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TIFF: What is actually happening at the Toronto Film Festival 2018?

The Toronto International Film Festival may not have the prestige of Cannes, the casual chic of Sundance, or even the self-conscious eccentricity of Miami’s Borscht Film Festival, but many sources suggest it is the largest and Far Out Magazine is on location for the event.

The total attendance of the eleven-day event topped 400,000 last year, viewing over 300 different films, the smooth running of the festival aided by 3,000 volunteers (and reportedly using over 6,000 kg of popcorn kernels in the course of its run). Its popularity resulted in financial support from the Canadian government and allowed the festival to purchase a permanent home in 2007: the TIFF Bell lightbox, an immense, $30million facility in the heart of downtown Toronto, which shows films year round, and which contains, among other things, an extensive film archive and research library.

It was clear on arrival in Toronto that the festival had taken over the central part of the city entirely. The standard directions posted at train stations and subway exits now had additional, oversized signs reading simply TIFF, with a directional arrow. The streets become congested as they approach the stretch of theatres and public venues hosting the popular event. There are also signs of the Canadian nature of the festival. Canadian cinema always has a significant place at TIFF, including both Canadian films which have received praise worldwide, and those admired primarily at home. The approach to the festival’s headquarters passes by the Canadian Walk of Fame, a stretch of pavement roughly similar to the series of film stars’ footprints on a walkway in Hollywood, but homelier, involving simple paving stones with the celebrity name printed around a stylized star. It is also far more varied, including the names not only of actors, but of particularly beloved Canadian writers, directors, comedians, singers, and even one or two popular hockey players.

While the festival does provide a certain amount of red carpet posing and celebrity photo ops, especially during the first weekend, what is primarily in evidence are throngs of casually dressed movie fans, eagerly scanning their film schedules to determine where they can squeeze in one more viewing. The press are in evidence – in their most concentrated form, at the TIFF Press Lounge, which is filled with grim, shabby people tapping intently on laptops and guzzling coffee – but they seem to keep a low profile. It really is more a movie lovers’ event than a celebrity-driven one. The one celebrity moment I had was quick and strangely offhand. Pedestrians were stopped as the sidewalk was briefly barricaded to permit the safe exit of actors from a premiere of Colette. An actress was briskly escorted from the theatre to a waiting car, as a small group of teenaged girls shouted “Keira!” and citizens waited patiently or detoured. It was a remarkably un-Hollywood-like backdrop, with no literal red carpet or hordes of paparazzi – I saw one man with a camera on a tripod, but nothing more on a professional level – only a simple cinema entrance surrounded by various ethnic restaurants. I waited near a street corner establishment with the admirably literal name of Mike’s Food Box, a tiny cube with a window in one side through which are served Mike’s various forms of meat on a bun at attractively low prices.

“Who is it?” one Mike’s patron asked the crowd at large, indicating the emerging movie star.

A fellow pedestrian peered through the crowd. “Woman,” he reported indifferently. “Kinda tall.”

“Keira Knightley,” I offered. The first man looked blank. “A movie star.” He looked moderately impressed, as Ms Knightley was driven off, the barricades were removed, and we moved on.

The sheer size of the festival is daunting, both in terms of the quantity of material to choose from, and the attendance. Selecting a film and showing up on time is no guarantee of getting in to see it; the popular selections tend to fill theatres quickly. Even the press screenings are often at capacity well before show time, leaving rows of dissatisfied journalists scrambling for another film in the same time slot. The growth of the festival has made certain changes necessary, including a reorganisation of its management. This is the last year for the festival’s director and CEO, Piers Handling.

Effective November 2018, the position will be expanded into two: an executive director who deals with the business and financial aspects of the event, and the artistic director, who curates the films and manages the festival’s content and theme, both parties jointly acting as head of TIFF under its board of directors. The executive director, announced only a few weeks ago, is Joana Vicente, a former producer, fundraiser, and director since 2009 of the Independent Filmmaker Project, the largest and longest-established organisation of independent filmmakers in the US. Her advocacy of independent film and widespread knowledge of international cinema, combined with her business experience, made her an obvious choice. Vicente has been an enthusiastic supporter of TIFF, and calls the festival “…a prominent international platform for world cinema, with an impact that is both local and global.”

