Bigger and Bigger: Toronto International Film Festival 2000

Plowing the Future

A cleaned-up New York, a tiny Los Angeles, an overgrown Cleveland. Over the years, Toronto has been described in various ways, although none of these comparisons actually tells you very much about T-dot. Perhaps Toronto is best characterized as “ever-changing.” The landmark that defines its skyline, the CN (Canadian National) Tower, is a mile-high needlepoint of poured concrete, glass, and steel that suggests nothing in particular save a vague idea of urban concentration and World’s Fair-type “progress.” Toronto is the tack on the map on your wall that tells you that you’ve been there, but nothing much more specific.

In the last few years Toronto has made a fortune in the film and television industry as a stand-in for New York-Chicago-L.A.-Anycity, USA. It’s hardly surprising, then, that for two weeks every year Toronto dresses up as Cannes quite capably and puts on a film festival. Ever since Hollywood “discovered” it sometime in the late eighties, the Toronto International Film Festival has become increasingly influential and popular. This year, it seemed that the Festival was repeatedly reminding its patrons, “Hey, I’m big.” And in turn, the response expected from moviegoers was, “This is big… and I’m here.” However, I think that somewhere in the middle of this bigness, something was lost.

The 25th edition of the Festival was saturated with a nostalgic revelry, which, while loudly lamenting the disappearance of the hedonism of the late seventies, promised a future of relentless growth, if not world domination. In the end, all of this pro-Festival rhetoric left me a little raw (the city’s cable access channel was dedicated to 24-hour Festival coverage). I started to fear for future Festivals, in particular the shrinking place for smaller films if the program continued to swell with each coming year. Something seemed to be changing. The openness — the simultaneous range of choices and the friendliness — of the Festival was dissipating with each screening.

The possibility of openness is one reason I love film festivals. First, this has to do with choices: if every day were a festival, options for moviegoers would be astonishingly broad, staggering even. Marriages would break up and friends would cease to speak with one another when confronted with the task of selecting a film from the weekly listings. There would be no need for an Iranian cinema craze to bring worthwhile films to the attention of faraway movie fans. Dutch directors would make films that might seem out of place next to Hollywood blockblusters, but they would be available on their own terms. Second, festivals are often taken over by something greater than the films themselves. It’s more than just the cinematic equivalent of Ponderosa’s mile-long salad bar. A festival offers the idea of a temporary community, a group of nomadic filmgoers who, thrown together after too much time eating poorly in dark rooms, find much more in common with each other than anyone else in the world. Nobody talks to strangers after a matinee at the AMC30 off the interstate, but at a festival, viewers just might and then go for coffee later.

This year’s Festival was no disappointment, but there was something different about it. There were diverse films and enthusiastic viewers, but there was also “the book.” Brian D. Johnson’s Brave Films, Wild Nights, commissioned by the Festival organizers, chronicled a quarter century of Festival madness in Toronto. Excerpted in almost every major Canadian newspaper and magazine, it tells the story of a handful of young upstart dreamers who struggled with censorship, coke binges, and Jack Nicholson to build what is now among the largest and most influential film festivals in the world. Even as it told this story, the program seemed just one more way that the Festival exerted its presence as both happening and commodity.

As if to emphasize this split, the latest Festival featured scores of no-name movies, but also gave its participants glassed-in VIP rooms, which were little more than fishbowls for gawking at celebrities. (Someone told me that during the Festival, there were buses running from satellite cities in the Greater Toronto Area to bring retirees to the glamourous Yorkville neighbourhood to star-gaze.) But Toronto, to both its credit and detriment, has in the past managed to encompass the extremes of other film festivals: the big and the little, the good and the excessive. Now that the 2000 Festival is over, there are still a few posters up, but most signs of it have been swept away by the street-cleaning crews. Some of the stars have gone home or wherever they go. At least Gwyneth and her dad have. Many of the other big names (Denzel Washington, Tia Carerre and her fellow cast members from TV’s Relic Hunter) are still here working on projects, taking advantage of generous government subsidies and a stunted Canadian dollar. The flood of press passes and media attention has receded and it’s possible again to see a movie without making plans two weeks in advance. This means that finally, away from the crowds, the stars, and the angry aunties and uncles in rush-lines, it’s time to take stock of what took place this year at the Festival.

