There were 245 features last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. This year, officially, there were 50. As Cameron Bailey, the festival’s Artistic Director and co-head points out below, that’s the lowest number ever, even including the inaugural event in 1976. COVID-19 has reshaped the entire cinematic landscape, and has presented TIFF with its greatest challenge to date.
TIFF is home to many events in one. First of all, it’s one of the largest gatherings of film fans on the planet, generating millions for the local economy and providing cinephiles from the world over an opportunity to experience many of the greatest works of the year. What started as the “Festival of Festivals”—a curated, greatest hits from the mostly European circuit—has evolved into the most prominent film gathering in North America and a launching pad for nearly every Oscar-winning film over the last 20 years.
Second, it’s a massive festival for international press, covering the glittery red carpets and other special events with even more interest at times than the films the stars are here to rep. Third, it’s a vital step for programmers of other festivals to find films for what’s called the “circuit,” a series of events in almost every city in the world that allows the voices of these filmmakers to be heard thousands of kilometers from where they reside. The dearth of these films speaks to a cinematic ecosystem in shock, where cancellations of festivals and the replacement by non-curated VOD and other streaming services has been a major blow to the entire community.
Yet, paradoxically, in some ways that made for the most accessible festival ever. Screenings were geoblocked nationwide, meaning people in Halifax or Vancouver could attend just as easily as those here in Toronto. International press didn’t have to fly to town to see the given films, and were not restricted in the same way as patrons. This had some unintended effects. Just as there was a dramatic reduction in the number of films, there was a substantial reduction in the number of accredited media. This resulted in many veterans being left out, even if many new voices were being added as part of inclusion initiatives.
There were still several major films that garnered attention like Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which saw it win the Golden Lion at Venice after its premiere and take home the coveted People’s Choice award at TIFF (it’s scheduled to be presented as part of the New York Film Festival slate as well). This is the first time that Venice and Toronto share a top prize winner, speaking further to how strange and complicated these times have become.
"Nomadland" was also the recipient of this year's Ebert Director Award. In a statement, Chaz Ebert said: "I'm particularly pleased that she received the award this year when her film 'Nomadland' was recognized with the TIFF Audience award. It mirrors some of the isolation and loneliness and insecurity of employment in our society caused by the coronavirus pandemic and is an impactful follow-up to 'The Rider.' She follows in the footsteps of previous directors who won the Ebert Director Award: Taika Waititi, Martin Scorsese, Ava Duvernay, Claire Denis, Agnes Varda and Wim Wenders."
As always, Thom Powers and his team cobbled together some of the greatest works of non-fiction for a doc slate that’s often overlooked behind the flashes of the red-carpet photographers. There was no film more harrowing than “76 Days,” the precise and intimate look at a hospital at Wuhan combatting the virus that has shaped all of our lives. “Enemies of the State” is a strong indictment of our drive to acquiesce to the conspiratorial over the coherent, and “MLK/FBI” is another fine work that asks hard questions about how moral turpitude conflicts with hagiographic notions of our most beloved figures, and asks firmly whether a legacy is tarnished the closer you look at a figure of prominence.
Yet while all the trappings were there, this was still a pale imitation of what makes TIFF so extraordinary. I share Cameron’s belief he expresses below that much of the energy of the fest comes from those random encounters of friends and strangers alike, providing excited and engaged discussions about a given film that may have kicked your ass or left you angry and cold. Much of this year’s TIFF served to remind one of what used to be, and what might well be again, but it never at any stage felt anything close to normal. Let’s not confuse the quotidian, cloistered COVID normal with what makes this film festival worthy of annual pilgrimage.
Still, I got a chance to see things I loved. My screening of “The Father” left me with that blast of serotonin that exceptional art can provide. I rocked out to “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” even if it made me again crave the experience of seeing Byrne and co. with a crowd as I did during the Toronto stop of that tour. I found myself moved by many of the films, and excited to share them in a world where, paradoxically, it’s never been easier to track down these festival films from the comfort of everyone’s home.
