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Lights, Camera, Toronto!: Toronto International Film Festival


Mr. Pink: Why do I have to be Mr. Pink?… Why can’t we choose our own names?
Joe: No, I tried it before and it didn’t work. I had four guys fighting over Mr. Black!

It was 1992, and with a stylish splash of violence and tough guy poetry, high culture was dragged into the hard-boiled gutter of the genre picture—Reservoir Dogs was unleashed upon the world.

Although the film had already been screened at Sundance and Cannes, there had only been a minor buzz, nothing that would foretell the kind of phenomenon the film, and its director, Quentin Tarantino, would become. But it was in Toronto—everyday audiences floored by its wordy, blood-soaked audacity—that the film received its just coronation. Until then Tarantino was an unheralded nobody whose sole connection to the industry had been as a video store clerk.

While spotting celebrities may provide a certain thrill it can’t compare to the excitement of seeing a breakthrough film before it becomes a breakthrough. There’s a magic that happens when it’s shown publicly for the first or second time, as though the audience has become a surrogate to its proper birth. A film doesn’t exist really until it’s seen, until it finally unspools before others not involved in its creation, and its relationship to the world, to meaning, is created. This is true whether we’re following a young woman’s brutal coming of age (Rosetta) or the Earth-saving heroics of an elderly Elvis who rids his East Texas rest home of a restless demon out of Egyptian lore (Bubba Ho-Tep).

After the Reservoir Dogs screening I was given half an hour to interview Tarantino in his hotel suite. A gregarious, tightly-wound ball of manic energy, the director was more interested in talking about the other films, mainly Asian, he had seen at the festival rather than his own. He was amazed at how good the festival’s line-up was and the quality of the audiences. He mimicked (poorly) some martial arts moves he’d witnessed that afternoon, almost knocking over a table lamp. You wouldn’t have known he had just launched the hit of the festival, and the career of a Hollywood maverick. He was like any other Joe in the queue breathlessly prattling on about the film he got up at 7:30 in the morning to see.

Tarantino’s enthusiasm exemplifies TIFF’s success—it’s a result of its ability to bring industry and public together in a giant, yet manageable, 300+ film orgy over 10 September days. Its marketplace provides a forum for distributors, producers, directors and marketers to cut deals, while critics often get their first chance to glimpse films for future release. But it’s the audiences who make it relevant. Toronto filmgoers have proven a wise barometer of a film’s potential success; an avid response often determines whether a film gets a broad release, or merits the benefit of a healthy marketing campaign. It was in Toronto that American Beauty, Amélie, Central Station and Boys Don’t Cry first captivated audiences in North America and started the word-of-mouth.

One wonders how ever did Toronto become a film town? This is a city that comes by whatever glamour it does possess by hard work and sleight-of-hand. Lacking the romantic urban landmarks and cultural heritage of a New York, London or Paris—and let’s face it, Lake Ontario’s beaches are no match for the famed Croisette of Cannes, Toronto established itself as an important film hotbed with well-informed and open-minded audiences, and as a location stand-in for American cities such as Chicago and New York. The festival has played a critical role in establishing Toronto’s name internationally.

Founded in 1976 as the Festival of Festivals, TIFF really achieved its critical mass in the 1980s as a new generation of independent Toronto filmmakers, including Atom Egoyan, Bruce McDonald and Patricia Rozema—themselves emboldened by what the fest privileged them to see—emerged with a crop of startlingly original first features. At the same time, an aggressive tax credit system began luring American productions to the city, creating the infrastructure for the burgeoning local industry, and the festival itself earned a reputation for breaking international directors such as Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-Wai. TIFF became the undisputed highlight of the city’s cultural life, and the catalyst and convergence point for its nascent filmmaking community.

As it approaches its 30th year, TIFF is only now achieving its stride. Already one of the world’s top four film festivals in prestige and relevance alongside Venice, Berlin and Cannes, it also boasts year-round programming through its Cinematheque Ontario arm, an exhaustive film reference library, a springtime children’s festival and Film Circuit—a touring programme dedicated to bringing Canadian and international cinema to under-served communities across the country.

In my 20 years of attending the festival, I’ve discovered the heart-rending enigma that is Iranian cinema, had my eyes generously assaulted by the splatterpunk-gore of Japanese rebels Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike, and been rousted awake by an annoyed Theresa Russell during an ill-advised five-flick-a-day bender.

