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Toronto Dispatch: Return to the Fray

The Toronto International Film Festival opens with its first completely in-person edition in three years.
Daniel Kasman
Tales from the Gimli Hospital Redux
Guy Maddin's Tales from the Gimli Hospital Redux (1988/2022).
Returning to the Toronto International Film Festival after a three-year personal pandemic pause—the event took place virtually in 2020 and in a hybrid edition last year—the promise of the end of summer event is as clear as it's ever been: a bounty of movies, 203 features in total, in theaters with audiences, and a hopeful return to moviegoing normality. The only major festival to simultaneously emphasize top-level highlights that premiered elsewhere during the year (primarily from Sundance and Cannes, as well as a Venice so close this summer that the two festivals overlapped), along with its own selection of world premieres, the approach emphasizes the festival’s image as audience oriented, rather than prioritizing the industry. With so many films, a defined programming line is impossible and the main hope must be to try and be all things to all audiences. 
As an incredibly large and multifaceted cultural institution, such a broad remit is best suited to face the pressure to cater to diverse needs, though the veneer of populism is impossible when the event is pulled this way and that by local requirements, commercial pressures, industry status, cultural relevance and impact, addiction to publicity, and audience engagement, among many other, and many more nuanced, factors. (Not the least of which is the flushed ego of having several of its films go on to win Oscars—a few films among many hundreds programmed, mind you—and the hysterical frenzy for award hopefuls whose locus is now the Venice-Telluride-Toronto micro season.) Meanwhile, Toronto has hardly been immune to the recent festival staff turmoil that has either quietly or loudly upset, or radically changed, key positions in organizations around the world. The festival’s executive director and co-head has left after just three years for Sundance (which itself has changed festival directors after a very short term) and several programmers from the last full edition are no longer with the festival. Given this, it’s truly a wonder and blessing that good art can emerge in such a context, even if this would seem the very first priority for such an event.
For the local audience, the obvious choices are more clear, since the festival is showing key films from other festivals, including big and small highlights that we’ve praised from Berlin (Unrest, Dry Ground Burning, Queens of the Qing Dynasty), Cannes (Triangle of Sadness, Decision to Leave, One Fine Morning, Hunt, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Pacifiction), and just this week, Venice (The Eternal Daughter). These will jockey for attention with more dubious inclusions that prompt the question as to why several of such films ask for a festival premiere in the first place. This is where the debatable merits of other festivals’ central competition sections start to look like a good idea, as a headlining competition confers heightened emphasis on a festival’s choices and exclusions. Without such a sense of programming intention, several of the bigger films here feel like the studio previews they likely are (or indeed one of the few times a streamer’s film might show before a communal group and on a big screen) rather than a assertion by the festival that this film is one of the year’s movies that matter, and that putting it among other such choices creates a vibrant, immersive conversation for audience to join. Some of our anticipated premieres here include Steven Spielberg’s unusually personal drama The Fabelmans, Lena Dunham’s second film of the year, the intriguing costume adaptation Catherine Called Birdy, and Hong Sang-soo’s Walk Up, but whether pandemic or programming influenced, there’s a paucity of major original premieres at the fest. (One of those, Ulrich Seidl’s Sparta, which forms a diptych with his terrific film from earlier this year, Rimini, was pulled a day before its premiere likely due to allegations of unsupervised and abusive direction of child actors on the set.) With Sundance, Berlin, and Cannes also all serving up less than stellar programs this year, the pattern of weak options may suggest the delayed impact of the pandemic on film production which is finally more visible to audiences.
It won’t be news to Notebook readers that an exception to the vast programming smorgasbord that is a TIFF edition is the Wavelengths section, which caters to an audience expecting festivals to showcase adventurous filmmaking and new forms of cinema, offers a true sensibility in its selection and therefore a more rewardingly experience. Here you can truly feel the shape of a program put together with clear choices made, and it is in repeated self-denial of its most distinct section that TIFF continues to restrains Wavelength’s scope, with a meager two programs of shorts and only seven features. (Luckily this year sees the return of a gallery exhibition as part of its selection, refreshingly finding moving image art in other venues than movie theaters.) Similarly, the Midnight section, while more predictable in its guardrails of tone and genre, also offers the great rush of a dedicated audience that looks forward to its intensely coherent program. And I still hold out hope that one day there’ll be satisfaction found in the eight-year-old, unevenly defined Platform competition, which feels buried in the program and bizarrely has yet to locate its identity and focus festival excitement. (By comparison, Berlin has launched a second competition, Encounters, that in two years has vividly staked out clear cinematic terrain.)
Across the vaguely thematized and voluminous other sections, navigation requires a hunter-gatherer mentality of daily expeditions in the need, and also the hope, of pockets of sustenance. (Following this analogy, a section like Wavelengths is a safe space of cultivation.) Due to its more haphazard and sporadic success, such expeditions can in fact provide the most surprising and moving delights. The recommended approach, which our coverage takes, is to explore as much as possible in such optimism, alternating with periodic doses of the expected hype material. What else am I looking forward to? New works by Tacita Dean and Sharon Lockhart, Bros (Nicholas Stoller being one of our better comedy directors), Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, which I missed in Cannes, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, Antoine Bourge’s Concrete Valley, Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, and John Hyams’ Sick (big fan of his Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) all seem promising. It’s been years since I’ve gotten to do this, years that have softened my memories and been kind to the idea of the ups and downs of the festival maelstrom. From where I stand—in a line waiting to get into a screening—the best perspective is to plunge into the dark, hoping for the best.

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