This year’s Toronto International Film Festival was a tough gamble by any metric, but even as it scaled back the size of the program and held minimal in-person events, evidence abounded that filmmakers and audiences were eager to get back to the moviegoing experience. Notwithstanding those ubiquitous pandemic fears, some TIFF attendees found plenty of silver linings.
Despite its haphazard form, the 2021 edition of TIFF provided an opportunity to witness the unique challenges and opportunities of pressing ahead with a physical event in the time of COVID, no matter the ubiquitous reservations. “It felt like it had that very human scale this year,” said TIFF co-head and artistic director Cameron Bailey as the closing weekend began. “We were all blinking and out in the world again.”
Look no further than the Midnight Madness screening of “Titane,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year before making its North American premiere as part of TIFF’s venerated genre section. Midway through director Julia Ducournau’s jolting and surreal meditation on gender identity, someone fainted from shock. That followed the precedent Ducournau’s debut “Raw” set in the same section five years ago, when an audience member actually had a stroke. This time, however, the ailing viewer in question was so hooked by the vision onscreen that — after an ambulance came and went — they returned to the movie.
“There were gasps, screams, EMT calls,” said Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky, who sat through the screening. “It was everything you want at a midnight screening. It was nice to be back in a movie theater with a real sense of community.”
By any metric, it was a step forward from the previous pandemic edition in 2020, which found 50 films relegated to minimal indoor attendance, a flurry of drive-ins, and no out-of-town guests.
Still, this year featured only around 130 films (the 2019 edition had north of 330), reduced screening capacity, and ample travel restrictions that once again kept a lot of talent away. It was still quieter and less glitzy than any pre-COVID TIFF in recent decades. The pandemic itself did not recede to the background, as the festival reported one positive case at the Scotiabank Theatre from a member of the press during the first weekend, though the festival leadership said they were confident that safety protocols did their job. “We had 670-something screenings and we’re talking about one person,” said TIFF co-head and executive director Joana Vicente. “For us, it was important to be upfront and transparent. We feel confident that we did it right.”
Ultimately, the compact lineup allowed many of the lower-profile gems of the program to stand out alongside buzzier awards season hopefuls that normally dominate the spotlight. It also clarified the disconnect between the convenience of virtual festivals and the more complex impact of in-person events. Insiders were wary from the start: The audiences were dominated by Toronto locals, who benefited from a range of options but held less value for the wider industry. Privately, publicists groused about the disconnect between in-person events and promotional opportunities, while some international buyers saw little value in making the trek.
But Bailey held firm on the in-person emphasis. “Just the unique pleasure of sitting in a movie theater with immersive sound and a giant screen, opening yourself to whatever’s coming, that’s something that was proven again to be irreplaceable,” he said.
Some critics bemoaned the lack of bigger-ticket items available on the press and industry portal, with some placing blame at TIFF’s feet. Bailey also pushed back on that assessment. “I hope that people working as professionals in the film industry, whether it’s press or industry, understand that festivals don’t control some of these things,” he said. “In the end, this is the responsibility of the people who own the films.”
But there was an upside for areas of the lineup that would barely have any presence at all without TIFF’s decision to screen them in the first place. Anyone willing to wait on hot ticket items like “Spencer” and “Dune” had no shortage of opportunities to explore TIFF’s hidden gems instead. And on the ground, it was those selections that benefited the most from the persistence of an exclusive physical festival, pandemic or not.
Nataleah Hunter-Young, who began her first year with TIFF as the international programmer for the Middle East and Africa, noted the level of audience engagement and filmmaker response for many of those titles. “For the local audience,” the hybrid experience really offered the best of both worlds and made the festival that much more accessible,” she said. African and Arab films in particular managed to gain more exposure than usual. “Their works cover the festival this year, appearing in almost every film program, demonstrating the wide-ranging, boundary-pushing approaches to storytelling that persist outside of the European and American industry spotlight,” she said.
These include Finnish-Somali director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s “The Gravedigger’s Wife,” which was welcomed at TIFF by local Somali audiences, as well as Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s “Neptune Frost” and Amil Shivji’s “Vuta N’Kuvute” (“Tug of War”), the first Tanzanian feature film to play in the festival’s 46-year history. “Both in-cinema and online, audiences reacted strongly to the impact of being presented with these transformative images and sounds of East Africa, a region rarely afforded the contrasting attention on the world stage,” she said.
