Welcome to Festival Chatroom, a transcribed festival-wrap conversation. After the Toronto International Film Festival came to a close, Notebook's Daniel Kasman and Chloe Lizotte invited three guests—critic Juan Barquin, programmer Inney Prakash, and filmmaker Sophy Romvari—to share their highlights and reflections over Slack. Read on for their conversation, covering standout experimental shorts, breakout Canadian filmmakers, and the "pocket universe" of the festival.
CHLOE LIZOTTE (Notebook): How are you all doing? Has the dust settled, memories cleared?
SOPHY ROMVARI (filmmaker, It’s What Each Person Needs): I feel like I’m recovering from three TIFFs instead of one—very sleepy!
INNEY PRAKASH (curator/programmer, Prismatic Ground): I'm okay. I always crash a little after coming home from a fest. Ideally I'd hop from one to the next without stopping, escaping the realities of everyday life entirely. But that's no way to live. (Or is it?)
SOPHY: I would perish.
DANNY KASMAN (Notebook): For me, the few days after a festival are recovery time: Mind and body reeling from intense viewing over long hours with diminishing lucidity from more and more images and less and less sleep. But it's also a great filtration method, being so tired that what sticks with me now really survived an experiential gauntlet.
It creates a weird bias: Movies seen earlier were seen with greater attentiveness, but ones seen later, more a blur, maybe more present since there weren't ten, 20 more films seen in between.
JUAN BARQUIN (writer/editor/programmer): I'm dealing with a splash of shame from not watching as many movies as I probably should have (and then traveling to New York to watch more stuff) and a backlog of reviews to write and screeners left to watch. But also enjoying actually reflecting on things a bit before doing my writing.
DANNY: Exhaustion and shame: The fuel of cinephilia. Okay, not fuel—enemy!
INNEY: Our human frailty simply isn't fair to the filmmakers.
SOPHY: I can’t imagine having to write coherently about these films, kudos to you all.
DANNY: Yes, but you can speak to working years on a film and then showing it to a festival audience!
JUAN: I will say, I honestly feel like I had more of an active attention span at TIFF than Cannes. Truly congrats to anyone who can manage to make it through every single film they watch at these festivals without taking a long blink.
SOPHY: Can anyone admit/remember a film they did succumb to a little snooze during?
DANNY: Apichatpong, among others, would encourage such a thing.
INNEY: Many, to be honest. I definitely got called out on having nodded off during a film I claimed to “love every second of.” Bless him (Api).
New Yorkers should be sure to catch Jean Ma’s upcoming lecture on sleeping in the cinema at the new Light Industry.
CHLOE: Ah that lecture sounds amazing, Inney! I feel like there's a point in fest fatigue where certain scenes or textures resonate as much as (if not more than) plot points.
JUAN: I'll be honest when I say that Moonage Daydream almost knocked me out (and my eyes definitely shut a few times) despite being an onslaught of footage and sound.
SOPHY: I fell asleep in Hong’s Walk Up, but apparently when I fell asleep, they were drinking, and when I woke up, they were still drinking. Went into Unrest right after that, which also felt spot-on thematically (but stayed awake, loved it).
DANNY: Falling asleep in a Hong Sang-soo film and waking up not knowing where you are in the story, what you dreamed or imagined, seems very fitting.
JUAN: That feels incredibly appropriate! And that Jean Ma lecture sounds great. There's always something so comforting to me about falling asleep in a theater, especially during something you've seen before and enjoy. I recently nodded off during a Days of Being Wild revisit and was a-okay with it.
DANNY: May I ask, why did y’all attend TIFF—were you aiming to do something there specifically, get something out of the festival?
SOPHY: I was glad to have “a reason” to be there, having a new short film premiere (It’s What Each Person Needs)—as a filmmaker it can feel weird attending a festival without a work being shown, even though I think there is nothing wrong with that, in fact, I encourage it. But in this case it felt really nice to be invited back into the festival, especially after having had a film premiere online in 2020 (Still Processing). So I got to make up for that this year.
DANNY: That's great to hear, Sophy. Did you find, as a presenting filmmaker, the audiences much the same as the last time you were in-person showing work?
SOPHY: Perhaps it was just because we are shaking off the last two years of living in isolation, but I can’t recall a year of TIFF that was as well attended as this one—as a filmmaker or just as an audience member. EVERYTHING was sold out, I barely was able to get into my own screening! I think people are hungry to be back in the cinema, which was really encouraging to see, as someone who makes films but also as someone who wants the theatrical experience to never die.
