This won’t be another I remember when piece about the Toronto International Film Festival. And anyway, do I really remember from the early years Peter O’Toole smoking a joint at the U.S. consulate because he was trying to quit booze? Did a friend, an aspiring teenage actor at the time, get invited by Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin to a small party with cocaine hors d’oeuvres after All of Me, and did Tomlin really sequester her from the debauch and tell her sternly, “Don’t taint your instrument?” Did I really drink with Jeremy Irons in a bar on Bloor Street while he played hooky from the dog-and-pony show for Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers? Memory is slippery, and nostalgia is its tarty cousin, so I’ll resist writing of when celebrities were fellow artists and the festival was a community event adorned by a few sparkling outsiders, not a shell game of VIP rooms needing black-ops missions to infiltrate. There’ll be no misting over about when the Festival of Festivals, the original name, was a wonderful homegrown also-ran.
Around the time the Festival of Festivals became one of the top five film events in the world, it was hard for a director to secure enough tickets for the cast and crew to attend their premiere. Canadian filmmakers were griping that the festival was too competitive—the world’s best TV buyers and distributors might be in town, but winning their attention was near impossible. The festival had taken on the charisma of its latest director, Piers Handling. He swanned in and out of parties and screenings, blessed with both an astutely refined cinematic aesthetic and the gift of making everyone feel like a favoured confidant even as he floated past you. And by then, the Festival of Festivals had changed its name to the more reserved Toronto International Film Festival. Although the original was intended to describe a festival of films selected from other festivals, the rumour was that the name was changed so it wouldn’t seem so boastful.
If the rumour was true, is there another hosting country that would rename its flagship cultural event because the original was too good?
It’s the crowds that have made TIFF so successful. And it’s the curating that produced the synergy that brought the crowds, the stars, the press, and the industry. Americans can test their art films for Oscar potential and broad upmarket appeal, while Europeans, whose films get lost in festivals south of the border, can fill houses and make their gambit for the United States. TIFF may have grown unwieldy, commercial, and corporate, but both filmmakers and the public can still choose how to navigate it. With ingenuity, a hungry screenwriter can still track down Harvey Weinstein at a party. You can stick up your hand after a gala and ask Steve Martin a question. And you can still encounter the stunning first feature of a 26-year-old from the Ivory Coast.
Nostalgia for the past puts a stranglehold on the future. TIFF needs neither nostalgia nor cheerleading. It’s long past requiring “world-class” plastered all over its bumph. But here’s to Canada making it to the top of the heap. Here’s to the festival of festivals.