Newly appointed to the position of artistic director/co-head is Cameron Bailey, the festival’s artistic director since 2012, a former film critic whose background inspires speculation about the direction he might take TIFF. Born in the UK and raised in Barbados, and a fan of Asian and African film, Bailey is keen on promoting diversity at TIFF and expanding its range of films even more.

Efforts at diversity are not new to TIFF and include a broadening of the festival’s jury selection as well as a choice of films presented. Along with the usual categories of premieres, Gala Presentations (for high-end films with big-name directors and/or cast), Discovery (new directors), Platform (narrative or documentary films) and others, TIFF has a long-established category for Contemporary World Cinema, featuring the best of international film. That category has been growing in number of submissions, and arguably in the level of interest, and the new directorship will certainly expand on it in the coming years. What’s more, the Discovery category has become more inclusive, this year including lesser known or new directors from 37 countries.

One change which is already underway is an expansion of the media presence at TIFF – not only in numbers but in diversity. The festival’s management is committed to increasing accredited media by 20%, in order to include journalists from under-represented communities and publications. One part of this effort is an initiative which has produced a database allowing film publicists, studios, and critics to find and contact publications, journalists, and reviewers from under-represented groups and lesser known, special-interest media. Minorities, women, and the disabled will have better access to films of particular relevance to them, while filmmakers will, in turn, be able to address a select potential audience and share project information with speciality reviewers.

Many film festivals find themselves facing difficult choices due to the changes in the film industry itself. The expansion of filmmaking beyond the traditional studios and into the hands of services like Amazon and Netflix raises questions about what should be included in an event that is meant to celebrate and promote film as an art form. Some find the trend toward more popular and less elite film choices a positive thing; others are concerned. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario), a significant figure at this year’s Toronto festival, worries about the effect on the quality of films. “It’s still cinema,” he remarked in a recent interview, admitting that he is ‘old school’ about the value of the big screen experience, “but I’ll have to transform the language.” The Cannes Film Festival has declined, at least for now, to present any films which are not given a traditional theatrical opening, which excludes Netflix productions altogether. TIFF has taken a different approach. The festival’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, has expressed the view that films from streaming services are “not necessarily a threat to the theatrical experience,” and should not be excluded. As outgoing CEO Piers Handling commented in an interview, filmmakers, including some of the best and most innovative, are moving to “where the money and the creative opportunities are,” and it seems sensible for TIFF to follow their lead. In fact, the gala opening presentation at this year’s TIFF is Netflix production Outlaw King, a period piece about Robert the Bruce.

TIFF has faced other challenges with an equally head-on approach. Complaints by women in film about harassment and objectification on the one hand and exclusion from the industry on the other have created a great deal of awkwardness at recent film events. Similarly, the Academy Awards was dominated two years in a row by legitimate concerns about racial exclusion in Hollywood productions. TIFF has responded in two obvious ways. First, by making it clear that the festival is a safe space: a strict and publicly stated no-tolerance policy for harassment or verbal abuse, particularly against women and minorities, is posted repeatedly in all TIFF literature. Second, by not merely opening its doors to less well-represented groups, but actively seeking out and promoting their work. To that end, TIFF takes particular care with its selection of films for the Contemporary World Cinema programme, which presents films not only from nations with a well-established film industry but from those with a handful of struggling, independent filmmakers. The category is expanded into another category: Discovery, which presents films from new or unknown directors in every part of the world. Finally, TIFF is dedicated to including women filmmakers to a remarkable extent, which will be covered in a separate article.

Minor challenges are also being addressed. As TIFF’s popularity results in a greater celebrity presence, the festival has tried to balance gala presentations and red-carpet events with a majority of films which are well outside the blockbuster category, from documentaries to children’s movies, short films to midnight screenings of popular horror films. Further, it has tried to separate, physically and in terms of the time-slot, the glamour of celebrity-attended premieres from the main body of the festival and the attendees who simply want to see some good, unusual movies without a lot of camera flashes and fuss. A final change: as the size of the festival threatens to become overwhelming, the new artistic director has announced his intention to be more selective, and gradually decrease the number of films included.