INNEY: I identify as a programmer/curator first and foremost, and my personal wheelhouse tends to be experimental or hybrid nonfiction. So I usually attend TIFF for the Wavelengths section, which I was sad to see has shrunken some, as in the past it’s really served as one of the premier western showcases for avant-garde & experimental work. That said, the programming is still strong, and there was plenty to enjoy (some of which I'd caught at previous festivals).
I'll shout out that I'm a great fan of Sophy’s past work, which folks can catch up with on the Criterion Channel. Sadly I missed the new joint, but often one has to rely on begging for links after the fest has ended…
SOPHY: Inney, thank you! I gotta say, screening Still Processing with Prismatic Ground was by far my favorite online/pandemic festival experience. I tell all filmmakers to submit their work there—I can’t wait to attend an in-person version one day.
DANNY: Inney, I too focused a great deal on Wavelengths. This section used to be one of the key venues, even safe spaces, to present experimental or nontraditional cinema, short and long—and crucially one at an international festival, meaning to an audience that goes beyond local attendees. Still very well programmed, it nevertheless feels like a section being slowly strangled to death by the festival, despite being one of the most forward thinking and well-defined, albeit specialized, sections of the entire event. Where this kind of cinema can thrive is increasingly a challenge these days, and thankfully your festival, Prismatic Ground, has stepped up to help expose such films to wider audiences.
SOPHY: It almost feels like Andréa Picard [TIFF’s Wavelengths programmer] should pack up and start her own festival. I know so many people who travel to Toronto just for her programming and it shouldn’t be suffocated and diminished. It’s really unfortunate to see it go that way, but TIFF does seem to be struggling with its personal/brand identity in recent years.
CHLOE: Speaking of your work with Prismatic Ground, Inney, I'm curious if there are aspects of TIFF—sort of the "festival of festivals"—and the dwindling of Wavelengths that stand out to you as a programmer?
INNEY: Appreciate the kind words on PG. A lot of what I'm doing is trying to figure out how to fill the gaps left by larger fests, but that certainly doesn't make me happy to see a diminishing commitment to experimental work.
TIFF holds a special place in my heart as the first big festival I ever attended—a four-hour drive from Detroit, MI, where I lived for many years before moving to New York. That first experience, of hitting public screenings and reveling in the red carpet excitement, has changed dramatically to a focus on niche interests, back-to-back industry screenings, strategic party crashing, and a newly beloved pastime of hanging out with New York friends in another country. I think that in the years since the “fest of fests” tagline was coined, TIFF’s reputation as a place for high-profile premieres has grown. I know many who chose it over Venice this year. But they still serve the purpose of playing the hits from Berlin and Cannes. This was my first year catching all three of those fests and yet I've still managed to miss some films that were at least two of them…
JUAN: I was dragged to TIFF kicking and screaming to get more work opportunities in the wonderful world of criticism. And by that I mean I was graciously invited to cover the festival (in part paid for by some funding from TIFF's Media Inclusion Initiative) and went to get some writing done on upcoming films. My focus is usually the queer side of things, which the film had plenty of (both great and terrible), and attending the fest actually ended up resulting in a fair amount of opportunities beyond that for new outlets (including writing about Weird Al, who I love, of all things). I would also have to be honest in saying I mostly wanted to go to this festival out of the selfish longing to meet a number of friends and peers I've made online over the years whose work I love and respect (including Sophy, whose new film I desperately need to watch).
DANNY: Juan, that's super interesting to learn about how you got to TIFF and what you were focusing on. The Media Inclusion Initiative providing funding sounds like a great project. Do they place expectations on you as a writer, or is it more an open remit enabled by their support?
JUAN: The cost of traveling to festivals is often so prohibitive for those of us who freelance, which is largely how film critics function nowadays, many of us actually having day jobs to support our insane habit of Writing Our (Hopefully Informed) Opinions, particularly considering the general loss of staff positions and disinterest in coverage for anything that isn't opening wide. TIFF's MII was fairly breezy and open, quite literally just funding to help get us there. Other festivals offer similar programs, like Sundance (whose virtual accessibility has been a godsend over the last few years) and Unifrance actually started a program this year to get critics out to Cannes (in which our only real requirement was to come in and film short, critical bursts about some of the films we'd watched). Going to these festivals as a critic does sometimes come with a bit of a drawback though, mostly because of the fact that, if we don't get any pitches accepted on some of the more niche works showing, our focus has to be on those bigger films.
