This week, everyone has been talking about back-to-school. Since I’m well past my school years and I don’t have any kids, this sentiment doesn’t really mean much for me. However, the Toronto International Film Festival is also starting this week and for a film person like myself, this marks the beginning of the year.
TIFF has become one of the biggest festivals in the world. It’s super prestigious and important currently as a lot of films that start their run here and win audience awards go on to become major contenders during awards season. It’s a big deal for the city and the film community and, honestly, for me too. It has a special place in my heart since some of my earliest city experiences are tied up with the festival.
The things I still love about TIFF are the things that make me want to go year after year. I love having so much access to different types of films from around the world. Not all foreign films get wide, international releases and I’ve been able to see some amazing films through the festival that I would otherwise have never experienced. Plus, the entire spectacle of TIFF allows me to see my city in a fresh light. It makes me remember what I originally loved about living in Toronto: the bumping nightlife, people out on the streets at all times of day. It feels like the city did when I first moved downtown and was amazed at how many people there were and how many things there were to do.
It invokes a feeling of endless possibility. There’s an excitement and energy in the air – it feels like a refresh button for the year and a chance for me to mingle and experience the city socially. Streets are closed off for the festival and there are food and coffee trucks lined up everywhere. TIFF makes Toronto feel like a community.
But like anything that you do year after year after year that also increases in overall popularity, it starts to become boring and predictable. And when things become boring and predictable, it’s easier to see the cracks and flaws. At the risk of sounding like a jealous outsider, I have to admit that I love and hate the festival. Part of it has to do with budget constraints (i.e. I’m poor AF) and part of it has to do with how popular the festival is getting.
Yes, I know I’m sounding like a hipster douche. TIFF isn’t a sacrosanct event that requires an unwavering loyalty to film and a deep knowledge of obscure movies in order to gain entry. But like anything that has a lot of money and Hollywood connections involved, there’s a fake, glossy surface sheen that masks a lot of bullshit. People want to go because it’s popular and they want to be seen. (Note: I originally typed that as “scene”, can you believe it?)
In other words, TIFF and I are in a complicated relationship. I love it and I hate it in exactly the same was as I love and hate my favourite MTV reality shows. It’s a fraught relationship, one filled with tension and spectacular memories. It’s a festival that makes me feel closer to Toronto, more confident and comfortable living here. At the same time, it’s an event that makes me feel like a stranger in my city.
The festival attracts certain types of people: people who love film, people who want to be in film and people who love to say that they went to TIFF. And every year, they come out in increasing numbers. There are so many people at the festival – the tourists and the scenesters; the serious film people, film reviewers and programmers; those in the margins of the film industry and the big players; the bright eyed film students and retired rich people; Toronto natives, GTA suburbanites and tourists from around the world.
The crowds and the line-ups are where my enthusiasm starts to wane as I’m unwillingly subjected to banal conversations and bragging about the number of films people have seen. There are the people who want to start up a conversation with you as if being at the same event and standing next to them is an invitation for mindless small talk. There are the people that stand too close to you, as if by infringing on your personal space it’ll somehow get them into the theatre faster. There are the people asking stupid questions out loud that have no answers: Why is the line so long? Why can’t we go in? When does the film start? What movie are we seeing?
Inside the theatres, there are seat-savers, people taking seats that they aren’t assigned too, more strangers wanting to talk to you about what you’re seeing and/or have seen. There are the people who get free tickets and don’t care about the film, so they spend their time during the screening sleeping (and snoring!), talking to their friends or (the absolute worst) scrolling through their phone and responding to messages while the film plays.
Post film Q & A’s can sometimes be the most painful part of the entire experience. People that start their questions with “as a filmmaker/writer/actor myself, I have to ask…”. People pressing a director for answers about what X meant when he or she has just stated that they want to leave the interpretations up to the audience. Audience members who spend so much time on the pre-amble that the actual question is lost and we all have to suffer the second-hand embarrassment of trying to salvage a question that never existed. Or the people that open with “I have more of a comment than a question” and then proceed to suck the life out of the room.
Next are the people that don’t go to any of the films, but stand outside all the big galas in order to see celebrities. I’m not going to pretend that I’m above this scene because I’ve done it and it was simultaneously some of the most mundane and exciting experiences I’ve had at the festival. I’ve wandered around Yorkville in the hopes of running into a celebrity. One year I found a group of people camped outside of a hotel. Naturally, I asked who they were waiting for and when they said George Clooney I parked my ass right in there with them because obviously they had some rock-solid intel that the movie star was not only in the building but near the exit so we could all scream for his attention. I never saw Clooney that day, but I did see Jason Bateman (yawn) and Tilda Swinton (who nobody noticed).
I’ve been star-struck. I walked by Geoffrey Rush one year and was so blind-sided that I almost called out “CASANOVA FRANKENSTEIN” because the only movie of his I could remember in the moment was Mystery Men. Last year, my generous boyfriend gave me one of his tickets so I could see I, Tonya with all the stars in appearance and I rightfully bragged about it afterwards. At Whiplash I got my ticket signed by J.K Simmons (his skin is amazing) and Damien Chazelle. I went to a screening of Miss Julie and saw Jessica Chastain and Liv Ullmann speak about the film.
I’ve also embarrassed myself during these escapades. I almost slammed into Kim Cattrall outside of Holt Renfrew and didn’t realize who it was until the last second. After one screening, I told an actor that he reminded me of River Phoenix and he acted flattered while I crawled into a hole and immediately died from embarrassment over my awkwardness.
After us celebrity stalkers come the people that go to TIFF specifically to network. You know who they are immediately because they won’t stop talking about all the parties they’ve been to and all the people that they’ve met. They’re the people who drop their connections and offer you unsolicited advice about your own work such as who you should show your script to or to not waste your time with that short film you’re working on, although they never offer anything helpful like inviting you to one of the many industry parties they’re going to or introducing you to one of their contacts (LOL, as if they would do a favour for a rube like you). Let’s not forget that TIFF is as much about money as it is about art – just watch the awards season competition ramp up after the festival to see what I mean. And to pretend that this aura of capitalism isn’t present at the festival is to ignore a big part of it.
But regardless of my cynicism and declining interest, I still feel melancholic every time TIFF ends. Even as I hyperbolically condemn the festival in this post, I know that as soon as I get into a seat at a theatre and the lights dim, I’ll feel the same excitement that I felt at my first screening. I will remember why I keep going to TIFF and why the festival brings people out in droves – because the glittering lights of film and Hollywood are as much of a siren call now as they were in the early days of the industry. The magic of film, the spectacle and theatrics, the feeling of being in a theatre will never not inspire me. Because I love film and film loves me.
Image source: VOX