Dispatches from TIFF 2006

09 Sep 2006

News from the red carpet and events at the film festival

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is in full swing again for its now 31 st edition. This year’s festival is billed as one of the most highly star-studded editions in TIFF’s history with stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Pitt, J-Lo, Wyclef Jean, Reese Witherspoon, Sea Penn, Jude Law, Penelope Cruz, Vince Vaughn, and many more in town right now.

As usual, the masses have been gathering outside Roy Thomson Hall for the Gala screening celebrity red carpet entrances. But let’s face it, isn’t it what the big buzz around town come TIFF time all about? The celebrity sightings. This is the only time of year when stalking becomes totally acceptable. With the industry parties not accessible to the masses, throngs of celebrity-seekers dress to the nines with basically nowhere to go but pace around Yorkville a couple of hundred times and stake out the entrances of the Four Seasons Hotel or the Intercontinental. Whatever the title or premise of those films that Brad Pitt or Vince Vaughn have come here to promote will probably be twelfth on the list of what most people will recall weeks after the festival wraps up.

But we will all remember that Vince Vaughn showed up without Jennifer Aniston at Pearson airport yesterday. Oh yeah, who will ever shut up about the shockingly politically incorrect (but ever so hilarious) stunt that Sacha Baron Cohen (better known as Ali G) pulled by arriving at the sold-out premiere of his film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (try and remember that title) at the Elgin theatre in a carriage pulled with the strength of six peasant women!

It’s precisely this difficult balance of pulling off an internationally respected film festival attracting both purist film buffs and eight-dollar-latte-sipping-at-Sassafraz celebrity-seekers that TIFF’s organizers seem to have completely lost sight of at the opening night Gala screening. The opening film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, by Nunavut filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and his Montreal-based co-producer Norman Cohn was a very curious choice for a Gala screening, let alone the festival’s opener. The film, shot almost entirely in Inuktitut, chronicles the real accounts of Danish explorer Rasmussen in the 1920’s. The painstakingly slow-moving snoozer had people getting up to leave as if they were giving out free goody-bags in the lobby. At some point people even began openly heckling. Seems like the film failed to please either the purists or the celebrity seekers. The annually packed Simcoe Street sidewalk filled with celebrity gazers hoping to catch Brad Pitt or J-Lo at the opening soon realized that they would have better spent the three hours waiting outside a hotel in Yorkville. Ironically, the highlight of the opening Gala screening was the truly stunning performance before the movie by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq – whose voice is also featured in the film.

Standing in line the next day waiting to enter the Press & Industry screening of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s amazing and highly recommended film Babel (featuring Brad Pitt), the knives were already out about the strange choice for the festival opener among the journalists present. Each were comparing the length of time it took for them to leave the theatre. While I perfectly understand the need to showcase and give their rightful place to ethnically diverse films, it’s a dangerous line when the underlying feeling is that it’s being forced upon the audience not for its innate quality but rather for it’s political meaning. Last year’s TIFF really excellent opener, Water, by Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta was a perfect example of how that delicate cultural balance can be met successfully. But this year’s opening film’s co-producer Norman Cohn perhaps illustrated the problem with this year’s Gala opening choice best when saying: “You know, most people in the opening night audience have never sat and spent two hours listening to what aboriginal people have to say.” We’re gonna make you sit through it whether you like it or not rich white boy! That sets a terrible precedent for the eventual reception of other culturally diverse opening films in the future. God knows there was a lot to choose from this year.

Some of my media colleagues at Babel’s press screening were even going as far as saying that the film was chosen as the festival opener from the guilt of Canada’s blatant lack of support for filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk’s last indie effort Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner – which went on to win a Genie Award and the Camera d''or at Cannes. It was a huge commercial and critical success. So there’s a feeling that Canada’s film industry was afraid to miss the boat again. But as one of the Globe & Mail’s spies at the Gala opening reported, speaking about Telefilm Canada head Wayne Clarkson, who takes credit for choosing The Journals of Knud Rasmussen as the opening film: “I''ve never seen anyone shift in their chair so often.”

But on a much more positive note, I had the immense pleasure of attending last night, along with AfroToronto.com partner Melvin Bakandika, an NFB-sponsored screening and private after-party at the Windsor Arms Hotel with Governor General Michaëlle Jean as the guest of honour. The event was meant to highlight the work National Film Board’s late legendary filmmaker and animation pioneer Norman McLaren. The Governor General is also the NFB''s patron of animation. Again detracting another skeptical journalist who asked her if she had been “briefed” by her filmmaker husband Jean-Daniel Lafond (also present at the event) about the work and legacy of Norman McLaren, Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean marvelously displayed her truly genuine appreciation and familiarity with the man himself, his work, and the NFB’s history and vision through her inspiring speeches both at the theatre and the after-party. AfroToronto.com made sure that we expressed to her our great pride in having her as our country’s Governor General.

From the Windsor Arms Hotel, it was on to the elegant and chic Empire Restaurant and Lounge for Warren Salmon’s First Friday’s film industry night. Running for it’s twelfth year, without ever missing a month, this latest edition of First Fridays featured, among others, Toronto-bred Hollywood actress Tonya Lee Williams promoting next’s year’s Reel World Film Festival and Dale Samms from the Toronto International Film Festival’s press office promoting this year’s great line up of African and diasporic films at TIFF. Please stay tuned for AfroToronto.com’s upcoming reviews and interviews of some of those films and their directors.

As far as some of the red carpet action goes for this week-end, you can catch Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson at the opening of Stranger than Fiction at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge) tonight, Saturday, Sept. 9th, at 6pm. You can also catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt tonight at Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe) for the opening of Babel (a must see) at 9:30pm. Also tonight, Wyclef Jean will be at the opening of Ghosts of Cité Soleil at Varsity Theatre (55 Bloor W.). If you’re a Sean Penn and Jude Law fan, you can catch them on the red carpet opening for All the King''s Men at Roy Thomson Hall tomorrow night (Sunday, Sept. 10th ) at 9:30pm.

Go on and get your stalk on!

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