My Romance with Toronto, Still the Festival of Festivals for Me
By Meredith Brody
Well, it really wasn’t my first film festival. I’d had flirtations with other, smaller festivals, but they were almost all fairly local. And my attendance at them was patchy, not obsessive.
My first deep-dish, long-distance festival relationship was in Toronto.
I’d been hearing about it for some years, from friends including Jonathan Rosenbaum and Canadian film critic Martin Knelman. Founded in 1976 as the “Festival of Festivals,” the intention was to cherry-pick the best films from other festivals around the world.
In short order (1978), the name was changed to the Toronto International Film Festival, aka TIFF. I started attending in the mid-Eighties, from Los Angeles.
I still remember wandering the streets of Yorkville in a trance, drunk from seeing several masterpieces in a day: I didn’t know there were such wonders out there. Neither the AFI Festival nor the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival yet existed; the New York Film Festival, though influential, was tiny and rigid in comparison. Filmex, which I had worked for while still in school, had ended.
TIFF had people across the globe who watched everything everywhere and brought movies back to Toronto to delight its public. Over the years I was educated in Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Bollywood, Korean films there. When I saw my first Manoel de Oliveira film, I knew nothing about him and thought he was an exciting young director; he was exciting, but he was in his 70s at the time.
I knew that I would see movies I’d been hearing about from Sundance in January, Cannes in May, and everything in between and since. From the latest Godard and Chabrol to the newest Assayas and Honoré, from Wenders and Herzog to, well, Petzold and Herzog. Dogme came and went. I experienced 9/11 in Toronto; The Festival traveled south from Yorkville over the years, opening the their own cinemas at the Bell Lightbox on King Street in 2010.
In 2016, 397 films from 83 countries were screened on 26 screens – quite probably the Festival’s peak, since 2017 scaled back to 255 films. Unwieldy, but like an amazing box of chocolates. And, oy vey, since you never know what you’re going to get (have I lost my mind, quoting Forrest Gump?), some of my happiest memories have been of the movie by the director I’ve never heard of, the movie I went to only because it was conveniently scheduled between two other movies I wanted to see, the movie that I thought I wouldn’t like because of its genre/reviews/pretentions but ended up loving.
And TIFF was friendly, efficient, well-run. Press conferences were useful, and individual interviews were cheerfully arranged. I found myself using material from TIFF months after attending the festival.
It was the one invariable film highlight of the year. Until 2020 and 2021, I only missed one iteration of TIFF because my newspaper wouldn’t guarantee me even a quarter of a page and TIFF wasn’t yet convinced that people were reading that online stuff.
So my last TIFF was in 2019. Attending TIFF in 2022 was not only my first deep-dish ten-day festival since the beginning of the pandemic, but it was my first plane ride out of the country in two years.
The routine was both familiar and not. Instead of being spread out over Toronto, the Festival was concentrated around the Lightbox. No need to grab a cab or dash to the subway. There was no printed schedule at all. I knew it was a cost-cutting decision – in the year or two before the pandemic, the TIFF press kit had contained a special schedule that included both the public and the press and industry screenings, with a stern warning that it was the ONLY one you’d get, and if you lost it, tough luck.
But the online schedule was difficult to print and drained phone batteries with alarming speed. I’d left my wireless phone chargers 3000 miles away (it WAS my first trip in two years!). I bought one at Shoppers Drug Mart for $40 that didn’t work very well, so I became one of the hapless people sitting on the floor next to an electric outlet between screenings. I’d grudgingly paid $50 for a catalogue; after a day or two I’d happily have paid $50 for a schedule.
The Festival seemed familiar but subdued; there were about 200 feature films and 40 shorts. Over the ten days I was there – I left on Sunday, the 11th day, missing both the awards party and a few screenings – I saw over 40 films, in whole or in part, and unlike most other years, it was quite easy to get a ticket to most public screenings. People were still not used to going to the movies.
I was so used to lining up early for hot press screenings that I was embarrassed to find myself in the first dozen people outside the Bell Lightbox for the early-morning The Fabelmans screening with the press conference happening in the same theater immediately afterwards. I could have slept in for another 45 minutes. (It did mean I got first crack at the pastries, coffee, and orange juice laid on for the crowd, a spread I’d never experienced before at TIFF.)
Early on I saw perhaps my favorite film at the Festival, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the documentary Oscar-winning Laura Poitras made about Nan Goldin and her successful campaign to get the Sackler family name removed from museums worldwide because of their role in the opiod crisis. It was certainly the movie I cited most frequently in answer to the inevitable question “What have you seen that you liked?”
Over the ensuing days it was joined by other titles: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s charming Broker, such a different tone than his Oscar-nominated Shoplifters, but still about a family created by a group of outsiders; Decision to Leave, a neo-noir from Park Chan-wook that I found much more palatable than his riveting but brutal Vengeance Trilogy; Empire of Light, Sam Mendes’ paean to human connection as well as movie-going in an Art Deco theater, starring a national treasure of England, Olivia Coleman; an unexpected severe period piece in English from Chilean Sebastián Lelio, The Wonder, starring an aspiring national treasure of England, Florence Pugh.
(To Be Continued)
Meredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview. She also contributes to EatDrinkFilms including her“Meals with Meredith,” where she talks about food and film with filmmakers at restaurants in northern California, writes about vintage cocktails and where she eats during film festivals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. A selection of her EDF pieces are found here.
One could describe Meredith as “hooked on cinema” as she attends four-five films a day at many bay area and international festivals each year. Somebody has to do it. Read about her journey back to festivals after two years in pandemic mode.