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State of the Festival: Paradoxes of Scale — TIFF 2021

Toronto's second pandemic-era edition presented a weak, pared down edition that nevertheless had some highlights.
Kelley Dong
Above: Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991)
In her essay “On Criticism,” Abby Sun notes: “Film festivals are equally sites of inclusion and exclusion, of abundance and scarcity. In fact, they thrive off these paradoxes.” This seems to be the case at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where an ongoing tension between commercial aspirations and professed values tends to yield more breadth than depth. Once called the Festival of Festivals, TIFF started out in 1976 as a showcase of the best titles from other international film festivals. A bit of borrowing from earlier fests like Berlinale and Cannes continues to this day. (Festival-goers appreciate the cross-pollination, as do I, because it provides access to films that will likely reach theaters much later, if at all.) At the same time, overlapping dates with fall rivals like Venice and Telluride—and the New York Film Festival following closely behind—charge TIFF with the competitive urgency to premiere A-list titles first. In the last few years, the presentation of the TIFF People’s Choice Award to the most popular film has become a prophetic sign of Academy Awards success. Not every film festival so conspicuously associates itself with Oscars buzz: In June, Cannes festival director Thierry Frémaux dismissed awards season as an “American obsession.”
TIFF counters any suspicion of its reputation with a sizable offering of films by lesser-known directors from underrepresented groups, who corroborate the festival’s pledge to diversity. Behind-the-scenes, it also operates a number of equity initiatives and funds. But throughout the actual duration of the festival, these names are overshadowed by the fanfare—the social media frenzy, the red carpets with designated “fan zones”—that TIFF reserves for the “high profile premieres'' and “movie stars” in its Galas and Special Presentations programs. (Sometimes the crowd-pleasing leads to miraculous oddities, like when fans of Robert Pattinson flocked to the world premiere of Claire Denis’ fluid-filled High-Life [2018] and became the lucky first to encounter the “fuck box.”) Nicknamed the “people’s festival,” TIFF generally hesitates to decenter the public’s taste. In turn, the public serves as the festival’s strongest defense against institutional critique, since a populist ethos allows TIFF to present its disproportionate distribution of promotion as giving the people exactly what they want. 
Being the world’s largest public film festival made TIFF uniquely vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. Forecasting an almost fifty-percent loss in revenue, the festival proceeded with its 2020 festivities (a mostly virtual affair of about sixty films) by downsizing, which for staff meant salary cuts and lay-offs. The 2021 edition consisted of virtual, physical, and drive-in screenings and featured over 200 films—minus one, Clifford the Big Red Dog, which was pulled out due to studio concerns around the Delta variant. Several films, like Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner Titane and Edwin’s Golden Leopard winner Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash,arrived with prizes in tow. Other goings-on included a retrospective celebrating the Indigenous documentarian Alanis Obomsawin and a special screening of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune at the historic IMAX Cinesphere. On the penultimate night, what was advertised as the “world premiere of a never-before-seen feature” by Steven Soderbergh turned out to be a re-cut version of his 1991 film Kafka. The Wavelengths program returned in abridged form. That there remains a place for avant-garde cinema at TIFF is a relief, but I still worry about what lies ahead for the program. Any further cuts made here would significantly impact the value of the festival.
Above: Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday
Though I live in Toronto, for safety and logistical reasons I did not attend any in-person screenings. Perhaps this was why the recurring claim that TIFF had brought back some normalcy cut little ice with me. Without the unbridled energy of audiences to abate any skepticism, the festival’s shortcomings were hard to overlook. Unpredictable contingencies gave way to awkward accidents: technical difficulties on the press and industry streaming platform, reports of a COVID-19 case at in-person screenings, and multiple leaked films. Some of these issues were already anticipated by organizers and there were protocols in place to address them, like the requirement of a proof of vaccination. The decision to stay home prevented me from seeing about twenty films—like Kenneth Branagh’s People’s Choice Award winner Belfast and Steven Chbosky’s Broadway adaptation Dear Evan Hansen—that were unavailable online. The exclusion of these titles made the virtual selection even smaller, and gave me the opportunity to examine the ins and outs of the programming without the usual overwhelm. 