I was admittedly fairly frustrated with the accessibility of short-film screenings, but found that reaching out to the filmmakers directly helped a bit (though, obviously, this comes with some privilege as press). It's why I appreciate festivals like Prismatic Ground that actually feel legitimately accessible to audiences everywhere. I, too, can't wait to drop in in person sometime.
CHLOE: I'm always so curious about how festival coverage shakes out based on the dynamics you mention—needing to strategically cover the larger films to get freelance pitches accepted, but still hoping to draw attention to nicher works…
JUAN: In terms of how it shakes out for me personally, it's a weird mixed bag. Sometimes I'll get lucky and get to interview filmmakers who may not be in the spotlight or write about their films, but other times it's all about The Big Ones. I've got a fair mix of reviews coming this year; there's the Bros and My Policeman write-ups, sure, but there's also smaller films I get to cover like Casa Susanna, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and The People's Joker (which was rather controversially pulled after its first screening). But other things get lost in the mix.
SOPHY: I joked on Twitter for people to remind me who they were if I said, “Don’t worry about coming to my screening, I can send you a link,” but it’s a little frustrating that I have to put so much legwork into distributing my work all while it’s playing one of the biggest film festivals due to scheduling conflicts, etc. I also recognize shorts are not the priority and shorts programs themselves can be a hindrance if you want to see just one film within the package, but that’s a whole other conversation… (That being said, please ask for links, happy to provide.)
DANNY: A conversation perhaps that should be held more. Since shorts aren't shown in theaters conventionally, a festival might be one of the only opportunities to show a short film to a live audience... and yet the festivals need to package them together (often poorly) to create a 90 minute or two hour slot in the festival schedule. This rarely is to any short film's advantage.
Then again, such programs can really bring great work into conversation with each other, as in the Wavelengths program devoted to land and landscapes, mixing work as diverse as Tacita Dean's hypnotically slow Fata Morgana and Fox Maxy's manic F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now.
INNEY: Danny, I really enjoyed that Wavelengths program as well—particularly the films you mentioned. It was nice to see the Tacita Dean film projected on 16mm.
SOPHY: I could not agree more. As someone who has made more than my fair share of short films, or at least maybe more than the average filmmaker does, I’ve seen enough to say that there is a real lack of innovation when it comes to shorts programming at larger festivals. Of course, fitting in as many as possible in order to platform more works is great in theory, but like you said, it’s rarely to the benefit of the individual films and filmmakers. I’m always the most pleased when a festival pairs shorts with features, or better yet, two shorts with a mid-length is *chef’s kiss.*
DANNY: More celluloid projection, please!
JUAN: Speaking of celluloid projection, how wild is it that the only 35mm screening at TIFF this year was for Taylor Swift's All Too Well music video/short film?
CHLOE: Tell me about it! They struck a print of it just for the festival, I think?
DANNY: Signs of the Times.
INNEY: To be fair, Pablo Mazzolo’s The Newest Olds was also supposed to screen on 35, but the print didn't arrive in time. Still, a spectacular film, commissioned by Media City film festival and featuring the Detroit and Windsor skylines.
SOPHY: Oftentimes, short films are grouped by theme, and as someone who makes films that often touch on grief, it can really take a toll on the viewing experience having those types of films mashed together.
INNEY: Ah yes, let's watch a bunch of devastating films in a row!
SOPHY: Further speaking of film, SO many were shot on it this year.
JUAN: And so many of those shot on film looked gorgeous! The first one that comes to mind for me is How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
INNEY: I really enjoyed Pipeline—it certainly hammered home the notion that 16mm need not be the sole province of experimental filmmakers. The dense, gritty look really aided its genre-fueled provocations.
DANNY: Pipeline seems to be one of the few hot-topic films at the festival. I think most people here saw it? Any thoughts? (Chloe has written on it during the fest.)
INNEY: I defended How to Blow Up a Pipeline on the Film Comment Podcast against two hostile interlocutors. With the upfront admission that I'm friendly with the filmmakers, I think it was a totally engaging genre film with electric performances and an incendiary undercurrent that has the potential to spark some real conversations about what constitutes meaningful resistance. Some criticisms I've encountered focus on a lack of political complexity, and it's true that nothing in the film gets more provocative than its title, but I think that's a pretty bold and upfront proposition to begin with—and that it's fine for a film to serve primarily as entertainment while gesturing at something more consequential.
JUAN: Those hot-topic titles are always the most interesting ones to me. So much potential! Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't! Though they are doing vastly different things through completely unique approaches, Pipeline and People's Joker to me are both so radical in a similar way: they present their respective theses bluntly in a way that, sure, could be potentially isolating to the viewer, but that actually handle the material sensitively and with nuance in spite of their sort-of "radical" politics. (I would like to note that taking on climate change head-on and supporting trans people should not be radical, but considering the world we live in, it is.)
