Thursday, August 27, 2009

a slimmer trimmer TIFF

Now that all of the programming has been announced, I have some gleanings on the overall movement of the festival. A shifting of the tide that I have suspected for some time, has started to be visible. If I could ballpark it I would say that the festival is investing in a major piece of real estate that will embody it as a cultural institution, precisely at the moment that it is starting to slide a notch or two in its significance as a public festival, though its importance as a sales market is still high.

One of the latest press releases lists titles available for acquisition, ie those movies that are yet to be picked up for distribution. It is an astonishingly long list. The list can be viewed two ways: either that producers have held off until Toronto to showcase their movies in hopes of making a better deal, or that more of the likely sellable product has in fact already been picked up at earlier festivals.

The late positioning of this festival in the year, has always struck me as something working against it. (Though I am not advocating changing that.) Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Venice (and many others of note) have all gone before Toronto in the calendar year. This offers the festival a chance to watch the trends and to pick up only the best, but increasingly the most interesting films have had significant exposure before getting to us. Many critics do not attend the most popular TIFF screenings, even in their industry projections, because they have already seen the films elsewhere and formed their judgments of them. The very thing that promotes Toronto as a venue for selling movies, ie the great audience responses, is also that which is increasingly distanced from the decision makers themselves. Do the industry reps and critics attend those public screenings to see the responses? I'm sure many do. I also know many don't.

This is not a spectacular year for TIFF in terms of names, or even glamour-drenched openings. Despite a studded star list of guests, there is a really notable lack of exciting premieres this year. The most intriguing European films have already been seen elsewhere. Should we therefore start to despair the future of this fest?

No. The festival's greatest tradition, which is to showcase international titles that would never otherwise see the light of North American day (despite prizes elsewhere), continues in great strength. The quality of these lesser known films, from Shirin Neshat's Women Without Men (pictured at top), to Jessica Hausner's Lourdes to Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch promises to be very high. Although New York follows us and will pick up many of these films, Toronto is where they will be seen by the most people and find the greatest chance of distribution.

The discerning TIFF-goer, must look to that TIFF solid core of international medium to low budget features to find the raison d'etre of the festival alive and well. Contemporary World Cinema, Special Presentations, Vanguard, Discovery, all hold the real gems. Along with important venues like the Wavelengths programme, they speak to the average and avid art film buff, who will do anything to be in Toronto that first real week of September. Get out the highlighters!

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