It’s Toronto International Film Festival time again, and the city is buzzing. They turned King Street from University to Spadina Avenue into a pedestrian precinct for the first four days of the festival. This is the geographic heart of TIFF, the home of the TIFF Bell Lightbox with its several very comfortable high-tech screens, the Ticket Center at Metro Hall, the large venues at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall where the big galas take place, and the activities at David Pecaut Square. In addition to the red carpet entrances provided for the big stars at the gala venues, the Lightbox has become the honey pot for movie star groupies who congregate to see their favourites in the lobby or at the “stage door” entrance outside. Eating places and watering holes expanded onto the street, assorted games and industry curiosities amused passers-by, and TIFF volunteers sporting their bright orange t-shirts seemed to abound. People streamed to the street, revelling yet again in walking a public space freed of traffic. What Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume yesterday termed “the festivalization of Toronto” is one of his “reasons for optimism” for the city, one of his “eight reasons to love Toronto.” I agree.
Closing the street caused some controversy. The King streetcar line is one of the busiest in the city, serving thousands of commuters to the Bay Street core of the city every day. As diverting these streetcars around the King Street TIFF scene would slow the commute, there was a concern that inconveniencing commuters to accommodate movie goers would not go down well. After all, inadequate transit, traffic congestion and, if you are “Mayor” Ford, anything which interferes with the free flow of cars (let alone streetcars of any kind) are major themes in the current municipal election campaign. Toronto streetcar riders, however, are resilient, infinitely patient, and as starstruck as anyone else. The media consensus seems to be that the pedestrian-only experiment was an outstanding success which should be repeated in the future.
It helped that, the weekend before TIFF began, the Toronto Transit Commission launched the first two of their fleet of 240 modern, readily accessible, air-conditioned streetcars on the Spadina line which crosses King. It may be several years before the new streetcars become the norm on all lines, but the actual appearance of the new streetcars, after a transit draught spanning decades, has provided a glimmer of hope. Whatever “Mayor” Ford may say, the people in inner-city Toronto love their streetcars and are thrilled with concrete evidence that streetcars are here to stay.
Getting back to TIFF. Another change this year was the new TIFF policy that galas featured during the early days of the festival (“prime time” apparently) must be real “world premieres,” not reruns from a prior festival such as Cannes, Sundance or Telluride. TIFF regulars were fearful that major new movies would be deterred from coming to Toronto. Such has not been the case. The galas have been as big and spectacular as ever; if anything, the new policy has meant that big new films which may have opened elsewhere are now spread throughout the ten days of the festival which makes it easier for fans to fit them into their schedule.
I had intended to write about some of the movies I’ve seen at TIFF, like the new biopic about Stephen Hawking, called The Theory of Everything, which I saw yesterday. It is a wonderful movie and well worth seeing. Another time. And look for further posts on the Toronto municipal elections and other issues that have come to my attention over the summer. Having left the Alsek River, it is time to move on.
At TIFF, I saw the wonderful French actress Fanny Ardant in the new movie Bright Days Ahead (2013) directed by Marion Vernoux. Ardant plays a dentist who reacts to the death of her best friend with a precipitous decision to retire. As the movie begins, she is faced with the fallout of her abrupt decision. She is given a trial membership in a local seniors center and, skeptical and bored, she decides to try it out. The movie focuses on her response to the activities and people at that Centre, and how she finds her own way into retirement. Suffice it to say, her adaptation is typically French, sensuous, wonderfully satisfying, and the movie a heart-warming experience which I highly recommend.
This movie is another in the rising tide of movies depicting adaptations to aging, obviously aimed at the burgeoning boomer generation. Within this genre, French movies have been some of the best I have seen. Amour (2012) directed by Michael Haneke and staring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, won the Academy Award for best foreign language film and was nominated in four additional categories. It depicts an elderly couple struggling with the effects of a stroke. It is not easy to watch but totally unforgettable. Another is All Together (or And If We All Lived Together) (20ll), directed by Stephanie Robelin and starring among others Jane Fonda, Guy Bedos, Daniel Bruhl and Geraldine Chaplin. Like Ardant’s retired dentist, Jane Fonda’s character finds her own response to aging as one of five old friends who decide to live together in their retirement.
