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TIFF Veteran Piers Handling on the Festival’s Most Exciting Lineup and Why Oscar Season Is a Threat to Risk-Taking Films

Handling singles out some highlights from a section "with a strong sense of cinematic value."

“Jessica Forever”

For much of the film industry, the Toronto International Film Festival is a major player in Oscar season, and the 2018 edition is no exception. Over the last two decades, TIFF’s director and CEO Piers Handling has witnessed this evolution, which began with the explosion of attention around TIFF premiere “American Beauty” in 1999 that culminated in its best picture win. Despite the hype that launching Oscar titles can bring, however, Handling — who wraps up his nearly 40 years at the festival this year — has some reservations about its impact on the festival as a whole.

“Obviously, those films don’t need publicity help,” he said in a phone interview. “They have their own machines behind them.” To remedy that, the festival launched its Platform section four years ago, and it has quickly grown into the most exciting aspect of the lineup — a competition section of 12 titles, primarily from younger filmmakers who have only made a handful of features, it tends to be the area of the festivals where critics and cinephiles congregate. “This work is full of risk-taking,” Handling said. “At the end of the day, the section is really about films that excite us.”

Previous entries in Platform include Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” and Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin.” While several Platform titles have become a part of the Oscar game, Handling stressed that they had a different profile as part of Platform.

“I think there’s such incredible attention on festivals now that ties them to awards season,” he said. “It’s very difficult now to escape that coverage. You can extend that to Telluride and Venice and New York. They’re wrapped up in the same buzz. While that’s fine and dandy, it’s only a few films.” Platform was designed with a different mission. “We’re trying to keep the focus on diversity of cinema around the world,” Handling said. “That’s the biggest challenge that faces all of these festivals — how do you carve out your own identity that’s not being imposed on you?”

“Her Smell”

TIFF

The latest Platform lineup includes four women directors and a plethora of titles from Europe and Asia in addition to the U.S. Handling said that while the international scope contributed to a range of topics showcased throughout the lineup, there were several movies built around “stories of strong female characters” and movies “with a strong sense of cinematic value.” That last attribute, he added, distinguishes it from much of the festival. “There are a lot of films at the festival more focused on storytelling, rather than the way they tell their stories cinematically,” he said. He was also keen on making sure the festival supported international cinema. “There’s been such a collapse in the arthouse market in the last two decades, and foreign language films are starting to disappear,” he said. “The job of film festivals is to balance that.”

Here are some of the most promising titles from the section from the latest announcement.

Karyn Kusama Goes Returns to Her Roots

In one sense, Kusama is an outlier in the Platform section, which usually focuses on directors at early career stages. The filmmaker was a breakout sensation with her 2000 debut “Girlfight,” directed a studio film with “Aeon Flux,” and came to TIFF almost a decade ago with “Jennifer’s Body.” However, Kusama has only a few feature-length credits to her name, and 2015’s “The Invitation” found her making a successful return to working on a smaller scale. For “Destroyer,” she teams up with Nicole Kidman, who plays a police detective returning to an undercover assignment from her past.

“This one is such a throwback to ‘Girlfight,’” Handling said. “It’s so tough and gritty, a real return to her roots with that independent spirit and grit and rigor that we found so attractive. We’re trying to find filmmakers who aren’t as well-known, and Karyn is just not in the public eye enough.”

Low-Budget Sci-Fi

Platform’s closing night entry, “Jessica Forever,” is the only title in the section from first-time directors (co-directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel). The French production revolves around a woman who leads a group of lost boys in the near future. “It’s probably the most unique film we’re showing,” Handling said. “It’s so strange, so full of surprises.” Handling called the lead character “a strong warrior trying to help a clan survive,” adding that “it’s a particularly feminine take on trying to save the world.”

A Backwards Tradition

“City of Last Things”

Taiwanese entry “Cities of Last Things” adopts an approach that anyone familiar with “Memento” knows well: It tells a story in reverse order. However, Ho Wi Ding (“Pinoy Sunday”) takes his own unique approach, by assembling the narrative in three vignettes built around one man’s relationship to various women in his life — and it starts in the near future, working backwards from there. “It’s absolutely possible to tell the story in a conventional way, and the filmmaker chose to disrupt that.”

Cassevetes Meets Rock ’n’ Roll

Alex Ross Perry has been a fixture on the festival circuit for years, from the early days of cringe-comedy “The Color Wheel” and Sundance breakout “Listen Up Philip” to last year’s drama “Golden Exits.” Perry shifts between genres at ease, but his fixation on energetic, neurotic characters has been a constant. For “Her Smell,” he re-teams with “Philip” and “Queen of Earth” star Elisabeth Moss for a Courtney Love-inspired character who spends a good portion of the movie onstage.

“It’s a very raw film,” Handling says. “To me, it felt like early Cassavetes in terms of its sense of improvisation, letting the camera run, and letting self-destructive characters just break down in front of the camera.” He said it was “probably their best collaboration.”

A Disturbing Look at Europe’s Past

Casting director Markus Schleinzer became an international auteur the moment his shocking debut “Michael” premiered at Cannes in 2011. That movie revolved around a kidnapped child growing up in his captor’s home. Years later, Schleinzer is back with a very different of entrapment — slavery, colonialism, and assimilation. Set in the 19th century and based on its protagonist’s memoirs, “Angelo” revolves around the experiences of an African slave boy chosen by a European Comtesse to be baptized and given education.

“Angelo”

“He tries to find his own voice,” Handling said. “It covers the arc of his entire lifetime from about 10 to his death. It’s fascinating how much he, as an individual, has changed.” Handling said that anyone who saw “Michael” should brace themselves for another unnerving experience. “This film is just as intense,” he said.

Tim Sutton Steps Up

Tim Sutton has been one of the most compelling filmmakers to emerge on the American festival circuit in recent years, with his pictorial, free-flowing narratives merging documentary and fiction with photographic traditions. After the unsettling “Dark Night,” which explored a mass shooting, Sutton is tackling his biggest project to date — a drama about two men competing in a bare-knuckle fight. Jamie Bell stars opposite Frank Grillo in the gritty drama, which serves as Platform’s opening selection.

“It’s such a tough, uncompromising film,” Handling said. “It’s so relentless, and it doesn’t let go. It has very strong performances and it’s really imaginative in terms of what it’s trying to do with a devastating portrait of a man trying to find meaning in his life.”

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