Before the pandemic, the consensus regarding TIFF was that its scale guaranteed enough needles in the hay to discover, but it was up to the individual to choose wisely. This year I hoped that the pared-down lineup would clarify TIFF’s curatorial vision. Instead, the digital TIFF platform acted as the emperor’s new clothes, revealing a festival without a distinct identity. The homepage of the mobile app collapsed the entire festival into one alphabetized catalog, which made variance appear not as eclecticism but as algorithmic randomness. This feature further underscored the near-indistinguishability of the Contemporary World Cinema (per the festival website, “compelling stories from global perspectives”), Discovery (“directors to watch, the future of world cinema”), and Platform (“directors’ cinema now”) programs. Everyone and everything lost a bit of polish, making middle-brow and semi-star-studded films like Eva Husson’s vacuous Mothering Sunday more visibly expendable as stargazing activities. Written by Lady Macbeth screenwriter Alice Burch, Mothering Sunday zigzags between being a bawdy bodice ripper and a solemn meditation on the fallen soldiers of World War I, all with the tacked-on theme of female empowerment, in a haphazard way that makes the film neither nor. Overqualified performances by Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman as two minor characters (and an even smaller appearance by Glenda Jackson) only accelerate the entropy.
There have been prior attempts at pruning the festival lineup: In 2017, TIFF announced a 20 percent reduction and the removal of its City to City and Vanguard programs—the latter of which was dedicated to the “dark and edgy films'' now missing from TIFF—and promised a “refreshed, more tightly curated edition.” As Calum Marsh points out, that year there were 339 films. Incohesion was a once-tolerable and even celebrated condition of TIFF, but it continues to impede the festival from setting itself apart from other major players. In his report from the 2021 Locarno International Film Festival, Daniel Kasman writes that the film festival world possesses “its own industrial aesthetic and storytelling standards, akin to the old studio system.” Within that world each film festival usually strives to establish its own standard of excellence. But although TIFF has a preference for social-justice-oriented, identity-based, global-minded, auteur-driven, and star-studded pictures, these generic attributes are insufficient as guiding principles or a guarantee of quality. Though I recognized films that suited TIFF’s tastes, I could not deduce what exact idea of cinema the festival wanted to protect during our current historical juncture, and what risks it was willing to take to do so.
Above: Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne
The Wavelengths program has consistently stood as its own answer to these questions. Two highlights from this year stirred new dreams of the future through a material convergence of past and present. A towering homage to the Lumière brothers and to the late Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Kurt Kren, Peter Tscherkassky’s Train Again likens the sprocket holes of a film strip to the nuts and bolts of the tracks, and montage itself to the racing vehicle. Métis filmmaker Rhayne Vermette’s debut feature Ste. Anne expands the premise of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) into an allegory for the legacy of colonialism and the dispossession of Indigenous land. Shot on 16mm film and segmented by light flares, the film recalls Stan Brakhage’s Stars Are Beautiful (1970), in which Brakhage reads aloud from several creation myths that he wrote himself. Ste. Anne (which stars Vermette and several members of her family) is just as funny but more conceptually imaginative, and pointedly allergic to mysticism. Its premonitions and nightmares are grounded in history, and its apparitions are sustained by memory. The film takes place across multiple locations in Treaty 1 territory, an area that includes the nearby city of Winnipeg and the titular town of Ste. Anne. The camera lands on intimate details with an intuitive draw to warmth and locates light in the purest and homeliest places, from the sparks of a campfire to the sun peeking through old wood.
