At a Toronto International Film Festival Industry panel entitled “Powering Entertainment with TikTok,” one of the platform’s most popular Toronto-based creators—Boman Martinez-Reid, a.k.a. @bomanizer—was asked to share his greatest dream. He gamely offered a few options: originally, he wanted to act, and TikTok allowed him to prove his talent without a traditional portfolio. Now, he’s known for painstakingly detailed parodies of the Real Housewives franchise, each of which average about a million likes. Ultimately, he said, he wants to commit to creating, to growing his audience. Another panelist, Catherine Halaby, TikTok’s Head of Entertainment in North America, concurred that her employer represented a new direction for entertainment: a breaking down of the “gatekeeper walls.”
The root, utilitarian question—what is your dream, what are you trying to achieve?—was on my mind during the first weekend of TIFF, itself a peculiar set of gatekeeper walls. This is a sprawling festival, stretching a broad mission statement across a massive program. There are blockbuster names like Steven Spielberg and Darren Aronofsky, as well as popcorn-friendly premieres like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel and Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne’s true-crime thriller The Good Nurse. Alongside these figures, there are arthouse darlings: Joanna Hogg, Hong Sang-soo, Park Chan-wook, and this year’s Palme d’Or winner Ruben Östlund. A 35mm print was struck of Taylor Swift’s All Too Well: The Short Film, which has been on YouTube since November of 2021, paving the way for an Oscar run. There are clearly defined sections: experimental (or less conventional narrative) films in Wavelengths, wilder and unkempt fare in Midnight Madness. Other sections lack that clarity: the Platform section is made up of a global array of world premieres, but its subheader is “Directors’ Cinema Now.” Strolling down Festival Street past a requisite assortment of brand activations for UPS, Visa, and, yes, TikTok, the cloud of words like “storytelling,” “share,” and “impact” resembles cut-up poetry.
TIFF is a vessel for a lot of different forms—and ideas—and goals. The corporatization of these events is standardized, even average to my American eyes. And yet, a split-personality event ensues when you attend a panel where you learn that storytelling is all about having a hook; an identifiable beginning, middle, and end; and a sense of anticipation that pays off...only 24 hours after watching Moyra Davey’s newest work, Horse Opera, which includes several extreme close-ups of her horses relieving themselves (the film is wonderful). As we find ourselves face-to-face with “the future of storytelling,” I am not here to prescribe what that should mean—but I am here to chase what that might mean to one person.
Davey’s artistic practice spans photography, prose, and filmmaking, reveling in quotidian details and the workings of memory. In Horse Opera, which she worked on over the course of three years, she recites a narrative about a semi-autobiographical protagonist, Elle, navigating the Downtown New York loft scene in the '70s and '80s. There is a literary, associative density to these recollections: Davey invokes the writing of Hilton Als and Elizabeth Hardwick in her voiceover; she interweaves audio from her collection of dance records, WFMU’s funk show Duane Train, and Angélique Kidjo’s full-album cover of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. This combination of cues may suggest sense-memory, but Davey disrupts that flow with both her staccato delivery—she’s listening to a recording of the monologue in her earbuds, then haltingly repeating it back in monotone—and with her editing, cutting through the wildlife surrounding her home, and through the intriguing, artsy clutter of her house in Sullivan County, NY.
While sharing memories that are so physical, of bodies pressed together in shimmering outfits on the dance floor, we watch Davey pace glacially through her home, as deliberate as Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967-8). At one point her reflection is fractured across multiple mirrors. The effect is dislocating, befitting the social isolation she’s obliquely narrating, but the piece isn’t about nostalgia for a time of togetherness. Instead, Davey explores what it means to have a body that is “here” and a mind that drifts and wanders. Her lovingly lensed, unflinchingly sensual animal footage grounds her in a unique version of “here.” Her horses prance, piss, and nuzzle each other, swarmed by clouds of insects; her dog pants obliviously on the couch as she records her voiceover; a bear cub shreds up a floorboard on her porch. These moments endow Horse Opera with an essential, playful warmth: there’s humor at the intersection of internal monologue and unselfconscious biology.
