I can recall September 12, 2001 very vividly.
Sitting out on the patio at Hemingway’s, a cozy restaurant-pub in the upscale Yorkville hood of Toronto, I was having lunch. Right across the table in front of me sat Dustin Hoffman, flipping through a newspaper, nursing a drink. I had my eye on the NY Times Tootsie was reading, since the city seemed to have sold out every copy of every newspaper that morning. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Dustin stand up with a broad smile and start chatting with two ladies across the railing of the patio. I glanced, and it was Kathy Bates and a jaw-droppingly ravishing Marisa Tomei. Right there on the sidewalk.
It was a weekday afternoon, but I was sitting there for a reason. I had tickets to a screening of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding but I was there to get a refund as it had been cancelled – for reasons obvious to everyone from the date by now. Mira had brought her pulsating ensemble piece to the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) but I was to miss out. The festival was on hold, and with all flights in and out of the city grounded, roaming the streets in a daze was all that was left. Even for Dustin and Marisa.
It was dark and solemn in the gorgeous sunshine and the import of what had happened to the other city that was so close to my heart the previous day weighed heavy, as I sat there ogling at Marisa Tomei on the sidewalk.
Now, my city’s sidewalks are an integral part of the TIFF. So are its subways, buses and streetcars. Sure, the festival is now considered the hottest ticket in the industry for a multitude of reasons. But at its heart, it remains my festival. In my city. And to the day, no one can take that away from me.
For the TIFF, for all its high glamour, glitz and glitterati quotient remains very much a people’s festival. Ordinary people. Like you and I. And unlike the two other biggies on the festival circuit Cannes and Sundance, Toronto doesn’t stop for the TIFF. Downtown Toronto is no gilt-edged beach resort or a trendy ski haven. It all unfolds in the busiest part of the city core and co-exists comfortably with the hustle and bustle of the city. Spills over onto the sidewalks, and in fact relies on them.
From the time of its inception, a key aspect of the TIFF has been its diligence in ensuring that the viewing public is kept as the central focus by reserving the bulk of the festival tickets for them. An annual ritual unfolds in September, on subways and buses, in restaurants and cafes – frazzled film-nuts poring over the festival’s program, devouring the brief synopses of the plots, scribbling notes to themselves as they hatch out their plans for the festival. Plans to cram in as many films as possible, rushing from one theater to the next, from work, from school – biking, rollerblading, on the subway or plain rushing along the sidewalks.
The simple act of lining up has yielded endless surprises over the years. From the first time I lined up at midnight (on the sidewalk) for a screening of Welcome to Sarajevo. To being greeted by a radiant Nandita Das and director Deepa Mehta at the door for Fire, listening to the eloquent Eytan Fox (of Walk on Water fame) from Israel after a showing of The Bubble, speechless after a showing of Matteo Garrone’s Neapolitan crime syndicate saga Gomorra, a completely insane Sacha Baron Cohen in full Kazakh regalia regaling a massive crowd in a downtown parking lot after a projector failed at a showing of Borat, a bizarre and melodramatic “protest” by some high-society desi yuppies during Amol Palekar’s post-screening Q&A of Daayraa. And on and on.
And the attendees – including the stars – appear to love the very same streets and sidewalks. Taking advantage of the laid back and non-intrusive nature of the city they roam freely, kids and dogs in tow (As photographs clicked I am sure by paparazzi hiding in garbage cans attest to every morning in the newspapers). Yeah – there’s Sean Penn wandering around cigarette hanging out of his mouth, a bagged Nick Nolte – the Keith Richards of Hollywood – falling out of a cab pissed drunk at midnight. Sitting out on a patio in the evening and realizing after an hour that the dude at the next table with his back to us was Alec Baldwin. “F**king Colin Ferrell standing on this very table serenading Catherine Zeta-Jones and yelling at the top of his voice was all I needed” said an irate waiter to us once as we sat down for dinner at a restaurant.
Its timing in September has been a boon and hopefully not a future curse to the festival. For it presents the perfect opportunity for the PR juggernauts of Hollywood to put their buns in the oven for the Oscar party in March. Generating Oscar “buzz” is a mantra now for producers and the machinery kicks into overdrive during the festival. Like Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, the list of films that ratcheted up their Oscar hype in Toronto is endless (It was Amelie, in 2001).
Directors and producers from across the globe, teeming in the warm and inclusive nature of the festival’s programming find it a fertile ground to catch the eye and ergo distribution rights in the lucrative North American market. With no emphasis whatsoever on awards and gongs in various categories, the focus at the TIFF is solely on generating buzz amongst the people thronging the screenings.
The festival is huge now and influential. So big that what used to be said in hushed whispers years ago is out in the open – it is the industry’s biggest annual event.
Writing in TIME, Rebecca Winters Keegan likened the TIFF and Toronto to a “supportive low maintenance girlfriend”. “Unlike its major festival sisters – that sexy cougar Cannes, 60, and parka-clad hipster Sundance, 29 – Toronto, 32, is inclusive, friendly and even prettier once you get to know her”, she wrote.
Yeah, she sure is pretty. And it is the friendliness of my city and the inclusiveness of the programming that makes the TIFF special. Especially to the plebes who throng the festival with just one thing on their minds – to watch the films.
Toronto International Film Festival 2011, September 8-18, 300+ films from 60+ countries, 300,000 tickets, 40 screens.