For once, let’s stop the palaver of quoting Mr. Dickens’ immortal “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which was actually referenced in a mediocre entry in the TIFF sweepstakes this year, Red Joan. Despite the occasional misfire like the dramatized tale of a real British “Red” sympathizer who passed nuclear secrets to the Russians, the films this year at TIFF were, on the whole, good to great. And, quite frankly, that’s been the case for decades.
TIFF’s formula for success is top notch. They have over 20 programmers who have contacts around the world. All of them are using their colleagues and friends to find great new films. At the same time, unsolicited submissions come in from every continent and are viewed by a crew of pre-screeners. Literally, thousands of films are considered for the festival and only a few hundred make the final cut. While nothing is fool proof in life, the TIFF system certainly means that great films naturally appear at every festival and that the over-all quality is high.
But is there trouble in paradise? Sadly, that seems to be the case. Piers Handling, CEO and Michelle Maheux, COO, who have been key figures for decades, are both leaving the festival. Cameron Bailey, a gifted programmer and Joana Vicente, an American exec, who has done wonderful things with the New York based IFP (Independent Filmmaker Project), are their replacements and there is no doubting their credentials. But no one knows how well they’ll work together.
Can TIFF maintain its stance as a festival that appeals to everybody: glitzy star-laden Galas and Special Presentations, important new voices in Discovery, crazy experimental films in Wavelengths, batty, truly nutty pieces in Midnight Madness, solid documentaries, a general international selection called Contemporary World Cinema, and a hot new jury-driven category of cutting-edge films called Platform?
In other words, will our all-embracing, decent and supportive Canadian identity continue to make TIFF seem bulletproof? Or are international producers and distributors tired of the festival’s all-inclusive image? Over the past few years, the Venice and Telluride festivals have begun to poach films from TIFF. Will that continue? Will our festival decline in importance?
No one knows the answers to those questions but, to reiterate, the films of the year—will likely continue to appear at TIFF.
So: what have I seen that I loved from the massive TIFF selection? Here are four:
Ray and Liz is a debut feature by Richard Billingham, a brilliant photographer, who is most famous as one of the Young British Artists who was tipped for success in the late 1990s along with such figures as Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin. His photo book Ray’s a Laugh, which depicted his alcoholic father Ray and obese tattooed mother Liz, in stark shots reflecting their tough Midlands origins was an immediate sensation. 20 years later, he’s come up with a drama—a haunting memoir—in which actors play his parents and family in a strange, almost magical realist, style. The stories in Ray and Liz are shocking, yet poignant as terrifying yet funny tales from Billingham’s youth are played out on screen.
Diamantino is one of the oddest and funniest films of this, or any, year. This Portuguese entry was made by two Indie New Yorkers, Daniel Schmidt and Gabriel Abrantes, who ventured back to Europe to make this devastating satire. The titular hero is the greatest football star in the world—and, unsurprisingly, bears an incredible resemblance to Cristiano Ronaldo. But “Diamantino” is a trusting virginal player, who sees giant puppy dogs as he runs free on the pitch—not exactly Ronaldo’s identity. When Diamantino blows his penalty kick in the World Cup final, he seeks redemption by adopting a refugee, who turns out to be a lesbian tax inspector, pretending to be a boy. Once you recover from that premise, you’re made to deal with Diamantino’s sisters who are straight out of hell, and are using the famed footballer as a propaganda vehicle for a Portuguese style Brexit from the E.U. Will the far-right win or will true love prevail? You have to watch the truly mad Diamantino to find out.
The Grizzlies is a moving film about how lacrosse helped to change the social fabric of the Inuit community of Kugluktuk, which was well known for its high suicide rate amongst adolescence. In a real-life fish out of water tale, Russ, a young idealistic teacher from the South—mainstream Canada—introduces lacrosse to his class of disaffected teenagers. At first uninterested in the sport, the boys gradually embrace it and become the Grizzlies, a successful team. Thanks to Russ and the sport, boys who were suicide risks turned into contributing members of their community. Director Miranda de Pencier, working in tandem with Inuit producers Stacy Aglok MacDonald and Althea Arnaquq-Baril, have made this uplifting story into one of the best Canadian films of the year.
This TIFF report wouldn’t be complete without mentioning an excellent documentary. Veteran Canadian doc director Barry Avrich has made one of his finest films in Prosecuting Evil, which is a terrific profile of Ben Ferencz, now 98 years old, who is the last Nuremberg Trial prosecutors still alive. Feisty and quick witted, Ferencz shares his story with Avrich: it’s a moving Holocaust tale, with the winner being a New York Jewish lawyer who got to bring Nazis to justice. In the years after Nuremberg, Ferencz continued to campaign for the implementation of an international judicial system. Eventually, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice was instituted in the Netherlands, which is a triumph for Ferencz, even if the power of the court is undercut by the U.S.’s refusal to accept its presence.