Above: Masaaki Yuasa's Inu-Oh
Many films in the official selection lacked the assuredness of Ste. Anne, and as a result real idiosyncrasies were few and far between. Masaaki Yuasa’s studio Science Saru combines hand-drawn and digital animation in a way that at once feels creamy and paper-thin, so at the very least his films guarantee a tactile viewing experience. His new feature Inu-Oh is a funky adaptation of the novel The Tale of the Heike, Inu-Oh’s Episode by Hideo Furukawa. Inu-Oh portrays the legendary 14th century noh performer Inu-Oh (voiced by the gender-fluid Japanese pop star Avu-Chan) as a disfigured youth who loves to dance. After the blind biwa player Tomona (Mirai Moriyama) learns that Inu-Oh can hear the voices of ancient Heike clan spirits, the two friends transform this curse into a creative blessing by turning the spirits’ stories into catchy tunes (composed by Yoshihide Ôtomo). Inu-Oh’s queerness is hinted at by the casting of Avu-Chan and the repulsion that other villagers express at the musicians’ long hair and make-up. But much of the screen time is assigned to the silly anachronism of a glam rock trend sweeping through feudal Japan. As seen in Lu Over the Wall (2017) and Ride Your Wave (2019), Yuasa’s collage-like style allows for seamless transitions into song, but Inu-Oh’s porous plot makes these usually buoyant musical deviations deflating. Stretched in every direction by the source material, the film tangles its loose ends in a slapdash finale that peters out despite a pile-on of spectacle.
Above: Darin J. Sallam's Farha 
In her debut feature Farha, Jordanian director Darin J. Sallam makes a commendable effort to protect the emotional force of a delicate conceit with formal precision. Inspired by a true story told to the director’s mother by a refugee who fled Palestine during the Nakba in 1948, Farha opens in the final hours of calm for 14-year-old Farha (played by non-actor Karam Taher) and her father (Ashraf Barhoum). Farha dreams of living in the city and continuing her education, until one morning she wakes to the sounds of gunfire and bombs. Friends and family flee but Farha stays behind and looks for her father. Desperate to see her live, he locks the girl in the pantry. From there, she waits and watches, and witnesses the atrocities committed against Palestinians by Israeli soldiers through peepholes and a sliver of space beneath the door. When Farha emerges, she is no longer a child. The narrowed openings cover the gorier details with darkness. Glimpses of brutality are interrupted by cuts to Farha’s response—weeping, vomiting. This selective disclosure is meant to help Farha avoid seeming gratuitous, but the film still comes a bit too close to belaboring the premise. That proximity is just enough to undercut sympathy with a distracting sense of discomfort. 
Above: Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain 
Two very different performances by Benedict Cumberbatch exemplified the disparity between the star vehicles and auteur-driven works that share a stage of equal prominence at TIFF. In Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which won the Silver Lion for Directing at Venice, the actor works hard to play against type with slinking stoicism. Will Sharpe’s biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain sees Cumberbatch again repeat familiar affectations of braininess in his portrayal of the painter Louis Wain. (Peter Bradshaw refers to this as “Sherlock Turing mode.”) So twee so as to come across as infantilizing, the film presents Wain as a grief-stricken, scribbling madman. Sharpe’s direction is subsumed by Cumberbatch’s return to form, which distorts Wain’s neurodivergence to parodic proportions. A misunderstood figure even without the film’s assistance, Wain babbles about feline electricity, calls for his mummy, and mews in bed. Hallucinations of his famous anthropomorphized cats looking back at him make the unsavory suggestion that the artist is an empty receptacle at the mercy of whatever images his condition plants in his mind.