As an aside, unrelated people coming together to live in retirement is the theme of the 2012 smash hit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel directed by John Madden and starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson. I saw this movie in the theatre and have watched it numerous times since, whenever it shows up on an airplane trip.
What is particularly heartening about these movies are the performances of the actors who are themselves role models for successful aging. Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for an Academy for Best Actress in a Leading Role at 85 years of age. When they made the movies I am describing, Jean-Louis Trintignant was 82, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith 78, and Jane Fonda 74. Fanny Ardant and Bill Nighy were born in l949, as was Meryl Streep whom I also saw at TIFF in the searing August Osage County. These actors appear in roles which deal with the issue of retirement and aging, while they themselves continue working in their chosen profession. They have not retired. But then, they have control over what they choose to do in their work. They can take on as much, or as little, as they choose. And maybe that is key.
The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, and Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former WikiLeaks associate, had its premiere at TIFF. It opened the festival to great media coverage. Understandably so, since the film deals with big issues: whistle-blowers, transparency, the public’s right to know, the relationship of the media to government and that of the mainstream media to upstart WikiLeaks-type rivals, all reflecting the impact of new technology. The movie opened for general distribution a couple of weeks ago but, apparently, has not attracted the same public attention as other recent releases. That is too bad. I found the movie fascinating. It is a fast-paced, high-tech depiction of the rise of WikiLeaks, and its quixotic leader, and it raises more questions than it answers.
The release of the film followed in the wake of the sentencing, on August 21st, of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning to 32 years in custody for violations of the U.S. Espionage Act. Her crime? She leaked hundreds of thousands of American military logs and diplomatic dispatches to WikiLeaks in 2010. Check out wikileaks.org for the current webpage of the organization, and also Chelsea Manning on Wikipedia for further background details.
The movie moves from one international capital to another. The juxtaposition of grandiose aspirations and a small “organization” operating on a shoestring is striking. After several more minor victories for WikiLeaks, the movie focuses on the release of the American documents, the biggest news scoop in decades, and its effect on the organization, the United States government, and the world. The relationship between Assange and his associates becomes progressively more difficult as they struggle with conflicting goals of “winning the information war” and the possibility of real harm to individuals identified by the leaks.
The movie is based on two books: Inside WikiLeaks by Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding for the Guardian newspaper. Holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to face criminal charges in Sweden, Assange says the movie is based on lies. Is Assange a folk hero? An icon of the information age? Or a terrorist, a traitor, engaged in political warfare? Is his current situation a Pentagon plot to capture him? Are all government documents fair fodder for the media? If not, what are the appropriate limits of privilege? Big questions, big issues, we each need to decide for ourselves.
To help in that enterprise, I recommend you watch the “real” Fifth Estate on CBC-TV which, on November 1st, featured Linden MacIntyre exploring “The Strange World of Julian Assange.” The show is a superb rendition of the history of WikiLeaks, and the nature of the controversy. With that as a background, you will more readily appreciate the movie. If you missed the initial broadcast, you can watch it anytime on CBC-TV‘s the fifth estate webpage.
Watermark, a high-profile Canadian production co-directed by world-famous Toronto-based photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, opened on movie screens across Canada on September 27th. I was present for its initial screening at TIFF and had high hopes for the film. An earlier film of Burtynsky photographs, Manufacturing Landscapes (2006), has won widespread acclaim. Burtynsky specializes in industrial sites, big scenes and large landscapes. His vision is dramatic, awe-inspiring, and brings beauty to the most unlikely places. His scope is international and always provocative.
Watermark uses Burtynsky’s photography to illustrate the relationship between water and man; how man has used water to impact the environment, and vice versa. Such a film is an ambitious enterprise, and no project can be comprehensive. Watermark has images showing, among other things, the effects of the Colorado River project on the uplands of Mexico and on California, the size of the Xiluodu dam in China (eight times that of the Hoover Dam in the United States), intimate details of the Hindu Kumbh Mela rituals when thirty million people bathe in the Allahabad river in one day. By way of contrast, the film shows the pristine Stikine river in northern British Columbia, and the organic view that western Canadian First Nations have of water. All these images are worth the price of admission.
