The Toronto International Film Festival at the Crossroads
by Richard Porton

The new Bell Lightbox, cinephilic haven or palace of glitz?

The new Bell Lightbox, cinephilic haven or palace of glitz?

“11 days. 300 films. 300,000 tickets. What will you see?,” goes the tagline on the cover of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) catalog. This is a come-on explicitly designed to appeal to the omnivorous filmgoers who regularly attend TIFF—to invoke the abbreviation that constitutes corporate branding as much as it does journalistic shorthand. Unlike a “boutique” festival such as the New York Film Festival, which showcases a small number of films that its programmers assert represent the year’s crème de la crème or a specialized festival such as Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, a niche location for restorations of rare movies, Toronto aspires to please filmgoers of all stripes—from the autograph hunters who merely want to gawk at Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman to the hard-core cinephiles who spurn Hollywood and lap up the latest offerings by Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruiz, Thom Andersen, and Wang Bing.

It goes without saying that pleasing all film buffs all of the time is nearly an impossible task and, as TIFF approached its thirty-fifth anniversary last summer, palpable anxieties could be discerned among outspoken cinephiles whose complicated love-hate relationship with the festival became even more turbulent. Despite its humble beginnings as a small “Festival of Festivals” in the mid-1970s, TIFF is frequently hailed as the premier film festival in North America and the festival brass has not been shy about trumpeting its status as “one of the leading film festivals in the world” (as the codirectors proclaim in the festival catalog). From a disinterested perspective, this boast is little more than received opinion and perhaps even unassailable, but given that a vocal faction of critics, bloggers, and programmers tend to recoil from the festival hierarchy’s weakness for self-congratulation, it was inevitable that submerged disgruntlement would eventually reach critical mass.

One sign that Toronto’s self-regard was increasing exponentially came last midsummer when a handful of journalists from small, specialized film magazines received an email from TIFF’s press office stating that, because of “limited space in the theatres and on the red carpet,” their applications for press accreditation had been denied. Although most of these rejections were later rescinded—apologies were made that the usual bureaucratic process had been interrupted because of the festival’s move from its previous Yorkville digs to downtown Toronto, accompanied by a curious claim that the new staff at the press office was not familiar with the old database—the emphasis on “space on the red carpet” struck a note of unintentional hilarity among the slack-jawed recipients. TIFF’s fetishization of stars and red carpets are nothing if not objects of scorn for the cinephile crowd. And whining about limited seats in the cinemas seemed odd inasmuch as festival diehards recall that there were only eight people in the audience at last year’s press screening of Goan filmmaker Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s The Man Beyond the Bridge, the 2009 winner of the FIPRESCI prize. Similarly, the 2010 press screening of Wang Bing’sThe Ditch, one of the festival’s seminal films, while not quite as sparsely attended, was less than half full (and a few weary hacks exited long before the film’s conclusion).

It goes without saying that the press office, which no doubt relishes the saturation coverage that “Gala” screenings, “Special Presentations” (to name the two TIFF sections that enjoy the lion’s share of media attention) and parties receive in The Globe and Mail and on local television, did not have such rarefied films in mind when they began pruning the accreditation list. Films such as The Ditch rarely get even mentioned in passing in the popular media; the joke among local filmgoers goes that certain films are “bad enough” to be Toronto Film Festival galas. For example, at this year’s edition, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, an insipid account of King George VI’s triumph over his speech impediment, was one of the most ballyhooed “Gala” screenings. Even more predictably, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, a characteristically hyperkinetic “triumph over adversity” narrative, was the most rapturously received “Special Presentation.” After Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle is clearly repeating his tried and true formula: grueling physical endangerment followed by an upbeat ending = a surefire crowd-pleaser.

Of course, TIFF’s decade-long obsession with the construction of the lavish Bell Lightbox cinema complex—which opened during the 2010 festival with a great deal of fanfare—has been the source of considerable anxiety among both festival regulars and, reportedly, employees of the Toronto International Film Festival Group (that encompasses, among other subsidiaries, the Cinematheque Ontario, which offers year-round repertory programs and is one of the Toronto film scene’s most highly-regarded venues). As of June, The Toronto Star reported that a capital campaign had raised $171 million towards the construction of the Lightbox; another twenty million needs to be plucked from the pockets of wealthy donors to fulfill TIFF’s goal. Incipient concerns, whether warranted or not with TIFF’s apparent Edifice Complex, mirror the initial resistance to mammoth arts centers in earlier decades.

