On Saturday afternoon, Cameron Bailey, Chaz Ebert and the Toronto International Film Festival continued an incredible tradition, honoring a single filmmaker for the way that he or she has changed the very art form that events like TIFF are meant to celebrate. As Piers Handling, Director and Chief Executive Officer of TIFF, said in his introduction, the Ebert Tribute is designed to bring the festival back to its roots, not only by allowing people to reflect on what Roger meant to TIFF but in allowing artists, critics, producers, directors, actors and more to get together to celebrate film. In that sense, it is an event that links the current TIFF to the past instead of just focusing on what’s current, hot, or Oscar-worthy. This year’s recipient of the event's Golden Thumb was a perfect reflection of this channel between past and present, in that it was an event celebrating a woman who redefined cinema, but whose impact on film history is only recently being recognized to the degree that it should have been for decades. Of course, that woman is the truly one-and-only Agnès Varda.
Varda has been directing films for over 60 years. After her first feature, 1955's "La Point Courte," she first made a huge impact on international cinema with her second film, "Cléo from 5 to 7," released in 1962. Since then, her filmmaking voice has always been singular, whether experienced in features like 1985's "Vagabond," shorts like 1967's "Uncle Yanco" or documentaries like 2000's "The Gleaners & I," to name just a few. Roger was an outspoken fan of her work, even saying that her 2008 documentary "The Beaches of Agnes" contained the most poetic shot of cinema that he had ever seen. And Varda continues that artistry to this day, as the 88-year-old is currently in production on a new film, "Visages, visages" set for release in 2017.
In her introduction, Chaz Ebert quoted her husband when he said that “…only the fact that she is a woman, I fear, prevented her from being routinely included with Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer and […] Jacques Demy.” The elegant room at the private Spoke Club just west of the heart of the festival erupted in applause, signifying agreement. Varda had a natural gift for filmmaking from a young age, but she has rarely received the appropriate degree of critical attention for that ability. A clip reel highlighting her films and interviews also included a brief moment in which Roger, working with Richard Roeper at the time, used his show to help pay tribute to a legendary director. Today’s event felt like a continuation of that effort, bringing a true talent into the spotlight for the admiration she has long-deserved.
After speeches by Handling, Chaz Ebert, and TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, Varda said only a few brief words to the assembled crowd—one that included an amazingly diverse array of talent, like film writers like Manohla Dargis, Steven Zeitchick and Eric Kohn; directors like Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema; actors like Danny Glover, Freida Pinto and Sarah Gadon; and many, many more. Varda was both humble and joyous, saying, “I think it’s too much, but I love that too much.” The woman who has been referred to as The Godmother of the French New Wave (which Ebert once thought was too diminutive but Varda said today that she likes) also compared herself to a “a big old bear who has been given a lot of honey.”
Varda may not have said much, but her passion for life and film is unmistakable and could be felt throughout the room. As Handling stated, she’s “one of the most important role models in the history of cinema.” On this special Saturday, in a place Roger Ebert loved, Toronto, that truth was deeply recognized. Many of us even left the Ebert Tribute to see films by female directors—likely influenced by Varda. Her fingerprints can be seen throughout the festival, in its past and future: to the days in which she was not just a favorite filmmaker of Roger’s but a friend, to the impact she’ll have on new directors for decades to come.To read "Roger's Favorites: Agnès Varda," which uses Roger's reviews and essays to discuss Varda's filmography, click here.