I always feel like the calamitous meets the surreal this time of year. Maybe it’s seasonal, what with the changing over from summer to autumn. Transformation and transfiguration are afoot. There’s a strange energy of walking through the threshold of something vaguely important, especially for me this time of year. Early September comes and goes and I always feel like something has totally shifted.
The terrorist attacks of 2001 irrevocably underlined, on a personal level, this profound sense of shifting from one mode into another. And yet, along with sadness and fear, there’s also a mountain of excitement that comes with this change. The annual Toronto International Film Festival is on and the city goes mad for movies. Sure there are the “stars” but people are also interested, I believe, in seeing something new, unique, and unusual. It was this promise -this encapsulation of strange, surreal, and transformative -that propelled me to start attending the film festival so many moons ago. Now, as a journalist covering the fest (my second year), I’m finding myself wistful for the old days, if also equally inspired by the way the event brings the city together and makes people excited about Toronto. Sure, there are foreigners everywhere, and it’s usually the celebs getting the flashbulbs, but people are still out and about, curious to be a part of a larger event, and taking a chance they might see something special at the multiplex.
I’m only covering a handful of things, but they’re goodies. I’ve already done a story on two of the Bravo!FACT shorts, a piece on the National Film Board of Canada’s animated works, and a feature interview with director Guy Maddin. While they’re smaller works, I kind of feel it’s the spirit of these quiet, poetic works that still nicely encapsulates the original feeling of the TIFF -back when it was called the Festival of Festivals. I still have programs from that time on bookshelves in my basement, and every time I see their aging spines, flecked with creases and scratches, I harken back to all those times I lined up in the rain, or the wind, or the heat, just to catch that exact “something special.” The Toronto International Film Festival was a big reason why I went on to film school long ago. I loved the movies. Lately I’ve been re-examining that time in detail, examining my motivations, my choices, and the eventual outcomes that lead me here, now. It makes for heavy thought (if equally boring reading, ha) but it also gives me a unique perspective on the fest, and my own personal memories.
Without going into a laundry-list of moments and meetings, I’ll just share a few special TIFF-going experiences. The first was meeting Nigel Hawthorne, who is perhaps best-known to North American audiences as poor mad King George in The Madness of King George. (He was here at the time for Twelfth Night.) He was warm, funny, and very sincere. Once he gleaned that he had a true theatre afficionado stood before him, he really opened up, whence a stream of lovely conversation between us poured forth. In a similar vein, I remember seeing the premiere screening of Al Pacino‘s Looking For Richard. I know a lot of critics -theatre and film -balked, but I loved the energy of his work, and I still really adore his huge, vocal passion for Shakespeare and theatre in general. During the screening, Pacino was seated a mere two rows behind me and I recall turning around to observe him watching, to see if there was any kind of rise -or if he was even still sitting there. Indeed he was, furiously gnawing on his nails, eyes like saucers, a knee against his chest. I’ve never seen anyone look so nervous. I actually felt sorry for him. Then there was a Dutch film called De vliegende Hollander; it took the mythic roots of the flying Dutchman and combined it with elements of history, fantasy, and other European folklore (mainly central and Eastern), fashioning a surreal, deeply poetic, and utterly moving piece of cinema. To my knowledge, it never got a North American release, and yet it was easily one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen at the TIFF (yes, ever). I remember returning to film school the week after, re-energized and re-inspired for the year ahead.
And though I’m not working in film now but covering its artists instead, it’s moments such as these that make me glad to have been part of this event, and at such an important, seminal time of year. Today is grave for so many people (and let’s not forget Chile, please) but in Toronto at least, there is a symbol that embraces these contradictions of life experience, balancing them with the magic of light and dark, to show us something beautiful, important, and perhaps most importantly, connecting. We may sit in cinemas, not talking, staring at a dance of shadows and projected light -but we’re all together, in the magic of the dark, creating our own shared world. That has to count.