Ten Days in Toronto

Roger Ebert, when asked about film festivals, said "Don't go to Cannes, go to Toronto." Last month I attended the 26th Toronto International Film Festival and understood what Ebert meant. Once in Toronto, the festival is exciting, convenient, and, at times, sheer joy. The whole city is behind the festival. Toronto's best theaters take a hiatus from their usual fare and devote their screens to the celebration. The bulk of these theaters are all within walking distance of each other, making travel relatively easy. Restaurants abound and the people are friendly.

The festival has its own flavor that gradually develops into a rhythm. Seeing 4-5 movies a day, film can take up your very existence. You know very little about the films before you see them. You're really just relying on the descriptions in the festival catalogue and website. These glowing summaries would have you think that every film is a classic that simply cannot be missed. The uncertainty is not unsettling but rather electrifying, giving the whole festival a sense of adventure and discovery. So please indulge me as I share a little of my journey:

DAY 2 -- I got my first taste of Midnight Madness, a festival series that has developed into its own subculture. The films define the term "edgy," often for their violence, but more often for their sheer outlandishness. The combination of the films and the psyched rowdy audience gives the whole series a rock concert atmosphere. The opening Midnight Madness entry was Versus, a Japanese action film, featuring gunplay, swordplay, martial arts, and some zombies. The savagery in the film would make Sam Peckinpah blush. Characters' faces were caved in and the film took the phrase "eat your heart out" literally.

DAY 3 -- Until today the quality of the films I had seen was uneven at best, mediocre at worst. The highlight had been Quitting, a Chinese film from Zhang Yang, the director of Shower. But today was the best of the festival so far, with three unique and refreshing films in a row:

  • Silent Partner -- A sweet, moving Australian film about two dimwitted, but loyal, losers and their ill-fated attempt to train and run a race dog. Terrific performances and strong chemistry between the two leads.

  • Dog Days -- A funny but unnerving series of interlocking vignettes from Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. The film is visually distinctive and showcases an uncanny eye for composition. But it also feels naturalistic as you feel like you are eavesdropping on these characters' lives. The film has no heroes, and shows its protagonists sadism, masochism cruelty, humiliation and desperation. But strange is this sounds, the film is not without hope. Dog Days holds nothing back, and you have to be willing to go where it takes you.

  • Lovely Rita -- Engaging while disconcerting, this film combines elements of Roman Polanski's Repulsion with Truffaut's 400 Blows. Lovely Rita keeps its distance from the lead character, a disconnected unhappy 14-year-old German girl. By not letting you get to close to Rita, the film challenges your preconceptions as Rita's antics descend from amusing hijinks to some rather disturbing acts.

Not only were these films exhilarating, but they also illustrated why I came to the festival in the first place. None of these films has any chance of U.S. distribution. Silent Partner does not have enough exposure, Dog Days would get an NC-17 rating for some rather graphic sex scenes, while Lovely Rita's depiction of children would easily scare off any American distributor.

DAY 4 -- My biggest surprise came with Dogtown and Z-Boys, a rollicking documentary about the late 70's skateboarding scene in the Dogtown neighborhood of Los Angeles. I would never have seen this film were it not part of the Midnight Madness series. Going in, I had roughly much as interest in skateboarding as I did Russian furniture. Dogtown and Z-Boys not only made me not only care about skateboarding, but revel in it. Every frame of the film resonated with passion for the skateboarding lifestyle and the techniques, which were presented as a form of street art. As with many stellar documentaries, Dogtown and Z-Boys perfectly captured a certain time and place. The killer soundtrack, including Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath, didn't hurt either.

DAY 5 -- Uneventful, with the exception of two documentaries, the Palestinian Nazareth 2000 and the Israeli It's About Time. Nazareth 2000 showed scenes from the daily lives of a few Palestinian residents and Nazareth prepared for a visit from the Pope. It's About Time featured Israelis from all walks of life commenting on the nature of time itself and how they relate to it. For instance, since virtually all Israelis are required to join the army upon turning 18, many young people dread a time of their lives that most American teenagers eagerly anticipate. The most remarkable aspect of these films was the little to no mention of the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Granted, both films were shot before the fighting intensified a year ago. But it was still refreshing to glimpse life in the Middle East without the constant drumbeat of violence. By eliminating that prism we could see the peculiarities, outlook emotions, joys and frustrations that define these people's existence. Nazareth 2000 and It's About Time were made completely independently of each other but viewed together illustrate the similarities between the two peoples and cultures, similarities that are now obscured by the awful bloodshed.

