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September 8, 2004 2:00 AM
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TORONTO 2004: Where Award Contenders and Brisk Acquisitions Make for Mammoth Fest; New Co-Director C

TORONTO 2004: Where Award Contenders and Brisk Acquisitions Make for Mammoth Fest; New Co-Director Cowan Breaks it Down

by Anthony Kaufman



Toronto International Film Festival co-director Noah Cowan (right) with Piers Handling at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE


With Venice's film festival nearly complete, all eyes turn to Canada, where Toronto's smorgasbord of over 300 films from around the globe kicks off tomorrow (Sept. 9) with Istvan Szabo's "Being Julia." Starring a scene-stealing Annette Bening as a 1930s UK stage diva (in a role that already has insiders buzzing about awards potential), the premiere is one of many specialized movies hoping to ride the buzz of the Canadian fest straight through to the awards season.

From prestige studio fare such as "Ray," the Ray Charles bio-pic, to junketing specialized movies like Fox Searchlight's fall trio of "I Heart Huckabees," "Sideways" and "Kinsey," the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) will seem, at least to the mainstream press, to solely function as a platform for the season's best studio-financed movies.

But as Toronto's new co-director Noah Cowan notes, "We're a unique festival in that we serve a lot of masters. We're the starting gate for award-destined films. We also have a very important mandate to promote Canadian cinema. But the greatest gift we can give to the films that we love," continues Cowan, "is that we can ensure they have a place in the world of distribution."

For this reason, this year TIFF has emerged as one of the more fertile film markets in the world, following the Cannes Market, for distributors to acquire new product. "The couple of years after 9/11 and the SARS problem did create a certain instability," admits Cowan, "but that's gone now. The number of world premieres of major English language films is unparalleled and there's so many significant films in English for sale."

From higher profile fare like the Johnny Depp starrer "The Libertine" and Frank Flower's UK genre pic "Haven," to UK auteur Pawel Pawlovski's more intimate "My Summer of Love" and the Australian comedy "Oyster Farmer," business for English-speaking pics should be brisk during the 10-day event.

Last year, as with most editions of the TIFF, the fest's strong program of foreign-lingo cinema drew the most number of buyers. (Denmark's "The Green Butchers," Germany's "Rosenstrasse," and France's horror-thriller "Haute Tension" were all acquired during the festival.) But according to Cowan, 2004 sees a roughly equal balance between available English and foreign-language cinema.

A fixture of New York's independent film community for many years, when he co-ran Cowboy Pictures (distributor of such titles as "Benjamin Smoke," "Fat Girl" and "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge"), Cowan knows about the buying and selling of specialized movies. And though he denies his new position has anything to do with the increased market potential of the fest, he admits, "Do I know more people in the American independent community? Absolutely, I worked in it. Maybe it's easier to attract films from that sector, but they come to us anyway."

"But unlike Sundance," continues Cowan, "we don't show that many American indies, so we have to be very careful about that selection. It's a much smaller group."

Still, this year, a number of American indies are premiering, including two star-studded tales of intertwining characters, Paul Haggis' LA story "Crash," with Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, and Sandra Bullock, and Chazz Palminteri's Xmas eve NYC chronicle "Noel," with Penelope Cruz and Susan Sarandon; a trio from American auteurs Lodge Kerrigan ("Keane"), Todd Solondz ("Palindromes") and Gregg Araki ("Mysterious Skin"); Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik's "On the Outs"; and a number of documentaries. Among the most talked about non-fiction titles is Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Iraqi war portrait, "Gunner Palace" -- buzz in Telluride this past weekend was that a deal for that film has already closed.

"We're a very good place to have a film sold," explains Cowan, who says this year they're accommodating the industry even more than before. Premieres will move away from all-evening slots, instead showing during the middle of the day, "in order for us to spread the wealth and so the buyers have more room to breathe," he explains, "and presumably so more films can enter the distribution stream out of Toronto."

This year's fest will also showcase more world premieres from foreign directors who usually debut at Euro-fests, thereby escalating the stakes for such works from recognizable international auteurs as Bille August ("Return to Sender"), Goran Paskaljevic ("Midwinter Night's Dream"), Lukas Moodysson ("A Hole In My Heart"), Alex de la Iglesia ("Ferpect Crime") and Bahman Ghobadi ("Turtles Can Fly").

Outside of the U.S., Cowan additionally points to a strong line-up of films from Germany. "There's signs of energy coming out of Germany now," he says. "We're seeing this new generation coming alive; there's so many interesting filmmakers creating imaginative cinema that don't feel they have to be bogged down in WWII and the Holocaust. They're dealing with contemporary realities." While Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall," a look at the last days of Hitler, would seem to contradict Cowan, buzzed-about films like "Shadows of Time" and "Off Beat" reinforce Cowan's claim.

Cowan also cites Argentina as a continuing source of cinematic inspiration. Along with films from New Argentine Cinema vets Pablo Trapero ("Rolling Family"), Lucretia Martel ("The Holy Girl") and Lisandro Alonso ("Los Muertos"), look out for "Historias Minimas" director Carlos Sorin's humble comedy "Bombon - El Perro," Enrique Pineyro's airline expose "Whisky Romeo Zulu," and Maria Victoria Menis' lyrical drama "Little Sky." "Argentina is just getting hotter and hotter," says Cowan. "Their strengths are ever-increasing."

The festival will also include a focus on South Africa's resurging cinema ("the foundation is being set for good years to come," says Cowan) and of course, the local heroes of Canadian cinema. For the first time, the festival has created "Canada First!" a program dedicated to first-timers showing in the festival. ("We were worried we wouldn't have sufficient numbers, but it's busting at the seams," he adds).

While Cowan says his new position at the TIFF is intended to maintain the festival's successful status quo, he is excited about an inaugural pilot project to bridge the worlds of cinema and art at the Festival. Working with the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, "Art Project: Role Play" highlights several film-inspired installations by Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk ("The Fast Runner") and German artist Christian Jankowski. In addition, cinematographer Christopher Doyle's audio-visual collage work will be shown at the festival's main Box Office.

"It is an initiative that was important to me," says Cowan. "I feel as though we're seeing the twin dictatorships of television and cinema starting to crumble a bit. And having been in New York for several years, where the art world is consumed by talking about audio-visual culture, it seemed appropriate for us to begin having that conversation. This is where the new language of cinema is coming from," he says. "We're starting our next steps."

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