The Toronto International Film Festival Festival ‘s 45th edition saw how the festival adjusted to the new normal. Running from September 10-19, TIFF tweaked itself to allow for a hybrid mix of physical, drive-ins, digital screenings and a host virtual red carpets, industry conferences and special events.
The FOMO is a constant companion while attending any film festival where the urge to be present at many screenings at the same time is almost irrepressible. The pandemic year though brought along its own set of challenges. For a festival that typically programs over 200 films, this year that number was down to 50 new features.
For the first time in its history, TIFF showcased its films digitally. So as an accredited journalist covering the festival it meant a TIFF Digital Cinema Pro pass and a window of 48 hours in which to see films. While we missed the on ground festival buzz, the crisp September air of Toronto and the long queues to get into screenings at the Scotia bank or TIFF Light Box, the sense of urgency to watch films during the stipulated time and see as many as possible still made it thrilling.
A surreal experience nevertheless as I negotiated my film watching with my regular routine sans the jet lag but sat almost glued to the laptop praying to the wifi gods to be kind. In what was also a first some films were inexplicably geo-blocked for the industry and press in certain countries. So Nomadland, which won the prestigious People’s Choice Award, often a precursor to an eventual Best Picture Academy Award nomination along with Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple and David Byrne’s American Utopia were all out of bounds for us in India.
Still of the films that I saw here are a few that I would recommend you keep an eye out for and grab every chance you get to watch them.
1. I Am Greta
Nathan Grossman documents the 15-year-old girl famous for her “How dare you “ speech to world leaders on the issue of climate change in her journey from obscurity to world fame. Namely, Greta Thunberg sitting quietly outside the Sweden’s parliament protesting against climate change. A girl, who hates small talk, hates adults “because they say one thing and do something completely different” and has Asperger’s – something for which she is mocked and ridiculed about. But Greta wishes everyone had a bit of Asperger’s so that they too can share her intense focus on the issue of climate change. The film is an intimate look at Greta, the environmental activist in her strong and vulnerable moments. We are privy to her quiet moments, the grizzly passion with which she fusses over every word of the speech she writes to be delivered to world leaders whose polite applause but lack of action leave her fuming and heartbroken. The film culminates in a harrowing sailboat ride that Greta and her father Svante take over the Atlantic Ocean to attend the UN climate summits in September 2019. As world leaders mock her and her attempts, we acquire a unique point of view on a girl who dances alone in her room, misses her dogs and home, takes hate mail and death threats in her stride and carries on.
2. 76 Days
The first of probably many documentaries to emerge out of China, 76 Days is a challenging watch. It provides us with a unique vantage point as we look at the crisis from ground zero of the spread of coronavirus in Wuhan, that now has in its grips on the whole world. The documentary opens with a gut wrenching cry as one of the health workers is mourning the death of her father. On 23 January, the city of 11 million people went on a lockdown that lasted 76 days. What feels like a sci- fi apocalyptic thriller in essence captures the surreal times, with patients lining up for medical attention and the hospital staff who we only see at all times encased in PPE, masks and foggy glasses are pushed to the brink trying to contain the outbreak and treat patents. 76 days is precious record of the surreal times that ironically we are still living in.
3. New Order
Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco’s latest is a tough watch. In a city ravaged by rioting, violence and bloodshed, we witness how the class divide can have far reaching consequences for society. Marianne‘s wedding party is underway (Naian Gonzaléz Norvind), but frustrated by her family’s refusal to help out a former employee’s ill wife, she decides to take the woman to a clinic herself, hoping to get back in time. But things swiftly turn ugly. Be it the super rich or the humble working class both are at the receiving end of this violence that forces us to reflect on the fragility of the class divide that can erupt into absolute mayhem anytime. This is a world where nothing is photoshopped for comfort. The rich are being brutalised, the poor falsely accused while military rule wrecks havoc. The consequences of civil unrest are far reaching and the film resonates universally with its stark truth.
4. One Night in Miami
Oscar winner Regina King makes a staggering directorial debut with One Night in Miami. At a time when conversations around Black Lives Matter are raging, it recreates an important time in Black history - a night in February 1964, when real-life friends Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X gather to celebrate Clay’s win over Sonny Liston, which made him the heavyweight champion of the world. Based on Kemp Power’s award winning play by the same name, the four Black icons ruminate on how they can play a role in the larger civil rights movement raging in the US at the time. Performances by Kingsley Ben –Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jr make it richer.
5. Pieces of a Woman
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó‘s first English film, Pieces of a Woman is about a married couple grappling with devastating loss. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Shawn (Shia LaBeouf) have found love across a class divide and are eagerly expecting their first baby. But complications with a midwife (Parker) interrupt their planned home birth and has tragic consequences. The beauty lies in how the film refuses to judge any of the characters and how they cope with their grief. The almost 20-min-long child birth scene, Vanessa Kirby’s outstanding performance and the film’s exploration of loss and the resultant sorrow translates into brilliant cinema.
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