This year’s Toronto International Film Festival was more than just a bunch of screenings. For anyone on the ground at the major Canadian gathering, TIFF is a full-on immersion into the film world filled with memorable encounters. Here are a few from our staff who attended this time.
Dinner With Isabelle
The great thing about a fest like TIFF is that, with so much going on around the city, you never really know what’s going to happen next. Case in point: I found myself stepping out of a screening of “Barry” and into a rain-soaked dinner with Isabelle Huppert (star of three different movies in this year’s lineup). Journalists are herded into these fancy studio dinners on a nightly basis at the major festivals, but the events often feel so forced and transparent that most of us tend to just say a quick hello to the “talent” and then just talk amongst ourselves — when you’ve been living off poutine and mushed granola bars for five days, a free meal can be a lot more exciting than a chance to hobnob with a hot young director. But this one was different, and not just because I was three drinks deep instead of my usual two.
Huppert sat down next to me, weathered the usual fawning over her latest role (she really is incredible in “Things to Come”), and proceeded to resist every opportunity I gave her to divert her attention to someone more enticing. Our off-the-record conversation flowed for more than an hour as we talked about everything from [redacted] to [redacted]. None of it was particularly salacious, but names were named and I promised to keep them to myself. Still, I don’t think she’d mind too much if I shared one small and effortlessly succinct thing she said when our chat turned to the subject of her “Every Man For Himself” director Jean-Luc Godard: “When Godard dies, we will all be orphans.” I could’ve gotten on a plane and gone home right then (it’s a good thing I didn’t — I would’ve missed “Jackie”). —David Ehrlich
A United Spirit
20th Century Fox
After the “A United Kingdom” premiere, a select group of guests were invited to a private post-screening dinner held at one of Toronto’s swankiest hotels in a tucked-away room far from prying eyes and big crowds. It’s the kind of event that can be a bit indulgent and insular and very, very exclusive, but towards the end of the evening, when director Amma Asante and star David Oyelowo both offered up some official remarks, they threw to another guest: One of the grandsons of Seretse and Ruth Khama, who had otherwise been mostly unassumingly enjoying his meal and the company.
His short, but very moving speech was all about how important the making of this film was to the people of Botswana — people who love their country and its history and especially the Khamas — and it reminded everyone of the awesome power of film, what it can do, what it can change, and how all that lasts long past one (very nice, admittedly) dinner. It was the best moment of the fest, and a wonderful reminder to keep in mind as we head into a season full of both good dinners and better stories. —Kate Erbland
(Re)Birth of a Nation
I wouldn’t call it the most pleasant moment, but the most memorable was the conclusion of the first screening of “The Birth of a Nation.” The audience erupted in applause that grew as the credits rolled, culminating in a standing ovation when Cameron Bailey brought director Nate Parker and his cast out for the Q&A. It was slightly surreal, to experience a reaction seemingly divorced from the scandal that has defined this film for the last month.
On the way out of the theater, I spoke with a young man who closed the Q&A by simply saying how much he liked the movie. I asked him and his friend if they had any awareness of the film in advance. They didn’t; they just came down to the festival to hang out and see what was going on, and somebody offered them tickets. TIFF is renowned for friendly audiences, so none of this should be surprising. Nevertheless, it was a strange and discomfiting experience. —Dana Harris
A Man About Town
This was my tenth consecutive year attending TIFF in addition to several other major festivals on the calendar. One of the most valuable observations I’ve gleaned from this decade of exploring the film world on the road is the volume of under-appreciated work that takes place behind the scenes. TIFF is especially daunting in that sense. Programmers must juggle an insane volume of submissions and somehow wind up with programs designed to satisfy thousands of people with different agendas — a mixture of public moviegoers, distributors and press converge at TIFF. How do you dig through that mass of cinema to produce a schedule that aims to satisfy everyone? This year, that task fell to a guy who knows a thing or two about juggling many things at once: Michael Lerman, the acting head of programming for TIFF, who also managed to put together the festival’s Primetime section.
Lerman, who was my first Cannes roommate 10 years ago and used to contribute to IndieWire, has always been a voracious cinephile driven towards putting his passion into his work. But now he’s having a serious impact on the scene: On the opening day of TIFF, a press release circulated announcing Lerman’s latest gig as artistic director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which he’ll slot into his schedule in between TIFF duties and a similar job at the Philadelphia Film Festival. That evening, I ran into a dapper Lerman as he grabbed a quick bite at one of the food trucks situated along TIFF’s main drag. He was taking a breather in between an insane volume of tasks: Moderating conversations, filling holes in the schedule, making new schedules for other festivals down the line. At some point in time he would have to figure out the deal with the SXSW karaoke party he’d emcee in a few days. But for the moment, he was there, just eager to share thoughts some of the movies about to premiere. We embraced and talked through the lineup, not only as friends but as two hardworking members of the film world who felt like we were really making a difference in this close-knit community. Sometimes the hard work pays off.
I won’t go into details about the films he recommended I check out, but all his suggestions were spot-on. —Eric Kohn
“Jackie” Takes Flight
At every festival, there’s one movie that becomes the discovery. Sundance anointed “Manchester by the Sea,” Cannes adored “I, Daniel Blake,” Venice boosted “La La Land” and Telluride propelled “Moonlight” into the awards conversation. The movie that I was hellbent to see in Toronto — with advance buzz from Venice — was Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s first English-language film, “Jackie.”
Finally, Eric Kohn and I managed to press into the first TIFF public screening. The movie was exhilarating, moving, formally demanding, and not like anything I had seen before. Larrain had made that challenging jump to America. He explained how hard it was to handle Jackie Kennedy’s breathy voice, how he needed to frame the camera close to Natalie Portman’s face. Portman told us how scared she was — but that she’s always willing to take a chance that she’ll fail. The energy at the film’s afterparty was palpable, as everyone wondered how the ongoing bidding would go. A sea of people —Larrain, Portman, Darren Aronofsky, who developed the movie with writer Noah Oppenheim, “Manchester by the Sea” star Casey Affleck, “Loving” star Joel Edgerton and writer-director Jeff Nichols, Amazon’s Ram Murali, Oscar maven Peggy Siegal, Roadside Attractions’ Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff, Sony’s Steven Bersch, The Black List’s Franklin Leonard — debated the strengths and weaknesses of movies they’d seen and who might buy “Jackie.” Days later it was the inevitable cock-of-the-walk Fox Searchlight, ready to take on the fall awards derby.
What can I say? Those are my moments. —Anne Thompson
Selfies With Spurlock
During Morgan Spurlock’s introduction to the the Midnight Madness screening of his new documentary, “Rats,” Spurlock posed to take a selfie from the stage, with the entire audience wearing rat masks over their noses in the background. He stopped posing, however, when he noticed that a man in the front row didn’t have a mask. “Someone from the back row throw their mask up for this guy,” Spurlock said. I quickly took mine off and threw it as hard as I could. The flimsy piece of rubber landed on the stage inches from the feet of TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes, who quickly gave it to the audience member.
The selfie turned out pretty well. —Graham Winfrey