The 2016 Toronto International Film Festival kicked off last night, and the city is once again alive with the buzz of filmmakers, actors, sales agents, and of course, audiences. The city is also, once again, alive with the groans of certain Torontonians, eager to point out the celebrity culture of the festival, and to poo-poo the direction it has taken since its start in 1976 (then known as the Festival of Festivals). It seems that every year I get into a conversation or five about how the festival has sold out, and how it’s all about celebrity now, and on and on and on. So, I wanted to share my point of view of the festival, as someone who has been facilitating Q&As at TIFF since 2011, and sees a very particular part of the proceedings.
I don’t know the films in TIFF until everyone else finds out about them. And I often don’t see the films until right before I facilitate the Q&A (sometimes, I don’t even get to see the whole film, if I’m running in and replacing someone last minute!). So, I know very little about what went into programming the films. My job is to get a conversation going between the creative team, and TIFF audiences. It’s a thrilling job, not only because I get to see movies all day long, but because I also get to hear about the process of telling these stories and getting them to the screen.
I’m not a huge fan of celebrity, or of what celebrity has done to the nature of filmmaking and financing in our industry. It saddens me that you can’t get a movie financed sometimes unless a celebrity is attached, whether that celebrity is right for the film or not. It saddens me that we are more interested in what women are wearing at a red carpet premiere, than why it’s so much harder for them to get jobs directing the films that will get a red carpet premiere. It’s frustrating for me, as a creator of content, to know that the obstacles to getting these films made and seen are larger if you’re living in Canada, and trying to make work happen for artists here. All of these things are challenging. But it’s also frustrating to me that most folks I know who complain about TIFF aren’t able to see past these realities to engage with the films themselves. Because: that’s where the gold is.
My fondest memories of TIFF are about the people who make movies, and the people who come to watch those movies. I remember Viggo Mortensen spending so much time talking to fans one by one outside the theatre, and then rushing in to be both the actor and the Spanish Language interpretor for the Todos Tenemos un Plan Q&A (an Argentinean film he was in). He was so genuine. All about the film. All about the art. All there to help the director, Ana Piterbarg, communicate her story.
I remember a Nigerian audience member weep with joy at seeing a story about Nigeria on the screen, and thank the creative team profusely during a Q&A for the Biyi Bandele film Half of a Yellow Sun, with Chiwotel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton.
I remember the emotion that swelled in the Elgin Theatre when some of the miners from Wales depicted in the film Pride came onto the stage, so proud to have this story of triumph and community told through the film. I remember Andrew Scott speaking out about the need for this LGBTQ story on screens.
I remember seeing an Israeli film about assisted suicide called The Farewell Party, that made me cry and laugh out loud in equal measure. It changed my perceptions about aging. About loss.
And I remember directors from Greece talking about the horrible conditions during the first months of the economic crisis when Athens was the host City for the City to City Program in 2013. I remember watching those films. They were difficult to watch. Such a reflection of what was happening there at that time. So important to see.
These are powerful moments. They bring people together. They remind me why art exists — why films exist. They remind me that the Toronto International Film Festival is a place where we can go and see movies that might not get international distribution. Movies that are not just acts of expression, but, in some cases, acts of political activism. Movies that help us to identify with the world beyond our borders. It’s huge.
Of course, in order to have these experiences, to have a festival that represents so many and can show so much, the celebrity set has to be included. It’s part of the ecosystem of the festival, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I also don’t think that everyone who wants to snap a selfie with a celebrity is a vapid, celebrity-obsessed robot, as some would suggest. I’ve had my star-struck moments – Emma Thomson talking to me via cell-phone on the Elgin stage, Clive Owen laughing at my joke, Morgan Freeman singing along with ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” backstage at the Winter Garden during the credits of his film, waiting to go on for a Q&A. I have many celebrity moments like that as well. But mostly, I’ve been moved by storytellers, and grateful that my job allows me to have such wonderful conversations about film, and humanity, and the world.
I have thoughts about TIFF’s relationship to the Canadian film industry. Thoughts for another post, to be sure. But for now, I’m looking forward to the intimate, moving, and hilarious conversations that emerge from filmmakers sharing these films with Toronto audiences. It’s such a joyful experience. I hope to see you at the theatre!