In other words, my experience at TIFF has never been more loaded with contradiction. Every film was a reminder of the attempt to achieve cinematic art and the futility of trying to even bother with such trivialities when it feels like our world and culture is in the process of melting away. In the end, I had quite the festival to remember, one I hope to look back on more as something we survived and moved on from, rather than firmly establishing this as the new normal.
On the last day of the festival I reached out to Bailey and asked him to reflect on his own thoughts about TIFF 2020 from both professional and personal perspectives. He generously provided us with his point of view. Our conversation made for a surprisingly cathartic close, frankly, as he lays bare many things that we share a belief about. His view about a future for the fest, even if honed through impeccable media training, was for a brief moment both welcome and contagiously optimistic.
The following has been edited for clarity.
This is a very weird year. How are you doing?
Thanks for asking. Yeah, look it's been a strange year for everyone. Trying to put on an event which is all about gathering thousands of people together at a time when we can't do that has been a wild ride. The good news is that we've got this incredible team here. Since March we’ve been trying to figure it out. I've had really great reaction—people are grateful that we're showing films, that we're finding some great new films for them to see. I think people are really hungry for some new films and to get excited about this year's movies, so that worked. We did a whole bunch of new things, Peter Kuplowsky, for Midnight Madness, really went to town with the whole drive-in idea. The Ontario Place outdoor cinema, with the Muskoka chairs, was amazing and a really beautiful setting. And the online platform allowed us to show movies to professionals all over the world. I heard from people who were sitting in Mumbai watching festival films and grateful that we were able to do that. So overall, it was a success, but it was a challenge.
Was there legitimately ever a moment where you seriously considered not holding a festival?
Yes. We looked at everything, and that did include the question, what if we didn't do the festival at all? We talked that through and realized that on balance it was a better idea to do a festival, but we had to figure out how to do it safely and how to still deliver some of what the festival always delivers in terms of discovering new movies in a brand new way.
What have you learned from doing a virtual festival that you think might continue, even in a post-COVID age?
We don't know what next year is going to look like. It's quite possible that there will still be some part of the pandemic that we're experiencing next September, so that's the first hurdle that we have to face. Once the shutdown happened all over the world and we were at home and largely couldn't leave unless we were essential workers, people started watching movies at home and doing it more than they usually would. Festivals amplified that, and I think people are used to doing that now in an even bigger way. I think that is part of what the expectation is moving forward, and we just have to figure out how much we can meet that expectation. Is at-home watching going to be a part of the public and or the professional side of the festival going forward? We're still figuring that out.
There are clear advantages to running things virtual. Yet one thing about everybody staying at home is it does take away some of the grandeur of seeing a film at TIFF. The in-person experience is such an important part, especially, as you mentioned, with the likes of Midnight Madness. What sets TIFF apart in a virtual space?
We know that something special happens in the room. If you're sitting in Roy Thomson Hall with almost 2,000 other people and you're the very first people in the world to see a movie, that's unique. You can't duplicate that at home, even if you are showing it to the same number of people. It's just not the same experience. There's something about experiencing it all together at the same time, sharing and amplifying the emotion of whatever the film is giving you, and that's something we definitely want to preserve, as soon as we're able to do that again. We're going to bring people back into cinemas, but it has to be done once it's safe. We're not going to step back from what I think has made the festival strong all of those years, in terms of that collective experience on a large scale, of brand new movies. But I think we do have to look at what else changes and adapt to the times. The festival's been a success as much as it has been because we haven't stood still. We've responded to whatever was changing in the world around us, in the film industry, and just behavior around film viewing. We'll continue to do that. It might include some aspect of home viewing, but it's never going to replace that collective experience, because it's just exciting. I think the filmmakers love it as well.
You have had a limitation as it were, or at least a smaller number of films, I think it was 66 in the end. One thing that did is it actually gave a greater spotlight to films that might have been overlooked by some of the larger prestige titles that tend to dominate certainly coverage. It allowed films, something like “Beans,” to get a lot more attention perhaps than it might have if it was in a sea of Oscar contenders. That being said, you clearly were limited in terms of what you could show in this festival. Can you talk about navigating that from a programmer's perspective?
