Roundtable: TIFF 14 Post-Festival: Reflections on Five Years at TIFF

Anton: At one point in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, the quiet documentary about Studio Ghibli, the great animator Hayao Miyazaki wonders aloud whether making films is actually useful. It’s evening in his home. Miyazaki asks if what he does is not simply a glorified hobby. Then, in one of the pessimistic comments that he expresses throughout the film, he adds that he’s not sure anyone can make films that change things—at least anymore.

After five years of attending the Toronto International Film Festival, the biggest and arguably the most important film festival in the world today, the Three Brothers want to take a moment to share their reflections on five years at TIFF —what it is and where it seems to be going. TIFF is a major annual event in the world of film and has been a major annual event in our lives for the past few years, but is it worthwhile?

The Electric City

Anton: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Toronto is at its best, its most exciting, and puts on its most sustained effort at being a great world city during TIFF. Some people hate the crowds and lineups, but I love the energy in the city in early September. This year, I really appreciated that they closed off King Street West for the first weekend, which fostered a sort of carnival atmosphere in the Entertainment District.

But what is all this energy going into? Star watching? The consumption of art? The celebration of film?

Aren: I think that all this energy is going into the glamour of the festival machine. I’ll agree that Toronto is gorgeous in September and that TIFF is one of my favourite times of year, but this year I couldn’t help but notice the unsavoury elements of the festival. Part of this is the increased ticket prices, as if TIFF is saying, yes, we’re technically a charity, but we also only want rich people going to our galas or attending our red carpet screenings. Closing off King Street West for the first weekend was a nice gesture, as it showed that Toronto as a city cares about this festival, as opposed to just some movie-obsessed elite. But I’m not sure who TIFF is aimed at anymore. I used to think it was aimed at me: a middle-class cinephile who takes time out of the year to take in as many films at the festival as possible, but I’m no longer so sure.

Anders: I have told many people that September is one of the best times to visit Toronto, in part because of the beautiful fall weather, but mostly because the city puts on its best face for the thousands of visitors who come for the festival. At its most ideal, TIFF embodies the idea of what a celebration of cinema can be. The fact that you can strike up a conversation with someone behind you in line and expect that they share some of the same passions and interests as you is what helps create the party atmosphere. In the past I’ve heard some critics and cinephiles on Twitter and elsewhere talking about TIFF as a week long summer camp for cinema lovers, and they’re not far off.

And so to pose the question of the purpose of all the energy that the city and festival goers are expending is essentially to question the purpose of TIFF itself. The reality is that there are several festivals going on at the same time. Firstly, there is the original “festival of festivals,” making the best of world cinema accessible to North American cinephiles who can’t get to Cannes or Venice, but want to see films by masters of cinema and up-and-coming directors. Secondly, there is the increasingly important “invisible” festival, made up of press and industry screenings for the purpose of buying and selling films at the swanky hotels. That makes TIFF the must attend event for producers, Hollywood execs, and Oscar pundits. Thirdly, there is the growing celebrity-worshipping, pre-Oscar hype-fest that I think is what we’re really critiquing here: the crowds who would never have the patience to sit through a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, but can’t wait to get a photo of Ryan Gosling. Increasingly, I think that the first mandate is being pushed out (or aside) by the second, while the third acts essentially acts as the public face of the second.

The Relentless March of the Celebrity-Buzz Machine

Anton: Is TIFF really a set of different and competing film festivals now? Aren told me a cutting anecdote about both the value of TIFF and its seemingly increasing vacuity.

Aren: For me, my experience immediately after seeing The Look of Silence was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Look of Silence is a devastating film, with a protagonist, in Adi Rukun, who is brave in his temerity to confront these genocidal killers with the moral evil of their past actions, and genuinely loving in his desire to forgive these same men for the sake of their humanity. The film shook me up well enough as is, but then TIFF was somehow able to bring Adi Rukun along with the director Joshua Oppenheimer for a little chat after the screening. The sight of Adi, holding back tears, shaking with fear, afraid of the limelight and the dangers his appearance in the film has caused his family back in Indonesia, was perhaps even more moving than the film itself. Here was perhaps the bravest man in Indonesia, and he was scared of being in front of a moderately-sized film festival audience.

So after the 20-minute discussion with Oppenheimer and Rukun, I left the TIFF Bell Lightbox shaken and in awe of Adi Rukun and the film’s boldness in the face of evil. I exited onto King Street West and as I crossed the intersection at John Street, I found myself stuck in a crowd of hundreds swarming the Princess of Wales Theatre in anticipation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s appearance for a screening of The Imitation Game. It took me 15 minutes to make my way 100 metres through the crowd, fighting the young girls who fawn over the British idol (the self-styled Cumberbitches), the eager middle-aged people excited whenever they see any star they recognize, and the paparazzi who make any red-carpet screening seem something seedy and misbegotten. To have my first glimpse of our western world upon exiting The Look of Silence—a film that explores the still lingering ghost of genocide that haunts one of the world’s largest nations—be a crowd of normal people losing their minds over the chance of merely seeing a celebrity superstar was too much. The tonal dissonance nearly broke me.

In its own self-praise, TIFF styles itself an organization that will champion films like The Look of Silence, important films, dare I say essential films, that could have a real impact on the world. But the sight of King Street West as I left the screening of that important documentary put a lie to that self-praise, or at least demonstrated the conflicting mission statements of a festival like TIFF, showing that the movie world is really about nothing more than glorifying star power and the cult of celebrity that it creates. It may not be TIFF’s fault that the majority of moviegoers are much more interested in spotting Benedict Cumberbatch than in seeing a haunting film like The Look of Silence, but if TIFF really wants to transform “the way people see the world through film,” it ought to start transforming people’s mainstream, glamourous tastes instead of catering to them.