Newcomer Ritweek Pareek’s remarkable “Dug Dug,” a thoughtful and often hilarious satire involving a remote Indian community that turns an abandoned motorcycle into a religious shrine, stood out in the Discovery section as a genuine vision: Watching the movie on the digital portal from New York, this writer was pleased to settle into the kind of subversive and unpredictable cinematic journey that requires festival curation to stand out.
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And in Pareek’s case, it did more than that: The filmmaker secured representation from UTA ahead of the festival, and actually made it to town, despite the daunting odds. It was his very first time attending any festival.
“We had to travel from Bombay to New Delhi to Dubai and then to Toronto,” said Pareek, in between screenings of other TIFF films. “There were a lot of PCR tests involved before we got here. The uncertainty with travel was uncanny, but we took it one step at a time.”
The scrambling caused Pareek to miss his premiere, but he had plenty of time to settle into the environment. “It has all been worth it,” he said. “Certain restrictions were bound to be there, but nevertheless been far too exciting, inspiring, and wonderful to meet such talented people and have the most intriguing conversations while watching amazing films.”
In recent weeks, he added, he assumed “Dug Dug” would have a minimal impact. “To be honest, I was not expecting a lot,” he said. “But the film’s premise and theme is so universal that everyone has been able to connect with it. I have been getting a lot of messages from young audiences saying how much they love the film, that it feels like a never-ending party.”
Another first-time filmmaker who benefited from that vibe was Rebeca Huntt, whose lyrical essay film “Beba” was tapped as one of the potential documentary breakouts by TIFF docs programmer Thom Powers. It did not disappoint: Huntt’s intimate, at times confrontational meditation on her experience coming to grips with her Afro-Latina identity splits the difference between Jonathan Couette’s “Tarnation” and Khalik Allah’s tone poems on racial hardships to arrive to track a personal reckoning in real time.
The movie also finds Huntt struggling through a falling out with her Dominican father and Venezuelan mother, but they both made it to the movie’s TIFF premiere. “They had very complex reactions to the film, but the overarching feeling was that they were very proud of me,” said Huntt, speaking over Zoom shortly before leaving Toronto to return to her current home base in New York. The reduced capacity of the theater took some of the pressure off. “I wasn’t too mad about that,” Huntt said. “I didn’t understand how anxious and vulnerable I’d feel once the premiere date got here.” She grinned. “I’m just coming out of a mega-anxiety attack,” she said. “Like a three-day anxiety attack, yo!”
Powers beamed over the response to “Beba” and several other documentaries in the lineup, including Penny Lane’s “Listening to Kenny G” and “Attica,” co-directed by Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry. “I feel gratified that the festival did the things a festival is supposed to do,” said Powers. “It got the films in front of critics, there are serious distribution talks going on for at least a few films, and after putting years of hard work into their films, filmmakers got to have their launch. It was undoubtedly a different one than they had in mind, but it happened.”
Like Pareek, Huntt secured UTA representation ahead of the festival and said she hopes to transition into narrative filmmaking soon. “It’s just an unprecedented amount of magic happening around this film,” she said. “Being back in the cinema was incredible. It was just the best thing to see it with other people.” As the movie continues to seek distribution, the experience has put her in a conflicted state of mind about the state of exhibition. “A limited theatrical run would be awesome but I want as many people as possible to have access to it,” she said. “As a filmmaker, I definitely want a theatrical run. As a human being, I definitely want it on a streaming platform.”
The availability of TIFF titles on digital platforms yielded a number of challenges for directors keen on controlling the circumstances under which audiences experience their works. That included one of the more daring titles in the TIFF Platform section, French director Lucille Hadzihalilovic’s “Earwig,” blends the director’s eerie Lynchian aesthetic with a nod to Hammer horror and Buñuel in its haunting look at a young girl with ice cubes for teeth (and the strange man tasked with overseeing her). Even more than her last haunting effort, “Evolution,” Hadzihalilovic utilizes an intricate audiovisual tapestry to immerse viewers in a dark, enigmatic fairy tale that defies categorization.