During the 1960s, Jane Jacobs, the maverick architectural critic best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, famously denounced New York’s Lincoln Center as “built-in rigor mortis.” Along with a small, but impassioned, group of skeptics during an era when Robert Moses’s penchant for architectural gigantism reigned supreme, Jacobs worried that Lincoln Center was fated to embalm, rather than illuminate, our cultural heritage. For years, Lincoln Center was targeted by an eclectic assortment of bohemians and dissenters (to wit, during the 1968 New York Film Festival, the Newsreel collective passed out a flier that maintained that “Lincoln Center should be totally utterly demolished, smashed, popped off, scum-cleansed by violent intrusions…”). While many concertgoers and opera mavens still feel ambivalent about Avery Fisher Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater has become one of New York’s most cherished cinephilic destinations—perhaps because it opened with a minimum of hype in 1991 and gradually became one of the city’s best-curated repertory cinemas. It is not at all certain whether the Lightbox, apparently designed to hybridize elements of Cannes’ Palais, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Paris’ Pompidou Center, will be embraced or pilloried by Torontonians; after all, even the Pompidou Center, now considered the vibrant center of the Marais district, was once condemned as a blight on the urban landscape.

To be fair, many intelligent critics praised the Bell Lightbox and its agenda with undiluted enthusiasm. In The New York Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section, movie-savvy Manohla Dargis dubbed the Lightbox “ an enormous evolutionary step in the history of film festivals.” On Criterion’s Website, the always-lucid Michael Koresky observed that this elegant “modern structure seems designed to make cinephiles of any other city envious.” Yet Variety, Cinema Scope and Cineaste contributor Robert Koehler, one of the most voracious cinephiles of them all, confided to me via email that the “daunting” task of meeting the “demands of maintaining a multimillion dollar complex may swamp the cinephilic priorities of not just TIFF—which is after all just ten days out of an entire year—but the year-long TIFF program….After TIFF ended, the first wave of Lightbox films were tanking at the box office, with the notable exception of Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” In addition, Koehler is concerned that “the profile of Cinematheque Ontario, which had a fairly independent and distinct position for years at its home at the Art Gallery of Ontario…might get swallowed up inside the Lightbox; that is, will audiences even know where it is and where to find it?” It was also odd to discover that the Lightbox’s spanking new bookshop didn’t feature any film magazines; in fact, the books seemed almost like an afterthought since the focus was certainly on peddling tchotchkes such as tote bags.

In today’s critical landscape, cinephilic debates of this sort are often played out on the Internet. In his August 29th pre-TIFF post , Girish Shambu (http://girishshambu.blogspot.com), one of the most influential and knowledgeable film bloggers, expressed regrets over how the festival has “markedly” changed since he first made a pilgrimage to Toronto twelve years ago. Along with the burgeoning number of commercial, high-profile “Galas” and “Special Presentations,” Shambu laments that “programs devoted to retrospectives of single filmmakers or particular national cinemas have been more or less eliminated.” He finds it especially “distressing” that the “festival now shows almost only new films: anything that isn’t contemporary, anything that lacks the sheen of novelty, has disappeared from the festival’s horizon.” Although Shambu emphasizes that TIFF still screens a healthy number of worthwhile films, he echoes former Rotterdam Film Festival director Simon Field’s concern (as expressed in a dialog with James Quandt anthologized in my own Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals) that the more visible, “commercial” tier of the festival tends to drown out discussion of more “marginal films.” Finally, Shambu concurs with Field that it’s a shame that festivals like Toronto don’t play more of an educational role; although other festivals’ priorities are not explicitly invoked, the series of panel discussions the Rotterdam Film Festival once held under the rubric “What is Cinema?” (public forums that seem, alas, to have been largely discontinued in recent years) or the Jeonju International Film Festival’s intensive “master classes” with actors, critics, and directors, come easily to mind.

In light of the fact that even the best-intentioned online discussions of cinema frequently take on a cliquish, insular quality, it was slightly astonishing that TIFF’s codirector Cameron Bailey decided to enter the fray and respond to Shambu’s critique through his Twitter account. Bailey’s rejoinders appeared to confirm that controversies generated by blogs were not merely followed by a small circle of film fanatics. His tweeted interventions apparently indicated that, despite TIFF’s enormous popular success, the festival was nevertheless sensitive to barbs from writers who rail against what the critic and programmer Gabe Klinger termed (in the “comments” section of Shambu’s blog) the “suffocating” industry presence at Toronto. Bailey countered that, if Shambu and other cinephiles disdained gala screenings, there were still hundreds of other films they could attend. As for the aspersion that retrospectives of national cinemas were being ignored at TIFF, Bailey pointed to the “City to City” sidebar featuring Turkish films showcasing the city of Istanbul.