Anders: Aren, your story is such a great example of the stark contrast between the ostensible mandate, and potential, of such a film festival, and the reality of the film world. The only counter I can offer, and this perhaps returns us to Anton’s question on the worthwhile nature of cinema, is that the celebrity culture has always been a part of cinema, both in Hollywood and beyond from its start.

Funny enough, as part of the TIFF Cinematheque programme, in which they screen classic and restored films for free during the festival, the 1934 Chinese silent-film, The Goddess, was screened. The reason I find this relevant is that star Ruan Lingyu was one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the 1930s, and yet is mostly forgotten in Western-centric film history. Despite, or perhaps because of being the biggest star in China in the 1930s, Ruan ultimately committed suicide after her affair was discovered. Her funeral procession in Shanghai was reportedly three miles long, and three women killed themselves during it out of grief. It’s hard to fathom that kind of response to a film star, but such is the power of cinema.

So, while I agree completely with your story, Aren, I would say that the power of a film like The Look of Silence to move us and change the world is hard to extract from the power of star worship. TIFF, for good and ill, ultimately embodies that dichotomy.

Purpose and/or Futility

Anton: There’s always a lot of talk about art changing the world at these sort of events. You’ll often hear artists say they don’t believe in religion or don’t trust the promises of politicians, but that they believe in movies, or music, or poetry. What does that mean? Can movies really make the world a better place?

It’s hard to say. In comparison to most of TIFF, Hot Docs is very often aggressively interventionist. Many of the docs shown there are meant to raise awareness or initiate change, but do they? In a frightening way, even overtly political or activist films have been absorbed into our systems of consumption. Well-to-do Torontonians (and, yes, some poorer students and working artists) spend a few weeks in the spring and the fall consuming activist docs and art house films in an effort to fashion themselves as an exclusive kind of consumer. I know there’s more to it than simply that, but you can’t deny that aspect.

On the other hand, if someone is willing to pay 20-plus dollars to see a documentary that won’t play in multiplexes or an art film that challenges our usual conventions of viewing, that has to be considered a good thing, no?

To return to The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki is a diligent master of his art, working steadily at it (while complaining and joking that he doesn’t really want to or even understand why he does) from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. everyday, even on most holidays. He never works on Sundays though. On Sundays he cleans the local river. I found the description of his work habits along with his activity of cleaning a river, an endlessly flowing thing, to be revealing evocations of both the purpose and futility of art and life.

Anders: Yes, this question of the purpose of art is always something that is going to be hard to reconcile, but ultimately art is about the human experience. And regardless of its “power” it is a worthwhile endeavor. But the purpose of TIFF itself is a different question.

I think some of the things that really rubbed people the wrong way this year were the ads that emphasized that “TIFF is a charity.” Yes, it is. As a film scholar in the Greater Toronto Area, I benefit hugely from their support of film education through the Higher Learning series and support for the Toronto Film & Media Seminar, and their hosting of the archives of the TIFF Cinematheque (formerly Cinematheque Ontario) and Film Reference Library. These are amazing resources for anyone interested in the history and craft of cinema. The Lightbox itself has transformed what TIFF can be by hosting exhibits year-round and screening films that otherwise wouldn’t be played.

But the festival itself is hard to reconcile with this philanthropic activity, when the emphasis shifts to red carpet affairs and industry deals. A part of me thinks that these activities should subsidize the archival and scholarly aspects of TIFF, but the ad during the festival kind of made it seem like government funding and donations were subsidizing the business aspects of the festival and Piers Handling’s (presumably generous) salary.

So, TIFF wants to be taken seriously as charity, but their call for donations came during a year when more and more attendees noted a shift in the actual experience of the festival. I think that was a blow to their credibility and a PR disaster.

Aren: Going back to Anton’s point, I think that Miyazaki gets at something that the western world fails to understand: the pursuit of happiness as the goal of life is a misguided and impossible goal. If films are only meant to make people happy, they’re ultimately a fruitless endeavour, a minor distraction from the meaninglessness of it all. But conversely, if films are only meant to change the world, they’re nothing more than political tools, polemics, weapons to be used in the culture wars. I think the interesting thing about movies is that they exist somewhere in between.

I don’t expect TIFF to transform how people see film’s place in the world, even if that’s what they purport to do. And I’ll always enjoy going to see a new film at TIFF months before it gets a theatrical release and being treated to a Q&A with the director, and maybe a big star if we’re lucky. But if TIFF went away next year, it would not improve or ruin the world. People would have less opportunity to see a bunch of films, and some other festival, say Telluride or Venice, would usurp the unofficial title of being the start of the Oscar season, but most things would keep on as they always have. The only real loss would be that fewer people would see fewer films, which I believe would be a loss, even if film is not the only importance in life and is undeniably of a lesser importance than a great deal other things, like education and medicine and raising a family (which is a hard thing to say for a person who’s chosen film as his profession).

TIFF needs to understand the degree of its own importance and keep its focus on the films. Because at the end of the day, the crowds disperse, the buzz fades, awards are forgotten, and the excitement of seeing a celebrity is revealed to be nothing more than foolishness. But the films remain. They’re all the people should come for and all the people should need, and if they’re not enough for some people, to hell with them!