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The Toronto International Festival of Festivals




THE TORONTO INTERNATIONAL Festival of Festivals celebrated its 16th birthday this year. Once the festival was over, however, it became clear that the occasion wasn't quite as sweet as originally hoped.

As usual, the festival showed hundreds of films from around the world and of every conceivable variety. The festival's reputation as a cinematic Mecca for serious filmgoers continues to grow -- and certainly the lines seem to get longer every year.

But perhaps due to circumstances beyond the control of the festival's hard-working programmers, the overall quality of the films decreased palpably. While there were definite winners among the bunch, the festival showed more than the usual number of clunkers this year.

To be precise, this was a year when serious filmgoers had to look toward the established directors of contemporary international cinema for challenging, interesting works. While this is almost always the case, in years past one of the richest source of ground-breaking films has been new and otherwise unknown directors who were "discovered" by the festival programmers. That, however, did not happen this year.

Almost all of the films that achieved or approached perfection were made by directors with established international reputations: Jacques Rivette, Paul Cox, Theo Angelopoulos and Manoel de Oliveira. Many American viewers are unfamiliar with these directors, despite their fame abroad, and thus the festival provides a terrific opportunity to view excellent new films such as La Belle Noiseuese, A Woman's Tale, To Meteoro Vima Tou Pelargou ("The Suspended Step of the Stork") and A Divina Comedia.

Of course, there were a few first-time and unfamiliar directors who distinguished themselves. Edward Yang of Taiwan created an unquestioned masterpiece in his A Brighter Summer's Day, and Canadian Radha Bharadwaj (Closet Land) and Transylvanian expatriate Andrian Velicescu (Trumpet Number 7) both marked their directorial debut with flawed but markedly stylish films.

Conversely, established directors such as Peter Greenaway, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Maurizio Nichetti, and Paul Leduc all produced films that were, in one way or another, disappointing and not comparable to their prior successes.

Overall, though, there was a dearth of new talent. What could have caused this? No one knows for sure, of course, but there are at least two possible explanations for the phenomenon. One is the tumultuous effects of the Persian Gulf war, and the second is the addition of three questionable film series to the Toronto festival line-up.

The Persian Gulf theory is that the war restricted people's ability to travel, disrupted previously organized conferences and events and otherwise delayed many ongoing projects. It probably also prevented many projects from even starting in the first place.

The genesis of this theory came during this year's Cannes film festival, where film quality was at an ebb, according to reports of critics attending that festival. While the Cannes festival organizers may be passing the buck, it is plausible that the war disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people could also have added financial economic and political risks for filmmakers and artists.

Clearly, the increased risks would affect more heavily the efforts of independent, first-time or unknown directors than it would those of directors with more established reputations. The exact nature and degree of influence of the war is debatable, but it does seem likely there would be some deleterious effect. That effect is being reflected in film festivals that attempt to survey the global filmmaking scene, as do Toronto and Cannes.

The other reason for the lack of new talent originates closer to home. This year's festival included three new film series, and it is too early to decide whether or not this was a good idea. The series were "First Cinema," for directors making their feature film debut, "Asian Horizons," for films from Asian countries (primarily Taiwan and Hong Kong) and "Latin American Panorama," for films from Central and South America.

While the festival has long championed films of first-time directors and films from Asia, Latin America and other parts of the globe, sufficient numbers of high-quality films in each category might not exist. It seems likely that part of the reason why the influx of new talent seems hobbled by clunkers is that these three new series got off to a wobbly start. While the festival organizers do not have any control over global political and economic conditions, they can revise the selection criteria for these series. Otherwise, the new series risk undergoing the same ghettoization that currently mars -- rightly or wrongly -- viewer's perceptions of the Perspective Canada series.

Last year the festival celebrated its 15th anniversary, and the quality of films on display seemed at an all-time high. This year was to have been the festival's "Sweet 16," as two organizers described it in the program. Alas, it was not. Still, if the overall quality can decline precipitously in just one year, it can also rise just as quickly in the next year. The Toronto International Festival of Festivals has always worked hard to earn its reputation as the cinematic Mecca of North America, and that gives one confidence and hope that next year's Festival will regain its stride.

(Editor's note: Reviews of films from the Toronto International Festival of Festivals will appear in Tuesday's issue.)