Scaling the Everest of festivals

Every year, TIFF seems to get bigger. This year is no different.

Trevor Haldenby/Flickr

For some, it’s back to school. For those of us who live and breathe movies, it’s time to disappear into the dark. Every September, Toronto’s fantasies of “world class” grandeur become red-carpet reality as the TIFF juggernaut turns our city into the Grand Central Station of cinema for 11 days (Sept 8-18). This year’s event marks the 36th edition of the festival, and each year it seems bigger than the year before. Cannes, of course, remains the grande dame, the opulent high altar of film; Sundance is the high-altitude American indie talent show; and venerable Venice, which ends just after Toronto begins, is the glittering Euro-Hollywood ball. But for anyone serious about movies in North America, TIFF is the main event, launching the fall season of Oscar-pedigree fare amid a full-course banquet of world cinema and a media circus of Hollywood stars.

As festival fever consumes the city, we brace ourselves for celebrity gridlock. Limos will choke the narrow downtown streets and the mugs of visiting stars will swamp our front pages for days on end. This is my world—show business as usual—but I’m always amazed by how the rest of the city puts up with it. Which is not to say civilians don’t play a role. Unlike Cannes, which exists in a fairy-tale bubble, TIFF thrives on a reputation for filling theatres with ordinary folk who happen to be ardent cinephiles. Overpriced tickets sell out weeks in advance. People take time off work, stand in line for hours, and track the festival buzz online like soldiers on the front listening to distant battle scores on short wave. That’s part of what makes this event so attractive to filmmakers premiering their work. You won’t find a more attentive audience. If your film doesn’t work here, don’t expect it to catch fire anywhere else. But the industrial-scale glamour of the festival—the lure of Hollywood royalty beyond the velvet ropes and wristband checkpoints—exists in a world apart and out of reach, a luxurious salon society sponsored by vodka brands and fashion labels. With each passing year, even I feel more and more like an outsider.

I’ve been attending TIFF almost since it began. Before reviewing its films, I drove them around town—in the early ’80s I spent three festivals delivering movies to theatres, racing a van through the streets and hoisting leaden cans of 35-mm celluloid up fire escapes to projection booths. Best job I ever had. After a quarter-century covering TIFF, writing a book about its history in 2001 (Brave Films Wild Nights), and making a couple of short films that were programmed at TIFF,  you’d think I’d have a grip on it by now. But each year this Everest of festivals seem to get bigger, and make you feel smaller.

Last year, with the opening  of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, it acquired a handsome new downtown headquarters, which stands as a proud and permanent incarnation of the event itself—a wide-open intersection of high art and pop culture. We love the Lightbox; it feels like home. But the festival itself is an ever more daunting challenge. Though it lasts 11 days, most of the action is packed into the first four, when most of the high-profile movies are shown and the city’s luxury hotels are packed with American media junketeers. Trying to screen an entire season of Important Films in a few days is a scheduling nightmare. Interview times gets sliced thinner and thinner to accommodate the ever-expanding media universe. And you find yourself scrambling to squeeze in 10-minute chunks of time with famous names, forced to choose between seeing movies and doing interviews. It’s so hard to say no to a celebrity. And the obscure gems of world cinema tend get lost in the dust.

Fortunately, we screen a lot of films in advance. For some of us, the festival started weeks ago. But as the curtain rises on Sept. 8, with a U2 documentary providing the bombast, the adrenaline kicks in and the real fun begins. On the right column of our Maclean’s TIFF webpage, you’ll find mini-reviews of my favorite films among the 336 titles at the festival. (No, I won’t see them all!) There are already 20 titles on my hit list, and still counting. Amid the hype, the buzz and the media frenzy, as everyone looks for the next Slumdog Millionaire or King’s Speech, as I look for the summit, I’ll try to keep my eyes wide open in the dark. Hoping being blown away by something I never saw coming.

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