To begin with, there was no Dancer in the Dark. That was the film that got away and it came up often in discussions about who had seen what. It was the one that everybody would have loved to have seen, but nobody had. Not that there were too many tears shed: with 328 films from 56 countries, there was more than enough on local screens to satisfy even the most surly and world-weary cinemaniac. This year, digital video made its Big Splash. While there had been several DV films shown at previous festivals (most notably festival favourite Hal Hartley’s Book of Life and the Dogme 95 films), it was this year that people really began to talk very loudly about the possibilities that the new format offers to filmmakers. A cover story in one of the city’s free weeklies weighed the consequences of the carte-blanche DV gives to “unknown” artists. A panel of directors discussed “films that break the mold” and reiterated the now-familiar vision of a kid in the basement making the next Blair Witch with his mom’s camera. Among the films that put this talk into practice is La moitíe gauche du frigo, Philippe Falardeau’s first feature and winner of the Discovery Canada Award for New Canadian Filmmakers. This wonderful film forcefully evokes the dehumanising effects of unemployment, framed as a mock documentary.

Other films worthy of brief mention include Baltasar Kormákur’s 101 Rekyavik, a bizarre coming-of-age film (its hero is 28 years old) that does more to sell Rekyavik as the new home of international Bohemia than even Björk. The director describes it as a somewhat offbeat take on Hamlet. The film’s light touch with questions about individual responsibility makes its point in a way that left me in an honestly positive state of mind. Moreover, it has one of the more interesting soundtracks of recent years, consisting wholly of annoyingly trippy covers of the Kinks’ “Lola,” by Damon Albarn (Blur) and Einar Orn (ex-Sugarcubes). As well, City Loop, Belinda Chayko’s first film, is a very stylish portrayal of meaningless teen lives in an Australian suburb. The fact that the film is a little short in the story department is more than made up for by the ultra-vivid colours used to evoke an early 21st-century milieu. It reminds me of Greg Araki’s movies, with its use of jarring images and unlikely situations to elicit powerful emotions. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won the People’s Choice Award. It’s a well-executed excursion into Hong Kong action cinema and, while interesting, left me pretty cold aside from some of the fight scenes. And Iranian director Bahman Farmanara’s semi-autobiographical Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (Booye Kafoor, Atre Yas) made me think of Woody Allen’s best work.

I was also impressed by the Preludes Series, commissioned by the Film Festival to precede each film, and the Beckett on Film set of shorts. This year’s Preludes were a tremendous improvement over previous year’s prefatory shorts. A set of ten short films by noted Canadian filmmakers (David Cronenberg, Patricia Rozema, Don McKellar, et. al.), they introduced each of the films at the Festival. Atom Egoyan’s The Line offers a clever cross-section of the Festival’s 25 year history by following a line that spans every year of the festival from 1975 to the present. Similarly, Jean Pierre Lefebvre’s See You in Toronto is a crash course in the history of Canadian cinema, and Canada itself, from 1608 to the present. While definitely specific to the Festival, the Preludes are curious and exciting experiments in the short film genre made by some seasoned hands, a welcome break from Dentyne ads and car commercials that usually usher in features. The Beckett on Film series, parts of which are also being shown at the New York Film Festival, offers several bold interpretations of the playwright’s works. Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Atom Egoyan and starring John Hurt, is among the finest short films I have ever seen. I can only hope that PBS or a cable network has the foresight to purchase these films and give them a wider audience. They will undoubtedly be on the festival circuit for some time to come.

So, that’s the festival as I experienced it, and there are at least 250 other movies that I didn’t see and heard nothing about. In the theatre everything went well, outside things sometimes weren’t so pretty. I made a point to talk to someone at each of the screenings I attended in order to get some perspective of what was going on around me. I heard the same story from a variety of people, from fans to people in the “business”. They had very positive things to say about the films: every day I heard about another film I wished I’d gone to see. They also told horror stories about long lines or other absurdities in and around the theatres — for example, a dominatrix distributing Altoids Curiously Strong Mints, who made you say “please” if you wanted a promo pack, and pretended to whip you before moving on to the next person. Everyone I spoke to told me that “something” had changed since the first time they’d come to the Festival, but they couldn’t put their finger on what it was.

This is how it looks to me: Toronto is at a crossroads. For the last few years, the Festival has been capably balancing its three primary mandates: promoting Canadian cinema, introducing new filmmakers, and staging mind-blowing, star-studded premieres for Access Hollywood. In a strategy that has become standard in Canadian cultural industries, the Film Festival uses the big Hollywood films to support the lesser-known and local talent (see the Canadian cable industry for the road map to this strategy). Unfortunately, as the Festival expands in size and threatens (or promises) to supercede Cannes as the primary international marketplace for films, the risk of growing schisms between these three goals increases. It is still possible to move from big money galas to smaller screenings without a disorienting loss of continuity, but the transition is hardly effortless (the stress has mostly to do with availability of tickets). The Hollywood pictures are lightning rods for local and international press coverage. Everybody was talking about Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, but nobody said anything much about Gary Burns’ waydowntown, one of this year’s outstanding debuts. I may be letting my idealism show, but to see such divisions take over the Festival will eventually reduce chances for independent films to be seen by large numbers of viewers. As for solutions, well, we can talk about that while waiting in line next year.