Above: Fabrice Du Welz’s Inexorable 
Too cerebrally crafted to wreck its own rails, Fabrice Du Welz’s Inexorable ultimately fails to be more than the sum of its cliches. Tormented by the success of his first book, novelist Marcel (Benoît Poelvoorde) moves into the family estate of his wife and publisher Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey) to face his writer’s block. The boxes have yet to be unpacked when the family encounters Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi), who claims to have lost both parents. Her predicament activates Jeanne’s need to patronize, and within days, she hires her. Soon Gloria is training the dog and babysitting Marcel and Jeanne’s daughter Lucie, then looking into Marcel’s eyes and biting her lip. Each actor makes a diligent attempt to evolve the characters—the easily flattered husband, his brittle wife, the seductive usurper, the spoiled child, the good dog—beyond the film’s stock dialogue and obvious narrative beats: No, you should not trust the nanny. Yes, the dog dies. A family secret involving the far-right Rexist party is briefly shared so that its mention might haunt the remainder of the film, but it does not. At best, Alba Gaïa Bellugi’s twitching and pouting as Gloria approaches Fanny Ardant’s spine-tingling performance as Mathilde in Truffaut's The Woman Next Door (1981). Ardant’s character pursues her wrongheaded desires with the unblinking countenance of someone following a logical course of action. She’s mercurial but not irresolute, which makes her all the more dangerous. But Inexorable ascribes to Gloria too much confusion, which it passes off as anarchic madness. Du Welz gives Bellugi little room to express more than a quick disclosure of will: Turned away from the family, she lets slip a fleeting smile at the thought of destroying their lives.
Above: Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum
Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum accomplishes the impressive feat of surviving a break-neck turn from heist to folk horror, and the charm of its ensemble manages to take some edge off of the bumpy follow-through. In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 Guinea-Bissau coup d’etat, a notorious group of mercenaries known as Bangui’s Hyenas extract Mexican drug dealer Felix (Renaud Farah) and attempt an escape to Dakar, Senegal. An emergency detour leads the Hyenas to the Sine-Saloum Delta, a familiar place for leader Chaka (Yann Gael). Chaka proposes the Hyenas hunker down at the Baobab Camp. Owner Omar (Bruno Henry) explains that all guests are entitled to free food and board so long as they help with the daily chores. A supernatural shift awaits the unlucky group. Saloum thrives in this transitional middle chapter, during which the tourists and mercenaries exchange sharp-witted banter—which includes an electric switch to sign language—and jokes about 2Pac and Thomas Sankara that bring to mind the playful ribbing about political posturing and postcolonial ironies from Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), another film about a stopover gone awry. Once the evil spirits enter the encampment and scatter the guests, individual characterization becomes much looser and narrative ambiguities become stuffed with last-minute lore.
Above: Terence Davies’ Benediction
Terence Davies’ Benediction distills the cinematic quality of poet Siegfried Sassoon’s writing into layered and masked superimpositions that transport the subject through mirrors and windows, churches and houses, and across the battlefields of World War I. Sassoon’s war poems, many written after the war had ended, become flashbacks within the flashbacks of an elderly Sassoon (Peter Capaldi). Once called Siggy by past lovers, the older Sassoon appears early in the film at a pew in a chapel. The film then makes a circular motion backwards to the poet’s youth. This period (which hands off the role of Sassoon to Jack Lowden) is marked by the starts and stops of ruinous romantic relationships with men who refuse to settle down. The powerlessness that Sassoon experienced as a soldier is repeated in the despair he feels as a gay poet in London’s literary and artistic scene. Openly gay figures like famed composer and actor Ivor Novello and socialite Stephen Tennant (both of whom were also Sassoon’s former lovers) are protected from persecution by their upper-class status, but their choice to take hold of this relative freedom through promiscuity bruises the tender-hearted Sassoon. The silent devastation brought on by years of curtailed desire and capitulation to secrecy can be seen across the face of Capaldi’s Sassoon, now a curmudgeon with a wife and son. Davies presents the events of Sassoon’s life as layered rather than sequential. For the poet, to write is not only to remember but also to record points of remembrance. At times, the two-and-a-half hour runtime of Benediction feels startlingly swift as one recollection transforms into another, linked by a sudden gesture or an uttered word. When the film ended, instead of exiting the cinema I left the living room and drank a glass of water in the kitchen. Then I rewinded and rewatched it so that I wouldn’t forget. And once I see the film again in theaters, that memory will take on a new shape.


TIFFTIFF 2021State of the FestivalFestival CoverageEva HussonRhayne VermetteMasaaki YuasaDarin J. SallamWill SharpeFabrice Du WelzJean Luc HerbulotTerence Davies
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