The Toronto International Festival of Festivals
FESTIVAL OF FESTIVALS:
THE 15th TORONTO
INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR
THE TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL ended last week, having shown 297 films from 44 different countries in 10 days. Ranging from popular Hollywood films to works of art from far-away countries, the Festival of Festivals has earned a strong reputation as one of the most prestigious -- and certainly the largest -- film festival in North America. This year marked the 15th anniversary of the event, and the selection of films available this year left no doubt that the title --Festival of Festivals -- is truly deserved.
Last year's festival presented at least one unparalleled masterpiece: Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. This year, there was no single film that towered over all the others. Instead, there were a number of films worthy of being acclaimed for their excellence. Among them were Stan Posiadania (Inventory) by Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi; Ju Dou from the Chinese director of Red Sorghum, Zhang Yi-mou; Tila"i (The Law) from Africa's newest and promising young director Idrissa Ouedraogo, whose excellent film Yaaba played in Boston this summer; Tulitikkutehtaan Tytt"o (The Match Factory Girl) by Finnish director Aki Kaurism"aki; and Privilege, the best film to date by avant-garde director Yvonne Ranier. Among the most promising directors making their feature film debuts are Pedro Costa (O Sange or The Blood), Gy"orgy Feh'er (Sz"urk"ulet or Twilight), Irena Pavloskova (Cas Sluhu or Time of the Servants), and Atahualpa Lichy (Rio Negro).
As the ethnic diversity of the title of these films implies, the most praiseworthy aspect of the Toronto Film Festival is its broad scope. Films from around the world are represented, including countries whose films are little known in the West. This year, films from Venezuela, Portugal, Burkina Faso, Finland, Iran, Peru, South Africa, and Tunisia played with films from countries with more established cinematic histories, such as the United States, France, Canada, the USSR, Australia, and Great Britain. Similarly, documentary, experimental, independent, and short films were featured side-by-side with full-length feature films, epics, and comedies from studios and large production companies. With the notable exception of animation, almost every conceivable genre of film was represented in the festival.
As an example of this breadth, one only need look at the diversity of programs offered by the festival. The largest program is called Contemporary World Cinema. This year's collection had 98 films, and it provided an excellent measure of the state of the art of international cinema. The next major program is called The Edge, and showcases films that resist the conventional to operate on the cutting edge of film, either by stressing the formal properties of the medium or by exploring difficult or taboo topics. These two programs easily form the backbone of the festival, both in terms of quality and quantity.
Another large program is Perspective Canada, featuring narrative, experimental, documentary, and short films by Canadian filmmakers. Many excellent works produced by the renowned National Film Board of Canada are shown in this program. This year, White Room, the flawed but fascinating new film by Patricia Rozema (the director of the 1987 film I've Heard the Mermaids Singing) opened the Perspective Canada selections.
Each year the festival also mounts two major retrospectives -- of a director and of a country. These retrospectives introduce North American audiences to relatively little-known films and directors. In years past, for instance, the festival's Spotlight Directors have consisted of filmmakers as diverse as Pedro Alomodovar of Spain, Aki and Mika Kaurism"aki of Finland, and Krzysztof Kieslowski of Poland. Of these, only Pedro Almodovar has gone on to win significant name recognition in North America, but all of these directors are major talents in the field, and their work deserves the recognition the festival accords it.
The festival also picks a country whose films are little known in North America and then shows a selection of films that represent the spectrum of its cinematic history and heritage. In 1988, the festival offered the largest retrospective of Soviet films ever seen in the West, and last year the festival showcased a large number of Polish films. This year it was Portugal's turn. In many cases, the films shown in these retrospectives have rarely, if ever, been shown outside their native country.
For classic film buffs, the Open Vault program typically shows older films recently restored or discovered by film archives around the world, and there are usually some films in the Kids Flicks program too. (This year it was the 50th anniversary screening of Fantasia.) There are also a number of Gala and Special Presentations, which occasionally showcase worthwhile films, like Ryszard Bugajski's brutal and harrowing film Przesluchanie (Interrogation), but for the most part these Gala Presentations consist of safe, crowd-pleasing films and attract largely complacent, well-dressed audiences. Finally, there's even a Midnight Madness series, featuring the best new horrific, bizarre, weird, or just plain wacked-out films to spring from the nether world of underground filmmaking.
With such a large breadth of films, one might question whether the quality of the films suffers in any way. For the most part it does not. The most important reason is that the programmers actually view the films and then actively select from among them, unlike smaller festivals in other cities, which find themselves at the mercy of distributors looking for a captive audience. Also, the five main programmers for the Toronto festival are based in various parts of the world, each of whom contributes to the richness of the and diversity of the festival.
All five programmers regularly attend major film festivals in other parts of the world, and they go on numerous screening trips all over the world to select interesting and noteworthy films and take them back to Toronto. The programmers have thus developed excellent working relationships with filmmakers, cooperatives, and production companies over the years, and consequently many established filmmakers often arrange private screenings of rough cuts of their films for the programmers. Many a world premiere has been given to the Toronto festival on the basis of these contacts.
These contacts also imply that a large number of directors, actors, producers and other filmmakers travel to Toronto to introduce their films and then remain behind to answer questions after the screening. Being able to engage directors in energetic question and answer sessions immediately after seeing their films is another major advantage of the Toronto festival.
For younger filmmakers, screening a film in the festival is considered prestigious, and therefore many of them often contact the programmers as well. Once the festival "finds" a particularly noteworthy film by an up-and-coming director, the festival tends to foster its contacts by presenting the director's work from year to year. This works directly to the benefit of audiences, because they can follow the progression of the director's work over time. Even watching the inevitable missteps of these younger directors can be enlightening, because later on, a particular film can be evaluated in the context of the director's earlier works.
Finally, the sheer number of films shown means that there is something for everyone. In fact, the festival is, if anything, a victim of its own success. Often the lines are enormously long, and so seasoned festival attendees have learned several tricks to survive. The most important one is to prepare contingency plans in advance in case any one film sells out early, or if the film happens to arrive with non-English subtitles, or -- as happened in the case of one film this year -- with no subtitles at all. It also helps to get a feel for which festival programmer's taste most resembles your own, and how to read between the lines in the film descriptions.
Despite the potential and real hardships involved, the Toronto International Film Festival is clearly a major festival that is increasing its reputation for quality and quantity with each passing year. This year, the $2.5 million annual event has grown into the fourth largest film festival in the world, and certainly one of the most important cultural and artistic film events in North America. Without a doubt, the festival is undergoing significant growth pains that remain to be addressed, but even so it is more than worth the time, effort, and expense involved in attending it for 10 days in the early autumn of each year. It remains the cinematic Mecca of North America for filmmakers and filmgoers alike.