It was significantly smaller than any festival we've ever done. Even the very first festival in 1976 had a bigger lineup than the 2020 festival, so that tells you something! There was a conscious decision to scale the festival back to something we thought was manageable for a pandemic era event. We didn't want to have too many screenings, too many events, too many films and filmmakers and film teams and venues and all of those kinds of things. We wanted to make it manageable. I think we landed on the right number, but my God, it was hard. We still got roughly the same number of submissions. So we're now saying “No, we can't do it this year” to films that we would normally have had the ability to invite. It sometimes took some hard conversations, because if that same film had come in the door last year, we would have been happy to invite it. That was definitely tough.
There were few studio films. Were there specific films you wanted from the Netflix/Amazon/studio system that they didn't want to play as part of a virtual festival?
There were absolutely some films—big, small, medium-sized films—that we had to say "no" to, and that "no" was a new experience in some cases. There were other films that we wanted and they just chose not to be a part of festivals, or not to be a part of any release this year at all. Some are going to try to wait it out and move into next year. Even some of the films that were on the Cannes 2020 list—you'll notice they didn't turn up at any fall festivals, because in some cases, those filmmakers have chosen to wait until next year. They might even have Cannes 2021 invitations already secured, and so those weren't available to us.
So it was a mixed bag, and a real challenge for me and for all of the programmers. We've got programmers who sometimes are used to inviting 10, 15, 20 films in a given year, and we say this year you've got two or three you can invite, or up to five if we're lucky. That's hard for them as well because there are still high-quality films out there. The production slowdown didn't really make itself felt this year as much as it maybe will next year, so there were a lot of films and we had to make some tough decisions. But I found it a useful discipline.
The hardest thing was still to deliver the range of films—to have lots of different countries represented, to have difference kinds of cinema, to have Wavelengths films and Gala style films and Midnight Madness and a great doc lineup. I’m especially proud of the doc lineup this year! So all of those things have to fit in to the limited number of slots we have. We had 50 films in the main selection, and I think another 11 special events, which were built around feature films that had other things associated. Because of the online component, we were able to do five shorts programs, which was more than if you were just in cinema. We were trying every which way to squeeze as much of what we wanted to have in the festival in, but within those limited numbers.
On a personal level, you are used to wearing your tux and bouncing from intro to intro. I saw you at the drive-in. How different was this TIFF for you? I’m thinking in terms of the amount of sleep you were getting, the amount of films that you saw, the sleepless nights about whether you would even pull this off? How did you do?
There are two things that I think were hugely different for me personally. One is, for the last 13 years, when the festival comes around, I say goodbye to my family and I move into a hotel so that I can live TIFF 24 hours a day. This year we were starting the day with our families, and doing the usual family stuff. I was getting my son breakfast and taking him to school, coming home to that. The other thing is that there were no events—no dinners, no receptions, no parties, nothing. That was weird. The festival builds on that sense of excitement and momentum, by running into people at a reception, “Did you see this?”, “Did you see that? My God!”, and vibing off of what you're hearing back. That happens in a given normal festival day dozens and dozens of times—you're running into sometimes hundreds of people, having quick conversations, getting a sense of just what the mood and the feel of the festival is. That just wasn't happening. People weren't here and we couldn't have events, so you weren't gathering and chatting. That was new and strange and that is something I hope we don't have to do again.
Are you planning on taking more time off in a way that you don't necessarily normally do? Even though you in that way had less to do, are you even more exhausted this year after this festival?
The last half a year now, since March, has been very taxing for all of us. Obviously, we're just putting on a film festival, there are many people who've had much more taxing Springs and Summers than we have. But trying to figure this out and put it together has been a real challenge for everybody. Today's Saturday—I will take Monday and Tuesday off and then we're pretty much back into it. We've got a lot of assessment to do of how things went, and already planning for next year when we don't even know exactly what's happening. There have been changes in the COVID situation with the Province as recently as yesterday and today. We still have the year-round TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre that we're thinking about in terms of when it will be safe to reopen. So all of that work will pick up really quickly.