This interchange between the genial festival bureaucrat and the crusading blogger highlighted the new modes of outreach that festivals continue to explore in the age of the Internet. A Toronto-based critic observed that, “it’s Cameron’s job to defend the festival, as well as to be (or to look) web-savvy.” He added that, although “TIFF takes a lot of criticism from more cinephilic-than-thou types about its programming, its politics, and its general thrust, and a lot of it is justified,” Bailey’s task is to “believe, or to rep the belief, that, contrary to what James Quandt, Girish Shambu, or most other reasonable people would say, there are 200+ worthy feature films each year, insofar as there’s a large, varied audience that will embrace them across different sectors of viewership.”

In fact, the spirited comments on Shambu’s post illustrate the ambivalent, occasionally even anguished view of TIFF shared by film critics and programmers. Even Klinger, one of the festival’s most vociferous critics, admits that “TIFF is not nefarious—there are plenty of great people who work there—but there are also a handful of corporate-minded higher-ups poisoning the general atmosphere.” The actual films programmed at the festival elicit complex reactions from film professionals, as well as casual viewers. As at New York, a large number of the selections are almost rote borrowings from the Cannes Competition and Un Certain Regard categories—and there’s little doubt that the cinephiles who regularly visit Shambu’s blog will automatically flock to these films, as well as the perennial straight-from–Venice selections, which this year boasted Jerzy Skolimowski’sEssential Killing, Vincent Gallo’s Promises Written in Water, and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. There is also almost universal praise for “Wavelengths,” a series of avant-garde programs curated by Andréa Picard of Cinematheque Ontario. Leaving the Hollywood product aside, what appears more problematic to some observers are grab-baglike sections such as “Contemporary World Cinema” where foraging for good films is a somewhat serendipitous enterprise. And serendipity is not a nebulous factor at a festival where, faced with a plethora of titles, filmgoers must rely on the invariably gushy catalogue summaries.

Although Variety reviews of films that have already screened at other festivals can serve as an invaluable guide for the perplexed, “Contemporary World Cinema” found room for a charming film such as Aleksei Fedorchenko’s third feature, Silent Souls, as well as utterly charmless turkeys such as Benedek Fliegauf’s Womb, and John Gray’s White Irish Drinkers. It’s also undeniably true that TIFF’s aspirations towards “completism” make it more vulnerable to criticism concerning certain blatant omissions from the program. Why, many may have wondered, was one highlight of “Un Certain Regard,” Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, not featured in CWC or, perhaps even in “Masters,” a section that honors key auteurs? To be sure, Aurora was not as enthusiastically received by critics as Puiu’s second feature, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—a film generally acknowledged to be one of the best of the first decade of the twenty-first century. A difficult, often exasperating dissection of a serial killer’s murky motives, Aurora nevertheless rewards patient viewers and is infinitely more provocative than almost of all of the “world premieres” put forward as minimasterpieces at this year’s TIFF.

The questions that Shambu raises concerning the lack of a pedagogical adjunct at TIFF are probably, with a few exceptions, applicable to the vast majority of film festivals. While festivals are indisputably sites for likeminded friends to schmooze and socialize, most of them screen films that function more as autonomous “events” than opportunities for critical or historical edification. A frustrating byproduct of viewing some of the most historically and politically acute films at a festival like TIFF is that we have little time to do much more than passively “consume” them. As a case in point, Andrei Ujica’s brilliant The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (which TIFF included in the rather amorphous “Visions” section and which I praised in my online Cannes Communiqué) cries out for the sort of contextual framework that a panel of historians and critics could easily provide. In a similar vein, since I doubt most of us are particularly knowledgeable concerning the details of Mao’s “Anti-Rightist Movement” of the late Fifties and early Sixties and the ravages of the “Great Leap Forward” that proves so crucial to understanding the impetus of Wang Bing’s The Ditch, it might have at least have been helpful to pass out copies of Frank Dikötter’s newly published Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 to the press.

As at most festivals that function as both national and international events, TIFF pays considerable attention to its own local cinema. Although it’s not uncommon for American visitors to disparage the Canadian offerings at TIFF with knee-jerk snideness, this was an unusually strong year for Canadian film. Denis Côté’s Curling, Daniel Cockburn’s You are Here (both of which premiered some weeks before at Locarno) and Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies were among the festival’s strongest entries, Canadian or not. Curiously, on the opening day of the festival, The Toronto Star published Peter Howell’s interview with TIFF CEO Piers Handling, in which the festival honcho insisted that Canada produces too many feature films. “We shouldn’t be making 250 feature films [a year] in this country,” groaned Handling. He then continued to dig his own grave by putting forth a “theory that it [should be] based on your population. It’s one film per million people. So we’ve got a population of 30 million people, we should be doing 30 films.”

