Bill Reports from Toronto

For ten days in September the narrow sidewalk at the corner of King St and John in downtown Toronto becomes an incessant roiling mass of purposeful humanity.

There stands the Bell (sponsored) Lightbox, the fairly fabulous year-round home and primary venue of North America’s biggest Film Festival. Movie-going throngs must dodge other throngs: squads of managers muttering urgently into headsets; excitable hordes of celebrity stalkers; clusters of volunteers notable for their cheery greetings and their endearing shrugs when asked for basic information. Bringing a hint of genuine discomfit to the happy melee, there’s a permanent protest being staged by Bell TV workers. “TIFF deserves a sponsor that represents the values of the Festival,” is their catchcry. How impeccably polite they are.

Much Ado About Nothing

The values they were invoking so diplomatically are etched into Toronto’s self-image: isn’t this the people’s Festival – where, as a pre-screening slide put it, the audience makes the next big movie? (The producers of Whale Rider, a past winner of the Toronto audience award, know just what this means.)

Attending “Press and Industry” (P&I) screenings you might be forgiven for suspecting that the values prevailing at TIFF are the same cynical values that the demonstrators ascribe to Bell. Commercial assessment sets the tone, and with so many films on display, it happens fast. “This isn’t a market,” one critic quipped, “It’s a supermarket.” But reviewers like to be players too and frequently join in the cruel sport of predicting box office fortunes or flops.

It’s not official, but turning off the personal little screens in deference to the big one up front is optional at P&I screenings. “Respect the cinema experience,” I heard one reviewer protest to the operator of a beaming tablet several rows in front. “Take a pill, asshole,” came back the voice of the biz.

Official poster for Pieta

Aisle seats are at a premium as sudden departures are always on the cards. Injury to animals unleashes a stampede for the exits, demonstrating that buyers are attuned to a genteel arthouse crowd. When the mother in Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta began to pleasure the angry young man she called her son, you could watch the money heading out the doors. (Strange, considering the grotesque assaults on the human body and common sense already perpetrated in this lurid, ludicrously solemn Venice winner.)

Cloud Atlas

Meanwhile in a parallel universe involving the very same 300 films and the very same 20 something venues, pubic screenings are dominated by red carpet fever and the audience-anointment of Oscar contenders – The Master, Argo, Cloud Atlas and (eventual crowd favourite) Silver Linings Handbook. I did check out the predictably unwieldy Cloud Atlas adaptation in which the British actors far outshine the Americans in playing multiple roles; and Joss Whedon’s ebullient and witty contemporary rendering of Much Ado About Nothing. Here actors from Whedon’s TV series mine marvellous delights in Shakespeare’s romcom, all the while looking as though they strolled off a fashion shoot.

Tempting though it might be to be among the first with a view on the contenders for next February’s race for your dollar - there are many other aisles for a Festival programmer to explore at this supermarket. What stood out this year was the great good value offered in the programmes designated “Wavelengths” and “TIFF Docs”.    

Tabu

The former programme has long been the home of experimental short films, but has been extended to include feature-length work. Tabu, which already found its admirers at NZIFF, was the big success. At first glance the documentary section seemed like yet another celebrity zone: anyone for Marilyn Monroe’s diary jottings? Her recipes? Snoop Dog sharing de herb with Bunny Wailer? Johnny Depp introducing West of Memphis? Spike Lee’s loving, funny, exhaustive 25th anniversary tribute to Michael Jackson’s Bad?  Sarah Polley’s family secrets and lies? As it turned out these last two were high among my TIFF highlights.

Stories We Tell

In Stories We Tell, Polley explores the legacy of her gregarious, chaotic, late mother through the significantly varying accounts of the survivors most directly affected. It is a poised and utterly involving exploration of the complexity of one generation’s impact on the next. It comes with thorny reminders of the frailty of memory and the usurping authority of narrative, never more vivid than when the narratives are spun by a whanau of professional performers and story-tellers. 

The Act of Killing

Away from the lifestyles of the famous, TIFF Docs most memorable (and problematic) excursion, The Act of Killing invites veterans of the 60s death squads who carried out reprisals against Indonesia’s communists, to re-enact their vilest actions for the camera. Completed with the patronage of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, veteran interrogators of the darkest hearts, this film raises many more questions than it can answer. What it does do, with disconcerting bravado, is drive us into the thick of violent trauma that clearly continues to shadow life in the world’s fourth most populous land.

Another stand-out for me was to be found in the loosely defined Contemporary World Cinema section (think of our own loosely defined Worlds of Difference). Jem Cohen’s earlier experimental essays in urban anomie would make him seem a natural for the Wavelengths section, but alienation finds its antidote here in the galleries of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A middle-aged Canadian woman visiting a comatose relative in the city, not knowing another soul there, is befriended by an urbane and gentlemanly gallery attendant. They quickly strike a lovely accord of mutual amusement and candour. Their meetings and conversations are enlivened by the company of paintings – the museum’s Breughels in particular. The film quietly glories in the wealth of experience and generosity of spirit animating a great public institution – while shrewdly identifying some of the mean or merely oblivious spirits contained within. TIFF deserves a sponsor that represents the values of Museum Hours! I know NZIFF would be very happy to meet one. 

Bill Gosden

26 September 2012