DAY 6 -- Brutal reality invaded the cinema sanctuary today. The festival canceled the day's screenings in response to the terrorist attacks in the United States. All of a sudden the television was filled with images much more striking than anything I saw at the festival. Instead of the joy and wonder of film, I was consumed with shock and horror for the devastation. Instead of delight and anticipation, I felt pain and sympathy for the dead, the wounded, and the many others whose lives were forever altered that horrific day. Sometimes I see movies as a refuge from daily life, but this day was a graphic reminder that film is but a part of a larger world.

The festival continued, but it wasn't the same. It simply couldn't be. Many directors scheduled to attend couldn't make it. Even some of the films themselves were stuck in transit. Screenings were canceled and rescheduled. Much of the time between films now was consumed with travel arrangements. More importantly, the mood and tone of the festival changed in the ways you would expect: more somber and reflective, still anxious about events far away. Even the normally raucous Midnight Madness audience became relatively quiet and subdued. Looking back, I admire the festival staff and volunteers for persevering and ensuring that the participants would enjoy their films and the whole experience, as much as possible.

DAY 7 -- How do I describe The American Astronaut? I loved this Midnight Madness film, but I also tie myself in knots trying to relate it to anyone. Let's see, it's a black-and-white sci-fi/western/musical/comedy. The film takes these genres and drops them in a Cuisinart. The effects are so intentionally cheesy that they would make the old Buck Rogers serials seem like The Matrix. I won't even touch the plot. Let's just say that The American Astronaut is pure fun, and I enjoyed every minute of it, though I can't tell you why. I simply hope it receives some sort of U.S. distribution so you can find out for yourselves.

DAY 8 -- Next to day 3, the best set of films I've seen at the festival, and another reminder of the reason I came to the festival in the first place. Again I saw three unique, beautifully crafted films in a row:

  • The Grey Zone -- Many Holocaust stories have clear good and evil, but what about the Sonderkommando? These were Jews helped Nazis murder thousands of people at the concentration camps. They escorted the inmates to the gas chamber while telling them that it was only a shower. Afterwards, they would take the bodies to the ovens. In return, the Sonderkommando received good food and accommodations (better than their fellow Jews received). They also got an extra four months to live. The Grey Zone is a heart-wrenching film about the Sonderkommando. As the title indicates, the story is filled with moral ambiguity, tough questions and no easy answers.

  • Jalla! Jalla! -- Hilarious Swedish film about the lives and misadventures of two twenty-something friends. The film features some outlandish situations, but it works because it establishes the characters so well. Strong pacing and performances.

  • Y tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too) -- This Mexican film combines elements of a road movie and a coming-of-age story in this nostalgic, heartfelt, sweet, poignant and funny tale of two high school buddies and an older woman. Y tu Mamá También effectively contrasts the guys rather juvenile worries with the woman's much more adult concerns. Director Alfonso Cuarón makes a daring choice by using a third-person all-knowing narrator. The choice works by giving the audience more information and a different perspective on both the lead and supporting characters.

The Grey Zone will be distributed here. I am not sure about the other two, but I believe each film would succeed both critically and commercially if it had the chance to play in America.

