If you love movies and live in Toronto, September might just be your favourite month. September means TIFF, the “Friendly Festival”, the biggest public film festival in the world – and it is wonderful. I’ve been attending the Festival (and TIFF’s year-round programming, which should not be underestimated) for the past four years, and TIFF16 was one of the best so far.
It could have something to do with the fact that I worked at the Festival this year. I got a short-term job working as a cinema usher at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Not a fancy or glamourous job, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. The Lightbox is a lovely place to spend time, even if it does mean standing on the hard floors for 10 hours a day. It was almost always crazy busy in the building, and I spent much of my time directing people to their line-ups and their cinemas. At the risk of sounding overly positive, it really was wonderful to spend time around people who love cinema. Everyone I worked with was passionate about movies, which made for interesting conversation throughout our long shifts. It is such a wonderful environment to be in, and while it could be stressful, it is absolutely worth it. I think anyone who works for TIFF – at any level – will say the same thing. Festival is busy and stressful, but TIFF always pulls it off and it is always the most magical time of year in Toronto.
The best part of the Festival is getting to see all kinds of films by all kinds of people from literally all around the world. I remain astonished at the volume of films that screened at the Festival. There is something for everyone: big Hollywood galas, experimental and adventurous art gallery works, films by young and newly discovered talents, small-budget films from across the globe, challenging documentaries, and creepy, gory, campy midnight movies. Every program features rich, interesting, and valuable work. The programmers work so hard and bring so many unique films to the Festival. There is nothing else like it.
I started off the Festival with Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium, which has been criticized for being incoherent and directionless. I do agree that it introduces so many different narrative threads and themes that it doesn’t care to every follow up on, but for me, it was not off-putting. Natalie Portman is the strength of this film, playing a smart woman who does not fit into any female cinematic stereotypes. She understands business and art, and the most important person in her life is her sister, played by Lily-Rose Depp. This movie is sprawling and strange, but at times it is delightful. Its portrayal of 1930s French cinema, and early(ish) cinema technology is charming.
My sister and I made a double feature of Planetarium and Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta. What makes Julieta particularly interesting is that it is based off of three Alice Munro short stories. Munro’s stories are frequently set in Southern Ontario, and deal with characters and situations that could be seen as specific to Canada – but this is not the case. Her stories are translated beautifully into Almodóvar’s Spanish settings. The film is lush and visually beautiful, the screen frequently filled with deep reds and blues. Shots of the stormy blue sea through a kitchen window are shocking in their beauty. The story is emotional and almost melodramatic, and spends much of its running time focused on the bond between a mother and her daughter. This is very much a film about women – the emotional labour of being a mother as well as being a daughter, and how to navigate friendship, family, and loss. As the ever-charming Rossy De Palma shouted out after the screening: “Vive la cinéma!”.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I had some time to kill before my shift, so I got in the rush line to see Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986). This Cinematheque screening was projected on 35mm film, which was rather damaged, but still looked fantastic. Jonathan Demme introduced the film, and he comes across as genuine and thoughtful in person. After the screening, he noted that he really enjoyed watching it again, and talked to the audience about various production aspects. He talked about being bored with only seeing white people in movies, and therefore he included many Black characters – although, no Black actors were cast in leading roles. White people are at the centre of this movie, with Black characters showing up as extras or waitresses. He talked about how African-American culture was prominent in New York in the 1980s, which he addressed in the movie via characters’ outfits, jewellery, and the music they listened to. This film is by no means perfect in its representation of Black people, but clearly Demme respects Black people and Black culture, and even this kind of representation was not (and still is not) seen in most mainstream Hollywood movies. This film and the discussion that followed it reinforced the fact that Hollywood still has work to do in its representation of Black characters, and unique Black experiences.
I also got a chance to see Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, her follow-up to the stunning A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Amirpour is establishing herself as an important filmmaker; she is a woman with a wildly active imagination and a seemingly infinite talent for translating her ideas onto the screen. Not to mention, both of her films have a decidedly feminist worldview. Women are the heroes in her movies. Women in her films are complicated, contradictory, violent, ruthless, graceful and quick-witted. Suki Waterhouse plays the lead character, whose arm and leg are amputated and eaten by a group of cannibals early on in the film. Waterhouse’s character, Arlen, demonstrates incredible strength and escapes her captors, dragging herself through the desert to a better place (“Comfort”). The film looks massive and intimidating on the big screen, and the huge desert landscapes make one feel small and fearful. At times the film is dreamy and wandering – and yet, and Amirpour noted herself, the writing is “fucking airtight”. Even without tons of dialogue, the onscreen action is airtight, much like her first film. She is an incredibly talented director, just beginning her career of making exciting, thoughtful, stylish movies.
Two films I saw focused on chilly landscapes and the struggles of the people who inhabit them: Nathan Morlando’s Mean Dreams, and Kelly Reichardt’s stunning Certain Women. Morlando notes that his film is a “fable set in the heart of the Great Lakes region”. It has some beautiful autumnal cinematography, and tells a tense and emotional story about two teenagers who run away from abusive and distant adults in their lives. Morlando notes that it is a take on Bonnie and Clyde, but with “good” kids who spend much of their time contemplating morality.
Certain Women is my favourite film of the Festival. Kelly Reichardt is such a gifted storyteller, and she makes beautiful films that consistently focus on the difficulties and experiences of being a woman. Nature encroaches on her characters’ lives in almost all of her films (such as Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves), and the same is true of Certain Woman, which takes place in snowy, vast, mountainous Montana. Reichardt edits her own films, cutting between three different stories about 3 women (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Lily Gladstone, respectively), all of whom face professional and personal difficulties. This is another film about the emotional labour of being a woman. It is not easy to be a mother, a lawyer, a rancher, a teacher, or a romantic partner. It is difficult to communicate one’s true feelings, which often leads to awkward, painful encounters. This is an exceptional film, with the expansive landscapes and intimate close-ups of the three (well, four – Kristen Stewart gives a superb performance, as she always does) women beautifully shot on 16mm.
I also saw the Midnight Madness “horror documentary”, Rats, by Morgan Spurlock. This is not a movie for the squeamish – but really, are any Midnight Madness movies for the squeamish? Rats have always been one of my favourite animals, and I believe they are mistreated and marginalized in unfair ways. The film explores areas of various countries (Britain, Vietnam, India, the United States), and how rats are treated over the world. Most places see rats as nothing more than disease-carriers (which they are, to be sure), and make great attempts to eradicate all rats (which turns out to be futile). The “horror documentary” approach is the perfect way to tell a story about animals who carry parasites, live in sewers, and come out at night to rummage through garbage bags. Spurlock provides many differing views on how rats should be thought of and treated, and the film is quite enjoyable in a Discovery Channel kind of way.
It is impossible to not feel like I have missed out on something at TIFF. There are parties I wish I was at, meetings and conferences and tons of films I did not attend. There are people I wished I’d met, connected with, even gotten a glimpse of. I had some amazing experiences at TIFF16, and met some really great people, but of course I feel like I missed out on a million things. I look up to so many critics and programmers and filmmakers at TIFF, and at this point I can only dream of being as talented and articulate as any of them. I love cinema, and TIFF is a dream. I am so lucky to be able to attend the Festival and the programming throughout the year. I was very fortunate to work at the Festival this year. I do not know what this next year holds for me, but one sentiment from the Festival sticks with me: Vive la cinéma.