Let's just say for the sake of argument that we're in a slightly better but similar position next year. Let's say you have 100 films next year instead of 50 or 60. Do you expect the scope of TIFF itself to continue, with the number of programmers you have, the number of people who are actually finding these films, etc.? Or can you see this as potentially a time for further reorganization on that side to make a leaner, meaner festival and build up again. Over the decades it’s gotten very big, and you already were started to scale it back over the last couple of years. Do you think this may be actually a time to focus more on 100-110 films, rather than 200+ and see that as a way moving forward with TIFF?
I don't know yet. We are going to look at everything, including the size of the festival going forward. We have the largest public audience of any festival in the world and they like choice. They like being able to say, "Oh, I've got 10 Midnight films, I've got 30 Discovery films to choose from, I'll find my favorite six or whatever it may be." If we only have 60 films, that I think is tougher for our audience, and for the filmmakers that we're supporting as well. We receive films from over 70 countries every year. We really reflect the diversity of what's going on on every corner of the planet where they're making movies. That's harder to do with a significantly smaller selection. Next year, we may well have some of the bigger film companies back in the fall release game, and suddenly that's a huge chunk of movies to deal with. I don't want those to squeeze out films that are smaller or from other parts of the world outside of North America. We've had I think only seven Canadian features this year. Typically, we have about 30. What does that mean for the Canadian film industry if we say, we're only going to keep it at ten now? Suddenly our role in terms of supporting film changes a lot. So I want to think through all of those questions and have those conversations with our team here and work out what's the right number. This was an unusual year, and I hope we don't have to do it at this small scale again. But we're going to respond to whatever the reality on the ground is.
I think it's fair to say that under your leadership, you are taking on a more overt and more let's say political role of the festival of not only speaking out about certain issues. How have you found that balance between speaking to the larger audience and being a showcase of an international cinema, but also finding a really strong way of encouraging certain voices to actually bring them to the fore in a way that the previous festival heads did not?
We're always going to be looking for the very best films we can find. That search for excellence is at the center of everything we do. That's not going to change. Our mission though is to transform the way people see the world through film, and I think those transformative experiences happen when you show people something new. You can shift their perspective somehow and allow them to see things in a new light. To use the phrase Martin Scorsese did recently, giving them film only as comfort food is not going to transform in a significant way. We haven't thought about the question of narrative sovereignty before—that's a new phrase for a lot of people, it was new for me. That is a way to look at how Indigenous stories are told on screen, and suddenly that gives us a new crop of filmmakers to get excited about, new conversations to have and new films for us to support. That's just one example, but the idea I guess for us is that we will always look to see how film can help transform us because that's what art can do at its very best. If art leaves you exactly the same as you were before, it's not that exciting, not that interesting. It's a transformative experience that really does it and that's what we're trying to do through film.
It's been 25 years since you started Planet Africa sidebar. How much has what you did with Planet Africa affected the way that you guys deal with communities from all over the world now?
I'm curious about the world. It's why I love travel and miss it so much right now. Wherever we can help audiences discover films that are new. I just heard that this year is the 10th anniversary of the Congolese action movie, "Viva Riva," that we showed. Who had ever seen a Congolese action movie before? We launched that film, it really blew up out of our festival, it was bought for North American distribution here. That's just one example of what a festival can do if it's curious, and if it's looking for where cinema is doing something interesting. All of the great movements we've seen in the last decades, whether it's Iranian cinema, or South Korean cinema, started that way. The fact that Park Chan-wook is a big filmmaker, that Bong Joon-ho won the Oscar for “Parasite,” that started somewhere, started with curiosity. I saw people going to those places, finding out who the great filmmakers were, and beginning to show them more widely. That's what keeps the job interesting. That's what makes it fun.
It's still interesting and it's still fun?
It's always interesting and most days it's fun.