DAY 9 -- Beware the dark side. For festivals, the dark side is the chance that you might unwittingly end up watching a piece of mindless drivel. Unfortunately, I ventured into the dark side when informed that Loco Fever, the film I planned to see, had not arrived and would be replaced by Hotel. No, not the Rod Taylor version. This Hotel is Mike Figgis's latest venture into digital filmmaking. In a way Hotel is also the dark side of the "digital revolution." Mike Figgis was the director of Internal Affairs and Leaving Las Vegas, two solid, if unspectacular films. He first went digital with last year's Timecode. Figgis divided the screen into quarters, and telling four interrelated stories simultaneously so that audiences would be unable to pay attention on any one of them. He goes much further with Hotel, ostensibly about a Venice hotel with a friendly but cannibalistic staff, and a film crew shooting a movie. Figgis uses color, he uses black-and-white, he uses night vision. He divides the screen into halves, quarters and back again. Meanwhile he has no sense of a coherent narrative or interesting characters. This incomprehensible abomination illustrates the danger of filmmakers delving so far into the freedom of digital that they lose sight of effective storytelling.

DAY 10 -- The festival has transformed me into a huge admirer of Ulrich Seidl, whom I had never heard of before. After earlier viewing Dog Days, I then took in Seidl's Animal Love, the highlight of my final day at the festival. Unlike Dog Days, Animal Love is a documentary, but both films show Seidl's uncanny eye for composition and his fearless exploration of people's abnormalities. Seidl will put absolutely anything on film. Animal Love rotates among a series of people and their pets. As you might expect, the film reveals much more about the pet owners than the animals. Seidl shows the intense, unwavering, neurotic love of these people to their pets, a love that treads dangerously close to bestiality. He also shows the desperation and emptiness of these people and how the pets fill these voids in their lives. Seidl has a unique visual feel, for the most part eschewing close-ups for medium shots that perfectly place the person (and in the case of Animal Love, their pets) in their larger environment.

Ten days, forty-three films. Not all of the films were memorable, and there are some I would not recommend at all. But I got what I came for. The Toronto International Film Festival exposed me to films and filmmakers from around the world, with their different styles and perspectives. In some cases these films provided a window into other cultures, and certainly into other points-of-view. The festival showed the best and worst of what the world of cinema has to offer. The time was not without it's share of pitfalls, but I will always be grateful for the journey, the experiences, and the memories.

Adam Spector
October 16, 2001

Festival Favorites

Below is a list of my top ten films from the 26th Toronto International Film Festival. Most of these I described earlier. Be advised, I am not sure how many of these films will receive a U.S. distribution:

  1. Lovely Rita (2001), Austria/Germany -- directed by Jessica Hausner
  2. Dog Days (2001), Austria -- Directed by Ulrich Seidl<
  3. Y tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too) (2001), Mexico -- directed by Alfonso Cuarón
  4. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), U.S.A. -- directed by Stacy Peralta**
  5. The Grey Zone (2001), U.S.A. -- directed by Tim Blake Nelson**
  6. The American Astronaut (2000), U.S.A. -- directed by Cory McAbee**
  7. Jalla! Jalla! (2000), Sweden -- directed by Josef Fares
  8. Silent Partner (2000), Australia -- directed by Alkinos Tsilimidos>
  9. Animal Love (1995), Austria -- directed by Ulrich Seidl
  10. Quitting (2001), China -- directed by Zhang Yang**

**Will likely receive U.S. distribution

Other recommendations:

  • A Su Del Sole (South of the Sun) (2000), Italy -- directed by Pasquale Marrazzo
  • The Bank (2001), Australia -- directed by Robert Connolly Bintou, Burkina Faso (Africa) -- directed by Fanta Regina Necro
  • Broken Silence (2001), Spain -- directed by Monxto Armendáriz
  • Cyberman (2001), Canada -- directed by Peter Lynch
  • Full Time Killer (2001), Hong Kong and China -- directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai
  • The Hired Hand (1971), U.S.A. -- directed by Peter Fonda
  • Hush! (2001), Japan -- directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi
  • It's About Time (2001), Israel -- directed by Ayelet Menahemi and Elona Ariel
  • Mouka, Burkina Faso (Africa) -- directed by Adama Romaba
  • Nazareth 2000 (2000), Palestine -- directed by Hany Abu-Assad
  • The Orphan of Anyang (2001), China -- directed by Wang Chao
  • The Quickie (2001), Germany -- directed by Sergei Bodrov
  • Reines d'un Jour (A Hell of Day) (2001), France -- directed by Marion Vernoux
  • Treed Murray (2001), Canada -- directed by William Phillips

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