As much as I liked the actual photography, I thought the film was less successful than its predecessor. At 92 minutes, I thought it dragged a little. Long, slow shots are part of Burtynsky’s modus operandi and can have enormous impact. In this screening, I thought they were over-used. As a B.C.-ite, pristine water both on the coast and in remote interior lakes, streams and rivers is in my blood. I love to look at pictures of such waters, but even I found the helicopter photography over the Stikine River unduly prolonged. I also found that the film lacked markers to help viewers understand where they were and the significance of what they were seeing. The opening sequence seems to go on forever and I missed the indication (if any) of where it was taken. The lengthy footage of the Xiluodu dam emphasized the immense size of the dam (à la Manufacturing Landscapes) rather than the relationship of its water to the countryside around it. Juxtaposing it with images of the negative effects of the American Colorado River project suggests future dangers, but are the projects analogous? I totally missed the relevance of the pictures showing Burtynsky’s German publishers producing his book. Do the printing presses require undue use of water?
Reviews of the movie which have appeared since I saw it have generally been very positive, suggesting that my observations may well be quibbles or ill-informed. Whatever, the movie will provoke all sorts of discussion. The photography is astounding and the issues of utmost importance. If you know Burtynsky’s work, you will already be planning to see the movie. If you are not, then I would urge you to do so; you will be amazed. And do check out Manufacturing Landscapes if you have not yet seen it.
The Toronto International Film Festival swept Toronto last month. Despite some unusual screening glitches, It seemed bigger, better, more energetic and more open to the general public than ever before. Perhaps this was due to the free public screenings, or maybe to the concentration of activities on King Street where the buzz in TIFF headquarters at the Bell Lightbox spilled onto the street.
When there are 455 odd movies on offer, choosing what to see is a big issue. Do I “waste” my TIFF tickets on movies that obviously will go mainstream? Do I treat TIFF as a cheap holiday abroad and see as many foreign films as possible? Do I seek out the “little gems” that will never make general distribution? Or do I just take my chances? The multiplicity of choices means that every one has a different experience, depending on what they see, which celebrities may be present, and who one meets in the lines.
I met a woman who told me she will have seen 81 movies during the ten days at TIFF. She is a member of the Patrons Circle and can access films without waiting in lines. That facilitates seeing up to six films a day. Most of us, however, are less frenetic, have less money, less energy, or are working. Unless, of course, you are like one of my colleagues who used to take her holidays during TIFF and see as many films as she could.
One of my retirement objectives was to re-engage with TIFF in a big way. I was also curious to see if I still had the stamina to see the movies, do the lines, and maintain the hours. Now that TIFF is over, I look back on it as a superb experience. I saw at least four movies that will likely be mainstream hits, eight foreign language films, six documentaries, three art films that will become classics, a musical from Scotland, and a South African rendition of Benjamin Britten’s classic opera Noye’s Flood. Of those, nine were world premiere screenings that featured question and answer sessions with the directors, producers and stars of the particular movie. These Q and A sessions with the professionals is one of the highlights of the festival, an opportunity to learn the scoop about production issues.
Many people avoid TIFF because of the lines. The lines are notorious. The Toronto Star did a story on the self-preservation skills needed by people who wait in rush lines for potential tickets for up to seven hours. Even ticket holders who are assured entry persist in lining up to get the seating they prefer with their buddies. I don’t mind the TIFF lines. They are one of the few occasions when normally taciturn Torontonians actually speak to strangers. What films have you seen? What did you like? Easy openers that generally lead to exchanging good information. And you never know whom you might meet. This year, among others, I met a television producer from Puerto Rico, an ex-lawyer who has successfully given up law to write cookbooks, and who knows about the many others.
For a full listing of all films shown at TIFF 2013, with a description of each one, check out the website Tiff.net/the festival/filmprogramming and access the catalogue. This can be your guide to all these movies through the year. I will review some of the films I saw in future blogs.