At the TikTok panel, we learned that Netflix employees often browse the platform’s hashtags to locate fandom influencers, whom they then hire to emcee red carpet events for Stranger Things. In Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a group of radical environmental activists uses TikTok tags to track down and recruit an amateur bomb constructor in North Dakota. The film adapts the 2020 manifesto by Swedish academic Andreas Malm, which advocates for escalating the climate movement beyond pacifism, into a narrative: a group of young people from California, Oregon, and North Dakota travel to the oil-industry epicenter of Texas, pursuing the central mission. Fittingly, the press notes emphasize the collective approach of the production: the filmmakers’ statement is signed by director Goldhaber; co-writers Jordan Sjol and Ariela Barer, who also stars; and editor Daniel Garber. Driven by a score by Gavin Brivik that is indebted to Daniel Lopatin’s work for the Safdies, Pipeline takes the slick shape of a heist movie; although one character meta-remarks that the source text “doesn’t tell you how to do it,” this film will.
Compared to other depictions of radical groups, Pipeline doesn’t plunge its collective into the circuitous, self-doubting discourse of Robert Kramer’s Ice (1970). It also rejects the lonely, isolating fatalism of Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s spiky, tough, excellent Empty Metal (2018). What it does have is a devotion to practicality. Whenever there’s a crisis point in the main timeline, Pipeline cuts swiftly to a flashback—avoiding the total immersion of an action movie, instead retracing the steps of each member of the group. More than mouthpieces, Pipeline’s characters offer an inventory of environmental casualties. Their reasons for action span from family deaths from pollutants, to staving off drilling on their own land, to a more generalized disillusionment with chronic inaction. Each conventional outlet for climate activism is a dead end: characters encounter an anemic-seeming campus divestment group and an idealistic but clueless documentarian—clueless because he can’t conceive of the people on camera, a family whose land will be ripped up to make way for the eponymous pipeline, as anything other than props. With eyes locked on the central action, Pipeline catalogs every single step of the characters’ process, every worry that could cross their minds, and every alternative path they could have taken (the film’s origins as a manifesto are most evident here). While one of the characters explicitly doubts that a movie could make genuine change all by itself, this movie does believe in the power of leading by example—it concludes with a second radicalized group planting a bomb on a yacht.
After dodging a throng of onlookers standing on tiptoe to spot Harry Styles at the My Policeman premiere, I darted into a Wavelengths shorts program and saw Kurt Walker’s I Thought the World of You. The film is a speculative, ghostly dream about the life of a mid-’80s outsider musician who recorded two records under the pseudonym “Lewis.” These albums of synth-driven ballads are shockingly beautiful, all the more so because they seem to come from nowhere; the real Lewis, a.k.a. Randall Wulff, was presumed vanished until his reissue label, Light in the Attic, tracked him down in Canada; Pitchfork offers a brief rundown. Walker’s film perfectly captures the hauntology of dollar-bin, vanity-pressing gold. He recreates the edges of Lewis’s life with a lush romanticism, following his white convertible down tree-lined highways, spying him through the window of his recording booth. All the while, Walker keeps Lewis turned away from the camera, reserving him a certain privacy. We see him head on from across a city street—an anonymous-seeming silhouette, quiet in the night—as snippets of his instrumentals fade in and out into nighttime ambience, white noise.
These sequences are in black and white, but Walker interweaves present-day scenes shot in color; in one, a young woman peels the shrinkwrap off the reissued album and plays it, conjuring more vignettes from Lewis’s life. The standout choice in the film, though, may be to interweave comments from the Hipinion forum: users speculate about Lewis’s whereabouts, wondering how it’s possible for someone like him to totally disappear, if he ever truly existed. (One user, “genghis sean,” appears more than once with portentous authority—a strange pecking order often emerges on these niche message boards.) Everyone, Walker included, chases the origin of these sounds, but something would be lost without that central mystique. Above all, I Thought the World of You understands the need for an apparition, an unanswered question long after a record, or film, finishes.