Later that same day when Reservoir Dogs debuted, I caught the Midnight Madness screening of Romper Stomper—one of the first film appearances of a young Australian named Russell Crowe in the role of a racist skinhead who tries to turn his back on the thug’s narrow life. The film’s relentless violence and mayhem was almost cartoonish in its excess, but Crowe’s raw charisma came across clear. Sometime half-way through the movie I realized the shifty guy slouching in the leather waistcoat next to me was Steve Buscemi, Reservoir Dogs‘ Mr. Pink himself (“How come I have to be Mr. Pink?”). When Romper Stomper came to its bloody conclusion and the credits rolled, I exchanged a few pleasantries with Buscemi and we both headed off into the 2 a.m. darkness, both of us newly energized. To this day, TIFF remains a people’s festival at heart. And you never know just who might be sitting next to.SO MANY MOVIES, SO LITTLE TIME.
With stories set in India, Toronto and small town USA, biopics of famous singers, medieval epics as well as comedies, deciding which of the more than 300 films at this Toronto International Film Festival to see, is tough. Read on for some of this year’s must-see movies.

This is a big year for Canadian cinema, with several of our best directors weighing in with their latest offerings. While the festival launched its Perspectives Canada programme in 1984, finally giving our movies a platform to be noticed alongside other national cinemas, the diversity and quality of Canadian films in recent years has meant the festival has moved them into other categories.

Among the directors receiving special gala presentations is hometown auteur David Cronenberg, the only director in the history of Cannes to receive his own special award for audacity (Crash, 1996) and his films can usually be called upon to create that much-needed frission that divides audiences and makes films festivals interesting. This year Cronenberg summons us into his dark, peculiar world with A History of Violence, featuring Viggo Mortensen in an adaptation of a graphic novel that tells the story of a small town American family whose placid life is overturned by sudden media celebrity and the return of the past crimes.

Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth star in Where the Truth Lies, an investigation into the seedier goings-on between a 1950s comedy duo, directed by Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter). And this year’s prestigious opening night gala goes to Deepa Mehta and her film Water, which completes her trilogy of India-based films, Fire and Earth. Mehta, whose career was launched at the festival in 1991 with the charming Sam and Me, was forced to extreme lengths to complete all three pictures as conservative Hindu political factions in India conspired against her. With Water she depicts the journey of an eight-year-old child bride whose husband dies, and following custom, is sent to a widows’ ashram, where she is expected to live out the rest of her days. But this child bride proves to be a resilient one and her presence affects the lives of the other widows, who until then had accepted their fate. Set in pre-independence India, Water mirrors the societal change that was occurring beyond the ashram as Mahatma Ghandi embarked upon his own quest for change.

Other Canadian directors returning with new pictures include Clement Virgo, whose sexually-explicit Lie With Me promises to stir audiences, and Sturla Gunnarsson with the medieval epic Beowulf & Grendel. Maritimer Thom Fitzgerald got his start at TIFF with the award-winning The Hanging Garden; his ambitious new project Three Needles is an examination of the AIDS epidemic on a global scale as it draws together characters from South Africa, Canada and China.

Beyond our borders the festival once again offers up an eclectic mix of art house faves, prestige Hollywood flicks, and independent films from around the globe. Making return appearances in the Masters programme with either world or North American premieres are Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L’Enfant), underappreciated Indian director Buddhadev Dasgupta (Kaalpurush), Taiwanese innovator Hou Hsiao Hsien (Three Times), and Thomas Vinterberg (Dear Wendy), the Danish provacateur who previously stunned audiences with the family breakdown classic The Celebration. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee, whose early Taiwanese films all screened at the festival, will be offering Brokeback Mountain, an understated tale of friendship between a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy. And it wouldn’t be a film festival without Wim Wenders hanging around; this time around he has collaborated with actor-writer Sam Shepard on Don’t Come Knocking.

Toronto is often the launching point for the American studios’ prestige films, who hope that the buzz surrounding their festival launch will propel them into box-office successes and Oscar contenders. The highly anticipated Johnny Cash biopic I Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Pheonix as the Man in Black, will receive its world premiere in Toronto, while director John Madden of Shakespeare in Love fame reunites with Gwyneth Paltrow for Proof. Also coming, to this year’s Festival is In Her Shoes, the latest from Academy Award-winning director Curtis Hansen and Elizabethtown, from Academy Award-winning director Cameron Crowe.—Christopher Frey

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