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September 6, 2002 2:00 AM
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TORONTO 2002: A Toronto Roadmap: How to Navigate the Fest's 345 Films, 17 Sections

TORONTO 2002: A Toronto Roadmap: How to Navigate the Fest's 345 Films, 17 Sections

by Stephen Garrett



(indieWIRE/ 09.06.02) -- It's September in Toronto, and while most of the city goes about its brisk business, film school is definitely back in session: Journalists and distributors mill around the Varsity Theaters for their first day of press/industry screenings while the Canuck hoi polloi line up to score last-minute tickets to the public premieres. For the next 10 days, Bloor Street is once again the well-worn boulevard of international cinema.


Now in its 27th year, the Toronto International Film Festival is easily the largest and most anticipated event on the movie community's fall calendar. The cinephilic cornucopia is as overflowing as ever -- 345 films compared with last year's 326 -- and, as usual, the bumper crop is divided neatly and helpfully into different programs and sections to reassure even the most daunted spectator.


But, oh, those categories! Sundance has four main sections (Competition, World Cinema, American Spectrum, and Documentary) and Cannes has three (Competiton, Out-of-Competition, and Un Certain Regard), and both have the occasional tribute and sidebar retrospectives. To be fair, the two events also have parasitic, unaffiliated festivals running concurrently (Sundance has Slamdance, while Cannes has Director's Fortnight and Critics' Week) -- but few if any film festivals can match the sheer number of categories that define Toronto.


No less than 17 sections (up from last year's 14) form Toronto's gridmap, including old standbys such as "Contemporary World Cinema," "Masters," and "Discovery," as well as newer ones like "Wavelengths" (a second year for this avant-garde spotlight, named after Michael Snow's seminal film) and "Visions" (a category making its debut this year as a revival of the retired category "The Edge," and which is devoted to challenging narrative cinema). Unlike other similarly prestigious and established festivals, Toronto seems more open to keeping its categories fluid and flexible.


"The festival was initially very much geared towards the public and still is," says Ian Birnie, a Toronto programmer in the '80s and '90s who now heads the film department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "So you have to think in terms of hooks and angles to get people interested." One section that programming director Piers Handling suggested back in 1995 as a way of celebrating the festival's 20th anniversary was "Dialogues: Talking with Pictures," in which acclaimed directors choose their favorite films and then engage the audience in a Q&A afterward. "It's entirely public-driven," says Steve Gravestock, manager of festival programming. "It's basically a thank you to the audience." The gratitude has lingered: "Talking with Pictures" is back again this year, returning as it has almost every year since it was launched.


Toronto has 13 programmers coordinating the movie orgy, and members of the group occasionally suggest new categories to replace or refresh the older ones. "We're always reassessing how we do the sections," says Gravestock. "We're always looking at realigning the sections to provide the best kind of showcase for any particular work."


"The sections have morphed and changed with the times," says festival programmer Colin Geddes, whose main focus is the "Midnight Madness" section, which was founded by former programmer Noah Cowan in 1988 as a variant of the "Late Nights, Great Nights" section that had previously existed. "I look at my section as a platform for films that don't have a place anywhere else," says Geddes. "I bill it as a refuge from mainstream arthouse cinema. And it's also a draw for younger audiences."


Some of the older categories that are long defunct are ones tied to a regional cinema, including "Asian Horizons" and "Latin American Panorama." "The festival has made a conscious decision over the past seven or eight years to move away from geographically oriented categories," explains Cowan. The Asian and Latin categories, for example, have simply been folded into the "Contemporary World Cinema" and "Masters" sections. ("And there's actually been an increase of Asian films since we retired its regional category," notes Geddes.)


But Toronto hasn't completely eschewed geographic distinction. Two notable exceptions that have become festival staples are "Perspective Canada" and "Planet Africa." Although both have certainly produced their share of auteurs, the festival still feels both deserve special distinction. "'Planet Africa' is just a really nice spotlight," says Gravestock. "Some of the filmmakers who are lesser-known get more attention because of it. And, as for 'Perspective Canada,' it's part of the organization's mandate to promote Canadian cinema." That it does, especially with the returning "Canadian Retrospective" section, this year focusing on documentarian Allan King, whose work, particularly with the national TV network CBC, stretches back to the '50s.


Toronto's selection has more than doubled over time (in 1983, the programmers picked a mere 157 films). And if the past is any indication of the future, then audiences will doubtless have many more categories to savor. "I've spent 15 years with the festival, as either an audience member or a programmer," says Geddes. "And it just keeps growing year by year by year."

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