DANNY: A great point, Juan. I found those two movies, as concepts, as film objects, very brazen and powerful. Entirely successful is another question, but I'm thrilled that they've been made and that people can see them.
JUAN: Inney, I think what you said—"it's fine for a film to serve primarily as entertainment while gesturing at something more consequential"—is so essential to reading Pipeline as a film. It's a conversation starter more than anything. Just a great film that shouldn't be held up to the standards and expectation of detail and information that the academic text it is based on provides (though I think the film does a good job at presenting various viewpoints).
SOPHY: There seems to be a big wave of celluloid-shot films, particularly within Canada. My main focus at the festival, outside of showing my short, was watching as many Canadian features as possible. It was a record year for not only Canadian films but debuts which was incredible to see. I prioritized them for a few reasons, one being that if history speaks, those are the films that will be least likely to get wider distribution within Canada because we seem to have a real failure-to-launch issue when it comes to having our own audiences engage with work made here. The other reason was personal, as a mode of research on what is being made and how as I prepare to make my own debut feature. An inspiring spread, to say the least.
DANNY: I was wondering about that: How many of these strong, but small Canadian first and second features were actually going to be seen in Canadian theaters after the fest.
CHLOE: That "failure to launch" dynamic at home is interesting—I wonder if the tides will turn, with places like MDFF emerging?
SOPHY: The only real shot any of them have is through MDFF, run by Dan and Kaz who are single-handedly keeping things alive with screenings at the Lightbox. Outside of that, I think they will be hard-pressed, even with bigger distribution companies in Canada.
INNEY: A Canadian feature I loved is Queens of the Qing Dynasty. A commendably uncomfortable and intimate picture of the bond between two troubled souls seeking some kind of transformation. It'll be at NYFF as well.
SOPHY: Queens will be screening with MDFF!
DANNY: A major standout this year, I agree.
JUAN: Not to bring it back to shorts for a moment, but it is a special annoyance how few outlets are interested in coverage of short films. In a just world, I'd be talking to folks like Sophy about her new work or someone like Angelo Madsen Minax (whose documentary North by Current I adore) about his latest experimental short, Bigger on the Inside, that screened at TIFF.
DANNY: So true! I'd like to see someone found a web journal focused on short films for this very reason—or perhaps such a thing exists already? I've often heard shorts makers worry that if no one writes on their film at a festival showing, "it's like it never happened," which is heartbreaking to hear.
CHLOE: It's true—this chat has made me think more about how much shorts benefit from thoughtful placement/curation, both in terms of how they're presented within a festival AND for creating online spaces for worthwhile writing on them.
SOPHY: Another Canadian film I was really impressed with was I Like Movies by Chandler Levack. I was really stunned by what she was able to pull off with a tiny micro budget. I can’t remember the last time I saw an independent Canadian COMEDY and nevertheless one that is actually funny and well-made. A breakout performance, an endearing script, and it nails the Cameron Crowe genre while also updating tropes. I found it really quite moving and genuinely charming. Comedy is often overlooked but I think the ambition and precision that it takes is so rare to see executed well. I think Chandler Levack is going to be scooting over to Hollywood in no time. It’s a standout, also, within a country that is really honing in on docudrama and experimental work—to see someone pull off something more conventional with similar means.
DANNY: I think we can all use more smart comedies in the festival world.
CHLOE: Same here! I feel like an updated Cameron Crowe-esque comedy is exceptionally hard to pull off, too, and less in vogue now? I'm excited someone's risen to that occasion.
SOPHY: It has been a wild year for me to see films made by friends and acquaintances and have them naturally, genuinely be the films I was most impressed with. I would be remiss to not mention Kurt Walker (a dear friend) and his thesis project I Thought the World of You—from the second Wavelengths program. It was probably the most beautiful film, short or feature, that I saw all festival.
INNEY: Loved Kurt’s film as well, and was happy to be introduced to the cult figure it centers around.
Speaking of comedy, Angelo Madsen Minax’s Bigger on the Inside was a real refresher for its playful irreverence with regard to sexuality, isolation and the Internet. Not a lot of laughs to be had in the avant-garde world.
CHLOE: Oh, thank you for shouting that film out! I wasn't sure if I was clicking with it when it started, but it won me over—the humor felt unexpectedly earnest.
SOPHY: Bigger on the Inside was my other fave Wavelengths short.
DANNY: That film was a welcome blast of playfulness and surprise.