When the producers submitted it to the festival months ago, COVID protocols made it too difficult to secure a screening room, despite their insistence. Kuplowsky, who programmed the title, ultimately watched it on a non-existent large screen within the confines of his PlaystationVR headset. “I’m sure if I watched everything that came in that way, it would damage my retina,” he said. “But it was a fun experiment and it really zoned me into the film.”
Hadzihalilovic herself was unable to make the journey from Paris to Toronto. Over Zoom, surrounded by DVDs of the German Expressionism films that inspired her work, she continued to emphasize the need to screen her movie in a theatrical context. “The sales agent for TIFF said we should allow viewers to see it online. But I’m really not very happy about it,” she said. “It’s difficult for all films but especially my own. The idea is to be hypnotized by the film. That’s how it works.”
She was looking forward to attending the San Sebastian Film Festival for her own chance to watch the movie with a public audience. “Cinema is about being with strangers in the darkness, which happens only in the theater, not at home,” she said. “It brings you closer to the dream experience to see a film in the darkness, where all you can do is look at the light.”
Having spent the week at TIFF promoting “Dug Dug” on the big screen, Pareek was similarly resolute. “The film is designed for the theatrical experience,” he said. “I believe in the immersion of cinema.” He was pleased that the first screening of his movie took place at the IMAX Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX venue. “Though I have nothing against watching films on OTT, I am glad that TIFF understood my film’s scale,” he said.
Meanwhile, TIFF’s role in the awards season cycle appeared secure for the moment. Though opening night selection “Dear Evan Hansen” faced a mixed response, the hype machine moved on quickly with “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” The movie may not have found uniform praise for its muddled look at America’s most colorful televangelist couple, Tammy Faye Messner and Jim Bakker. But the TIFF tribute award to Jessica Chastain — for her exuberant and transformative turn in the title role — successfully launched her into Oscar contention alongside “The Power of the Dog” star Benedict Cumberbatch, who was also feted. (Chastain was met with a standing ovation for the “Tammy Faye” premiere, while Cumberbatch unleashed a loud whistle to celebrate director Jane Campion following “Power of the Dog.”)
Likewise, “Dune” director Denis Villlneuve got a directing prize and a Canadian homecoming with the IMAX screening for his arty blockbuster, which bolstered its own prestige placement following a launch in Venice. The Thai cave saga “The Rescue” also found a strong response.
And then there was “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white salute to his childhood in the Troubles, which amplified the audience support it found earlier in the month from Telluride crowds with further enthusiasm from local audiences. It may be the most obvious contender for TIFF’s revered Oscar-predicting audience prize. “We’ve all leaned that awards season can surprise us,” Bailey said. “There are no sure bets any more. New films are popping up and going the distance.”
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Regardless, none of the awards chatter could replicate the sheer volume of noise that TIFF has made for contenders in the past, largely because the usual cavalcade of afterparties remained untenable. To keep some measure of social activity intact, programmers had to think outside the box. The reduced lineup meant that Kuplowsky only had three Midnight Madness slots, so he created nightly events unaffiliated with the festival to give filmmakers the opportunity to hang out after hours, by partnering with the LA-based art collective Racer Trash. “I’d just invite filmmakers out and encourage the audience to come by,” he said.
TIFF’s current scrappiness reflects the survival mode of many film organizations over the past 18 months. Vicente said that the organization planned to share a new strategic plan in the near future as they anticipated more challenges ahead. “We took some time to think about what the future of the festival could be,” she said. “It’s important for everyone to realize that it’s a different world and see what makes sense, knowing that the theatrical experience is at the height of what we do.
Whatever they portend about the year ahead, the blend of lo-fi gatherings and screening responses represented a step forward after the running-on-fumes approach that marred 2020. “Coming to the end of it, I’m sensing that it really did feel like a festival,” Kuplowsky said. “It didn’t last year, and it’s still different. But this time, it was closer.” Looking ahead to an unpredictable future, he added: “Let’s keep watching movies communally and keep experiencing movies infectiously — in the positive sense of the word, not the COVID one.”