Quite unsurprisingly, the few Canadian directors who chose to reply summarily dismissed Handling’s comments. Veteran Canadian documentarian Ron Mann told Howell that “ I like Piers… but film festivals,” not the national cinematic output, should be scaled back. Handling’s broadside against the Canadian industry also raises largely unanswerable questions regarding the future status of Canadian cinema at the festival he helps to administer. I mentioned some of these quandaries to Reginald Harkema, one of Canada’s most audacious and talented young directors (he recently won a “Best Director” award from the Directors Guild of Canada for Leslie, My Name is Evil) and he replied by email with some refreshingly frank observations:

…What hangs over Piers’ statement is the fact that the festival has actually blown it on a number of Canadian films. I have this fantasy of curating a program of Canadian films that were rejected over the years by TIFF. If there are too many bad Canadian films being made, how did they miss out on Guy Maddin’s first film or Mike Dowse’s? Politics are of course (as with everything) a huge part of it. I have become a bit of a drinking buddy with an ex-programmer and he tells me horror stories of films that he absolutely hated and would never program, but because of the stature of the filmmaker (sex, race, celebrity, connection to the festival), they were programmed. I saw this happen this year, too, and one wonders about those many good Canadian films that didn’t get programmed when so many bad films are.

Perhaps inevitably, any discussion of the multifarious critiques of a festival cherished by its city’s residents provokes a backlash in which the naysayers labeled “more-cinephilic-than-thou” by our anonymous Toronto critic are upbraided for elitism and other sins against populist sentiment. If confronted with this stance, the “cinephiles” (if such a disparate group can be subsumed into one vague category) would probably retort that what passes for populism at festivals is often nothing more than capitulation to the demands of the market and corporate interests. Other commentators are a bit more conflicted. Harkema, for example, insists that,

There are many Toronto film festivals, but they are all served by the blockbuster gala mentality. The Canadian films, “Wavelengths,” and …Apichatpong would probably not get the profile (or even screenings) they do at this festival without the marketing muscle of the Hollywood machine. Money is pumped into this festival to position the next Oscar best picture and, because of that, the festival can afford to fly programmers all over the place and pay screening fees for the films we cinephiles hold near and dear to our hearts.

A different strain of ambivalence is also visible in Girish Shambu’s online ruminations: his nuanced critique of TIFF on his blog is augmented by an admission that it also constitutes “the one week of the year” he “most looks forward to,” as well as his post-TIFF paeans to films he ultimately saw and hugely enjoyed in 2010: a restored print of Allan King’s A Married Couple (1969; a rare exception to his claim that the festival ignores “non-contemporary” film), Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Michelangelo Frammartino’sThe Four Times, and Gallo’s Promises Written in Water, among others. To this list I would add a handful of documentaries I saw at the festival that arguably bridged the gap between the tastes of cinephiles and the mass audience: Errol Morris’s Tabloid (after the tasteless reenactments of Abu Ghraib torture sessions in Standard Operating Procedure,Morris returns to his earlier fondness for colorful eccentrics with a lively dissection of a former beauty queen’s scandalous past); Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams(Herzog’s first foray into 3-D is not among his very best nonfiction films, but this guided tour of France’s Cave of Chauvet Pont d’Arc can still be appreciated for a lyrical, occasionally over-the-top tribute to humanity’s first artists); Vibeke Lokkeberg’s Tears of Gaza, which highlights some astounding footage of the 2008-2009 Israeli bombings shot by Palestinian cameramen, and José Luis Guerin’s Guest, an honorable failure that chronicles the Catalan filmmaker’s encounter with “ordinary” people during a year-long trek across the world to promote his films at international festivals.

In some respects, Guest would seem like the quintessential reflexive film for festivalgoers. Instead of hanging out with stars at galas, Guerin chatted with people on the street in Bogota and made empathetic small talk with elderly slum dwellers on the outskirts of Cali. The problem is that Guerin’s efforts to eschew tourism end up seeming inadvertently touristic. He cannot, despite good intentions, transcend his status as a celebrity filmmaker; the “Other” is always elusive. Indeed, the most effective sequences, and the least tainted with liberal guilt, involve conversations with filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas and Chantal Akerman.

Perhaps an analogous problem plagues those of us who flock to TIFF while carping incessantly. Despite our yearning for what Shambu terms a “dream festival,” an unrealizable transcendent “utopia” (which literally means “no place”) untainted by commercialism or special interests, we cannot resist making the eternal return to Toronto each year, perhaps secretly enjoying its fusion of Art and Mammon. As a New York-based critic wrote me, “TIFF is far too large of a festival to allow for a comprehensive or even precise evaluation.” While regretting that there is an insufficient “commitment to cinema’s history to rival” the festival’s ostentatious display of “glamour,” he believes that those “lost and hungry” can still find solace in “off the map…nearly-underground havens of truly exploratory cinema.”

For more information on the Toronto International Film Festival, click here.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast and Moving Image Source.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.