Revisiting Toronto

From 2000 through 2006, I went to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) six times. It became a yearly ritual that I eagerly anticipated. As I once wrote, TIFF was my beach house, where I could leave aside the pressures of regular life and immerse myself in what I loved. From 2007 on, my life changed and my priorities shifted. While I do not regret my decisions, I always missed the festival. Every September when I would read about TIFF’s hits and misses, I would always feel like I was a little less in tune with the film world than I used to be. It was the moviegoers’ party to which I was no longer invited. My wife knew I had to go back long before I did and she started encouraging me to return. This year she succeeded.

So much had changed since 2006. Everything grew bigger, with more films, more theaters and an extra day of screenings. I saw 50 films, which may seem like many, but it’s only a fraction of the 392 festival total. The festival now had its own theater, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a beautiful sleek building that felt more like a modern art gallery. The focus of the festival shifted from the uptown area, near the corner of Bloor and Yonge, to the downtown area on King Street. TIFF even shut down a section of King Street during the first four days for outdoor events.

Like many institutions, TIFF’s growth coincided with a drop in customer service. Some films, even one Midnight Madness movie, were labeled “Premium” and were reserved for those who paid considerably more. Keep in mind I already paid approximately $18 Canadian ($16-17) per film. Single tickets went for a whopping $24 apiece. The volunteers, as always, were nice and friendly, but they did not always know what was going on. Screenings routinely started late. I showed up at one film only to find out that it had been postponed for 75 minutes and that no one, not even the theater manager, knew why.

Not everything changed. Some of the programmers remained including Colin Geddes, ringmaster of the Midnight Madness series, a mini-festival unto itself. Midnight Madness was exactly the same. Geddes filled the series with action, horror and sci-fi. The spirited, raucous audiences hollered, screamed, threw beach balls, and talked back to the movies. It’s not for everyone, but for those films and that time of night, the atmosphere made me feel like I was back where I belonged.

You don’t have to be in a theater to get caught up in the festival. The whole city gets behind TIFF. You see signs for it everywhere and hear about it walking around on the streets. This is Toronto’s calling card, the way Mardi Gras is for New Orleans. That pride and spirit grew even stronger while I was away.

Of course the atmosphere, location and spirit mean little if the films don’t deliver. The quality, breadth, and variety of films kept me coming back to Toronto those many years ago. This time I tried for a balance between larger films that would open in America and smaller ones that might never be seen at home; between known filmmakers and discoveries; and between North America and other parts of the world. I saw films from the U.S., Canada, England, France, Denmark, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Finland, China, Singapore, Russia, Poland, Israel, Argentina, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Australia and New Zealand. I saw the latest from Barry Levinson, David Cronenberg, François Ozon, Denys Arcand, Lone Scherfig, and Susanne Bier, not to mention Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, but many more from filmmakers I had never heard of. I describe some of my favorites in a separate column.

The festival offered a chance to see many of these filmmakers in person. My biggest thrill was seeing Al Pacino and Barry Levinson for the Q&A with their new film The Humbling. Some other highlights:

  • I could not pass up a chance to see a Cronenberg film in Toronto. It would be like seeing a Levinson film in Baltimore or a Spike Lee film in Brooklyn. Cronenberg introduced Maps to the Stars, while the audience gasped and roared its approval. He’s a rock star there.

  • Even though you’re only seeing the people from a distance you can still feel a connection. The filmmakers are excited or even moved by the audience’s reaction. Krysztof Zanussi, director of Foreign Body, almost broke down when discussing the death of his longtime collaborator Wojciech Kilar, whose score for the film was his last.

  • I asked Arcand why his film An Eye for Beauty ended rather abruptly. Arcand replied that he had to shorten the film for his distributor and complained that distributors always want the shortest film possible: “shorter and funnier.”

Some of the Q&As can make you wonder. After Hyena, a film about corrupt cops, the director and star said that they had spent time with real corrupt cops. I wondered if they realized that this was a public screening or just assumed that the corrupt cops they knew wouldn’t care.

Towards the end of the festival, I saw Dukthar, the story of a mother in Pakistan desperately trying to save her prepubescent daughter from an arranged marriage. The story of the making of the film, by a female director on location in Pakistan, was as gripping as the film itself. So naturally someone asked the film’s producer about Pakistan’s cell phone coverage.

My favorite Q&A didn’t involve a filmmaker at all. Director Danis Tanovic had left before the screening of Tigers, his docudrama about a former Nestlé salesman who tried to stop the company from selling baby formula in Pakistan. The formula, when combined with polluted water, gravely harmed babies. But when he tried to expose this, his life and livelihood were threatened. The salesman had to flee Pakistan for his safety, and resettled in Toronto. So it was this real-life hero, Syed Aamir Raza, and his wife who answered questions, after a long standing ovation. One of the questioners said that her brother found out about the same problem in the 1970s, tried to take on Nestlé, and met with a similar fate as Raza. It’s not every day that you can meet someone who risked and lost so much in trying to make the world better.

In the end, TIFF reminded me that it’s the movies that matter. It’s so easy to get caught up in hype, celebrity or box office figures; but, if you truly love film, none of that really matters. What matters are filmmakers like Afia Nathaniel, who struggled for ten years to make Dukthar and succeeded despite overwhelming odds. What matters is, in the words of Mark Twain, “a good story, well told.” Thankfully TIFF had plenty of those, and that’s what makes the festival so rewarding.

See Toronto 2014: Festival Favorites for an annotated list of favorites from the 2014 festival.

Adam Spector
October 1, 2014

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