TORONTO — Under the stars of a pandemic skyline, the Toronto International Film Festival kicked off Thursday night with a sea of moviegoers inside their vehicles instead of a darkened cinema.
It was a TIFF opening night celebration unlike any other, with outdoor screenings of "David Byrne's American Utopia" playing at three separate spots across the city, including at two drive-in theatres.
The physically distanced edition start of the festival wasn't ideal, but as organizers adhere to strict public-health protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19, film buff Charles Stankievech was simply happy to have tickets.
"I'm glad TIFF wasn't cancelled," he said, leaning out the window of his SUV at the Visa Skyline Drive-In. The outdoor theatre looks onto Toronto's waterfront, the CN Tower and a glowing wall of office buildings and condominiums.
"I mean this is exciting," Stankievech added.
"It's a new way to see a film at TIFF... I mean, I hope it's not like this next year, but while we're in this phase I'm really happy to experiment."
For others, the drive-in experience was totally uncharted.
Ala Roushan, who joined Stankievech for the film, said the drive-ins weren't part of her childhood. Looking around at all of the cars she couldn't have anticipated the Byrne fans who would honk in approval when he sang their favourite songs.
"It's a shared experience," she said. "Maybe the silver lining of this whole pandemic is you bond over the challenges and build these really unique memories."
Broadway percussionist Jacquelene Acevedo, one of the stars of "American Utopia," was hoping to make a few memories of her own at one of TIFF's opening night screenings. The Toronto-born musician, who lives in New York, hunkered down for 14 days of self-isolation to attend the Spike Lee-directed film.
"It's a full circle moment," she said ahead of the festival.
"I knew that as a Canadian, because of my history, and how much this place has given me, it's like — I have to come back. I can't not... I'm in a Spike Lee joint with all my buddies up there, with David Byrne."
But it's hard to ignore the damper COVID-19 put on TIFF's usual red carpet fanfare. Usually an international press gallery crams together, elbow-to-elbow, in hopes of getting a moment with a Hollywood star. None of that is happening this year, and the festival also isn't allowing photographers to access the drive-in premieres, citing "health, safety, security and COVID capacity issues."
Only about 60 features screen over the next week and a half, instead of the usual selection of several hundred films. Many of the titles will be accessible across the country on a virtual platform hosted by the festival.
"American Utopia," an HBO production that rolls out on the Crave streaming platform in October, plays for a limited time on TIFF's online Bell Digital Cinema next Wednesday.
The feature-length concert is a fitting start to a year where TIFF programmers have focused on films that address potent social conversations about race, immigration and politics.
All three take centre stage in Byrne's show, which puts him alongside 11 international musicians as they perform songs from his 2018 album of the same name, and other favourites pulled from years as the frontman of Talking Heads.
Acevedo appears throughout the show playing the drums, dancing and taking a knee for Black lives before a powerful rendition of Janelle Monae's protest song against police brutality, "Hell You Talmbout."
The moment is captured with a few trademark stylistic touches from the film's acclaimed director, who's dedicated much of his career to portraying how racism rips through society.
"People keep saying it's such a timely show," Acevedo said.
"But it's also in a strange way, I wouldn't say prophetic, but it was definitely ahead of its time. Now it's like things are making a lot more sense and catching up."
"American Utopia" was filmed over three days in February, Acevedo said, only a few weeks before the pandemic shut down Broadway.
Landing a part in the production was like serendipity, as she describes it, in part because a friend recommended she audition for a role knowing her eclectic skills.
Acevedo was exposed to a vibrant world of global music, dance and theatre after she moved with her father, a Colombian composer, to New York as a teenager. She picked up the congas with his encouragement and began playing more live shows, which eventually led to her winning a Latin Grammy Award as part of all-female mariachi band Flor De Toloache.
"American Utopia" called for a performer with knowledge of drums, movement and performance.
"I just felt like it was made for me," she said. "I got to use all my talents and training in a way that I never really could have imagined."
With the Broadway show on hold due to the pandemic, and the earliest possible restart date pegged in January 2021, Acevedo hopes the filmed version gives audiences a thought-provoking experience suited for this difficult year.
"The creative forces behind it are so rich, they're so lush, they're so full of life," she said.
"It's really exciting to be part of something like that."
This article by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2020.
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David Friend, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Jacquelene.