The passion and politics of opening night

Start your engines, and let the madness begin. For the next ten days, TIFF turns Toronto into the Cannes of North America, but rather than promenading down the Croisette by the beaches of the Côte d’Azur, those rushing to premieres will be sidestepping construction sites along Bloor St. in a city so thoroughly excavated it’s beginning to look like a Designer Walk war zone. Never mind. For those on their annual fall search for the cinematic grail, that’s just another obstacle. Navigating a major film festival is always an extreme sport. Scrambling t score a tough ticket or uncover a hidden gem is the name of the game. At TIFF, the stakes are high: no film festival in the world has a richer program. Which doesn’t mean all the films are great, or even good. No, with 312 films—including 249 features—from 64 countries, TIFF can seem like a motion picture paradise, or the industrial outlet mall of world cinema. The trick is to be at the right film at the right time.

I’ll do my best to keep up. Fortunately, I’ve had a head start, pre-screening films for the past couple of weeks. From what I’ve seen, the line-up doesn’t seem as strong as last year’s, at least among the high-profile American movies. That’s not necessarily the festival’s fault; it can only program what’s available, and 2007 offered an exceptionally good cinematic vintage that this year may be unable to match.

Tonight the 32nd annual Toronto International Film Festival kicks off with Passchendaele, a First World War epic starring Paul Gross, who also serves as writer, co-producer and director. I wrote about the film and Gross’s 10-year struggle to bring it to the screen in the current issue of Maclean’s—click on The war to make ‘Passchendaele’. Costing $20 million—a vast budget for a Canadian movie without foreign co-production financing, yet a spare budget for an ambitious war movie—Passchendaele is a remarkable achievement, even if the results are uneven.

Why is it opening the festival? Despite its international stature as the world’s leading film festival after Cannes, TIFF (to its credit) has an unofficial policy of always opening with a Canadian film, or at least one by a Canadian director. Choosing the right one is a process of elimination, and diplomacy. Established auteurs like David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan are always in the running. Mogul Robert Lantos, who has worked with both, has provided TIFF’s opening night gala more often than any producer in the business. Someone has to bankroll the opening-night party. Last year Lantos’ Fugitive Pieces opened the festival. As a dignified period piece about Holocaust memories, derived from a novel of high literary pedigree it may have seemed like a safe and obvious choice. And in retrospect, Sarah Polley’s directorial tour de force, Away From Her, would have been more of a crowd-pleaser.

This year, there were no automatic candidates. Cronenberg doesn’t have a new film. Egoyan’s new movie, Adoration, already had its world premiere in Cannes; and it’s a relatively small, idiosyncratic picture that would not be well-served by the gala spotlight. Not everyone wants that prestigious opening-night spot. It’s a precarious perch that carries a substantial risk. The opening-night crowd, unlike audiences at non-gala TIFF screenings, tends to be corporate and stuffy. Expectations run high. Under the heat of the gala spotlight, Passchendaele’s fate will be sealed very quickly as international distributors decide to bid for the film, or not. And even national sentiment and strong promotion ensures that it’s a box-office hit in Canada, as was Gross’s Men With Brooms, you do need an international audience to justify a $20 million budget.

Passchendaele producer Niv Fichman knows only too well how risky it can be to offer up a flm on the opening night altar of a major festival. He opened Cannes this past May with Blindness, the Canada-Brazil-Japan co-production that he developed with Toronto writer Don McKellar. The dire apocalyptic drama of this picture left the black-tie audience in Cannes more dazed than dazzled, and critics dismissed the film with a cruelty that, to me, seemed both unfair and unfounded. Blindness will have an opportunity to reverse its fortunes at TIFF, where it is being offered as a Special Presentation.

Despite some obvious flaws, Passchendaele is a worthy opening night gala. Although the drama sags in the second act—which takes place on the Alberta home front and has that unfortunate period sheen of a CBC mini-series—the film begins and ends strongly, with powerful combat scenes. The picture is filmed on a large enough canvas that it won’t be dwarfed by scale of a gala opening at Roy Thompson Hall. And I can imagine a large local audience being moved by the operatic grandeur of its mud-drenched finale on the field of battle. Though it may lack subtlety, this is a movie that comes from heart, and is armed with a bold emotional and political agenda. In the rain and mud of senseless battle, it grapples with the wrenching paradox of war—valour merging with futility as tragically young men sacrifice their lives for a dubious cause that’s mired in grim trail of colonial error. And the resonance with our current mission in Afghanistan is palpable.

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If you’re not mingling with the gala crowd at Passchendaele, I can recommend another very personally motivated anti-war movie being presented by TIFF on opening night: Waltz With Bashir, which was in competition in Cannes. Ari Folman’s graphic tale of atrocity based on his own experience in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon pioneers a new genre—the animated documentary. Personally, I would have preferred if he didn’t animate his filmed talking-head interviews (via the rotoscope technique used by Richard Linklater in Waking Life), but this remains a powerful and original piece of work. Literally animating the dogs of war, some of the images have a terrifying beauty.

Festival-going 101

As the days progress, I’ll offer some tips on what to see, and perhaps more important, what you to avoid. As a rule of thumb, unless you thrive on observing movie stars in the flesh (not that there’s anything wrong with that), seek out the more obscure international films without stars or distribution. Their quality simply tends to be more consistent. Often TIFF will program movies with stars or by big-name directors simply because it can’t afford not to. (You simply don’t turn down the world premiere of the new Spike Lee movie, no matter what it’s like.) But away from the Hollywood glare, with a wealth of world cinema to choose from, and a lack of studio politics pressuring selection, the more obscure international films tend to be more consistent. Of course there’s another reason for avoiding gala premieres of film that will soon open commercially, and taking a chance on something that’s both strange and foreign—it may be your last chance to see it.