How do you attend a film festival without actually attending it? I found out this week as I participated in the 45th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which ran from September 10 to 19 on the other side of the planet. As an accredited journalist, I saw Oscar-winning actor Regina King’s stunning directorial debut, One Night in Miami — a taut, vibrant period drama that is already being seen as a front-runner for awards season next year.
I also binge-watched Mira Nair’s BBC miniseries A Suitable Boy; watched actor Halle Berry dial in and talk about her journey, breaking boundaries and Bruised, her first film as director; and saw Nair e-receive an award (virtually presented by Tabu) alongside Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins. All of this, from my home in Mumbai.
TIFF, unlike the Cannes Film Festival, is open to the public, and is usually an expansive affair. In a normal year, the official line-up can have as many as 300 titles. The winner of the festival’s top prize, the People’s Choice Award, has won Hollywood’s top prize, the Best Picture Oscar, so often (American Beauty in 2000, Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, The King’s Speech in 2011, Spotlight in 2016) that the festival is considered a bellwether event in the awards race.
For 10 days every September, Toronto becomes a hotbed of filmmakers, critics, buyers, sellers, industry professionals and the paying public. TIFF is a buzzing, flashy, star-studded A-list festival, but it’s easier to navigate than Cannes. The environment at the festival’s epicentre — the TIFF Bell Lightbox building — is more porous. In 2017, I met both Christopher Nolan and Bong Joon-ho there. As you can imagine, I’m a fan.
Truth be told, there is no way to replicate that sense of excitement and anticipation virtually. The TIFF programme this year was a minimalist 50 features and the festival was a hybrid event, with physical screenings and drive-ins, digital screenings, press conferences and industry talks. It opened with Spike Lee and David Byrne’s American Utopia and closed with a special presentation of A Suitable Boy.
Borders are still closed, so only locals could attend in person. The rest of us logged in via the TIFF Digital Cinema Pro platform. Titles stayed online for 48 hours, which brought in some sense of urgency. Even with so few films, that unique sense of festival FOMO remained because there was no way to see everything. Especially since virtual participation meant also dealing with time zones, connectivity issues and our daily lives.
Curiously, some of the festival’s hottest titles — Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, American Utopia and even Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple — weren’t available for viewing in India.
But this is not a year for complaint. The fact that TIFF occurred at all is a minor miracle. The fact that so many of us, scattered geographically, were watching and responding to the same films, underlined, once again, the universality of stories and storytelling. Next year, I want to be in downtown Toronto again, rushing between theatres, grabbing hurried meals, dodging the teeming crowds and seeking guidance from TIFF’s hundreds of volunteers who are the stuff of legend because they never lose their civility.
But this festival was special. It was vital, nourishing, necessary, and it functioned as both an act of resistance and a celebration. In the midst of a global pandemic, what more could one ask for?