accused Louis C.K. of sexual harassment. “It will generate a lot of conversation,” said Powers.

Also for sale is newcomer Clair Titley’s “The Contestant,” a stranger-than-fiction portrait of Japan’s reality TV star Nasubi. “It’s the most WTF title in the doc lineup,” said Powers. “A Japanese reality TV star in the ‘90s is confined to a single room naked for one year. He had to fill out magazine sweepstakes coupons for food and clothing for survival. He didn’t know he was becoming one of the most famous people in Japan.”

Among high-profile names possibly in Oscar contention are Raoul Peck, whose “Silver Dollar Road” (Amazon), seven years after Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro,” chronicles how a Black family fights for decades to keep their North Carolina property from land developers. “It’s a bracing look at Black resistance to systemic racism,” said Powers, “based on reporting from the New Yorker and ProPublica.”

On a similar theme, Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams’ “Stamped from the Beginning” (Netflix) is based on the bestseller by historian Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (“How to Be an Anti-Racist”) and examines the history of anti-Black racism in the U.S. “He brings all his talents to bear,” said Powers, “using style, animation, and a hip-hop soundtrack to make history vibrant.”

International and North American Premieres from legendary filmmakers include Frederick Wiseman’s “Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros,” in which the 93-year-old director embeds inside a French restaurant that’s held three Michelin stars for more than 50 years. “it’s a luxurious film feast,” said Powers. “Make sure you have a meal before you watch the film, or it will be a four-hour torture session of watching delicious food.”

Errol Morris’ latest exercise in style, “The Pigeon Tunnel” (Apple TV+), showcases his interview with former British spy David John Moore Cornwell, who wrote under the name John le Carré. It was the last interview before he died on December 12, 2020.

Frederick WisemanAurelie Lamachere/SIPA

Rounding out TIFF Docs 2023 with North American Premieres are Lina Soualem’s “Bye Bye Tiberias,” in which the director profiles her mother ― Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (“Succession”) ― exploring her choice to leave her home village 30 years ago to chase an acting career; and Asmae El Moudir’s “The Mother of All Lies,” winner of two awards at Cannes in which ― on a handmade set recreating her Casablanca neighbourhood ― a young Moroccan filmmaker enlists family and friends to solve mysteries of her childhood; and Pierre-Henri Gibert’s “Viva Varda!,” which profiles film pioneer Agnès Varda with new perspectives on her autobiographical work.

More announcements will be coming in the following weeks. This year’s festival runs September 7 – 17.

TIFF Docs

“Boil Alert,” Stevie Salas, James Burns | Canada/USA (World Premiere)

“Bye Bye Tiberias,” Lina Soualem | France/Belgium/Qatar/Palestine (North American Premiere, Sales Title)

“Copa 71,” Rachel Ramsay, James Erskine | United Kingdom (World Premiere, Sales Title)

“Defiant,” Karim Amer | Ukraine/United Kingdom/USA (World Premiere, Sales Title)

“Flipside,” Chris Wilcha | USA (World Premiere, Sales Title)

“God is a Woman,” Andrés Peyrot | France/Switzerland/Panama (North American Premiere, Sales Title)

“Homecoming,” Suvi West, Anssi Kömi | Finland/Norway (World Premiere)

“In the Rearview,” Maciek Hamela | Poland/France/Ukraine (North American Premiere, Sales Title)

“Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros,” Frederick Wiseman | France/USA (North American Premiere, Sales Title)

“Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa,” Lucy Walker | USA (World Premiere, Sales Title)

“Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe,” Robert McCallum | Canada (World Premiere)

“Silver Dollar Road,” Raoul Peck | USA (World Premiere)

“Songs of Earth,” Margreth Olin | Norway (North American Premiere, Sales Title)

“Sorry/Not Sorry,” Caroline Suh, Cara Mones | USA (World Premiere, Sales Title)

“Stamped from the Beginning,” Roger Ross Williams | USA (World Premiere)

“Summer Qamp,” Jen Markowitz | Canada (World Premiere, Sales Title)

“The Contestant,” Clair Titley | United Kingdom (World Premiere, Sales Title)

“The Mother of All Lies,” Asmae El Moudir | Morocco/Egypt/Saudi Arabia/Qatar (North American Premiere, Sales Title)

“The Pigeon Tunnel,” Errol Morris | United Kingdom/USA/Hungary (International Premiere)

“The World is Family,” Anand Patwardhan | India (World Premiere, Sales Title”

“Viva Varda!,” Pierre-Henri Gibert | France (North American Premiere, Sales Title)

“Walls,” Kasia Smutniak | Italy (World Premiere, Sales Title)