SOPHY: Another friend shoutout, and I swear I’m being as objective as possible, was Daniel Warth’s Untold Hours in one of the Short Cuts programs. It’s rare to see documentary/hybrid films make their way into TIFF shorts programs outside of Wavelengths, and I thought Daniel’s was the perfect mix of simple yet intriguing, just what I like to see in a short.
DANNY: To close, maybe we could each highlight one last film we found special at the fest?
SOPHY: I do think The Maiden by Graham Foy was the overall standout Canadian feature debut. There were a couple sophomore films that were of course also excellent.
JUAN: My personal favorite was actually Sanctuary, which seemed designed perfectly to my tastes as a fan of eroticism in cinema, romantic comedies, and chamber dramas that could be more theatrical than cinematic. But I'd actually love to highlight Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It's an adaptation of a young adult novel, which always feels like a red flag to me, but this one is directed and written with such a specificity to understanding how teenagers can feel out of place (as both queer and Latin American) that I couldn't help but fall in love. It's so much smarter than most of the films that queer people (and especially younger viewers) get the chance to watch, and actually looks damn good. Plus, a trans woman from Miami made it, so I have to represent my people.
(Also I cannot yell enough about Casa Susanna, and how Sébastien Lifshitz is criminally underrated in the States, and how more documentaries about trans people should be THIS immersive and lovely.)
DANNY: Two final standouts for me were Alice Diop's austere but completely overwhelming testimonial film, Saint Omer, one of the most distinctive moves from documentary to fictional filmmaking I've seen in a long time. And Virginie Efira's wonderful performance in Rebecca Zlotowski's Other People's Children, an entire character, movie, and idea that succeeds due to such a compelling, transparent performance.
SOPHY: I’ve focused mainly on the Canadian offerings, but my highlights outside of that would be: Aftersun, Unrest, Banshees of Inisherin, The Fabelmans, and, number one: Saint Omer—I was so taken aback by this film, I wish I had the words to describe it… It was the perfect blend of a documentary filmmaker’s take on a real story being told through a cinematic and fictional lens. Emotional yet restrained, colorful yet muted, intentional but somehow also spontaneous and authentic.
INNEY: The most urgent and accomplished film I saw at this festival—and we're not friends, sadly—was Jafar Panahi’s No Bears, all about the terror and implications of exile, by a filmmaker who's now imprisoned.
CHLOE: Juan, you're so right about Sébastien Lifshitz! I'll have to catch up with the others you mention. I'm also in agreement about Saint Omer and No Bears. One last film I'd love to mention is Moyra Davey's Horse Opera—one of the first films I watched at TIFF. I'm always won over by avant-garde approaches that have unexpected warmth and humor, and this certainly has that. Recommended for animal lovers and anyone interested in the Downtown NY scene, but go in knowing as little as possible!
SOPHY: I missed that one, but I did see a shoutout on Twitter to your review, highlighting a certain close-up of the horses…
CHLOE: Ha, keenly spotted. Our time may be winding down—but thank you all for joining us in this digital space! I'm reminded of a recent novel titled Several People Are Typing. Any final thoughts as we bid farewell to TIFF?
SOPHY: I was so happy to see (almost) all of you! It really did feel like Toronto came back to life for the first time in years. Now I’m confused again about who lives here full-time and who doesn’t. It was my favorite TIFF by far.
INNEY: I'm buoyed by the big picture Sophy pointed out earlier—attendance was great, films were vital. I saw many friends, made a few new ones, and locked eyes with Vicky Krieps in the Scotiabank. A great year back on King Street.
DANNY: The pocket universe y’all evoke—a wonderful space of shared experiences of movies and community—are what I love about festivals, and what the best of TIFF has to offer. I'm happy we could extend that pocket a little bit into this chatroom.
JUAN: Honestly, I was just thrilled to be there and getting to experience the festival and hang with friends (and finding out that Sophy and I wore almost the same exact outfit to screenings and parties without consulting each other). I'd love to go one year as someone who just has the luxury to watch anything and maybe party a little more, haha. And my favorite memory will simply be the women at the dispensary in front of the Bell Lightbox who kept complimenting my aesthetic on the daily, haha.
SOPHY: “How to blow up a fit pic” was my best tweet of the festival, Juan.
DANNY: "Festival fits" is coverage we're thinking about at Notebook, Juan… It is really our honor to have you join us and share your perspectives.
CHLOE: Let's dedicate this chat to festival fits, the women at the dispensary, and Vicky Krieps, then. Thanks so much for joining us, this has been lovely.