From The Archives: Toronto '04

Every year there are hundreds of film festivals, but four stand out above the others: Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. These are the ones that make headlines above and beyond the cities they’re in and while New York has some great stuff and Telluride is cozy, the big four make headlines throughout the world.

Toronto, the jewel of Canada, is last of the big four. There are literally hundreds of films being screened during the ten days of the festival and except for a few local critics who’ve been viewing a couple entries a day for months, it’s impossible to see anywhere near anything.

So, if you’re lucky enough to live in NY or LA, you can get to see maybe five or 10 before you leave home. What I do is leave a couple of days early and have dinner with my friend Kevin and his wife Lucy before taking in a few of the advanced screenings.

The last of the advanced screenings are at the National Film Board screening room down by where the local TV/Radio conglomerate is having it’s annual party for the festival, and as usual, I’m not invited. But then I’m not going to any of the parties this year. There’s nothing but movies, movies and more movies. It’s either one or the other. You can’t do both.

So I head south from my ratty hotel on Church and Dundas Streets (right next to the subway), and head over to the venue. It’s my fifth year and doing this is like putting on an old glove, except that I stay at a different hotel every year.

So with that "same as it ever was" attitude I bring with me I try to find where the entrance to the venue is this year. For some reason they’ve closed the regular entrance, and after a bit of looking, I find a sign. So far, so good.

Then, at last, we get in our seats and look around for familiar faces. There’s a few and we greet each other and promise to gossip when the first film is over…

Our first flick of the festival is Hari Om -- an Indian story of a girl left behind (Camille Natta) and her meeting the eponymous rickshaw driver (Vijay Raaz), who happens to be on the run. So she decides to follow her boyfriend (Jean Marie Lamour) to the next stop on the train and somehow, our hero finds our heroine at the side of the road [the bus had a flat of course], the two of them take the rickshaw [a motorcycle kind of thing, not a seat with wheels powered by a guy running] and go across India where they meet several interesting people and sort of fall in love before our hero has to start a worker's rebellion and the boyfriend.

It’s actually not that bad…

Our second selection is Forest for the Trees which is a sad tale of a relatively nice person (Eva Löbow) who’s looking to start her life over. Unfortunately, she makes a botch of it and spends her life lonelier than ever. It’s depressing as hell, but Löbow is a brilliant actress and is cute as a button and is terrific as the protagonist. I'm not sure if it's worth the bucks, and I don't think it's going to come to the arthouse anytime soon, so don't sweat it.

Our third selection for the day is an exercise in Weirdness for Weirdness' sake. Innocence is about a bizarre prison/ballet school for a select group of little girls who enter the place in a coffin and are told weird stories about kids who try to escape and are turned into old hags who must serve the girls forever and the like. The whole thing is very strange and not very effecting, and the ending is particularly disappointing...we were hoping for more murders....bummer.

The discovery of the day is that the day passes don't work until 9:30 which makes them almost useless, me having to get to at least half a dozen places in the early morning...%^&*

So the next day, we head up to the Transit authority to figure out what to do with the extra day pass, we argue and a compromise is reached. That being done we head south to the NFB and see what’s apparently the only film of the day:

One of the themes this year is the Rwandan genocide of 1994. There are a number of films on the subject and the first I've seen is Shake Hands with the Devil which is about Canadian General Roméo Dallier, who was the head of the UN peacekeepers in that godforsaken place when the lord forsook it a decade ago.

He returned for a conference and the filmmaker Peter Raymont decided to tag along, and the results are both infuriating and heartbreaking. One tends to wonder if the wanton murder of between 800,000 and a million people killed mostly with machetes could have been prevented, and if Dallier could have done more in that direction. But the simple fact is that while it probably could have and he couldn't.

There was plenty of blame to go around, could the French told the perpetrators to not go there? Should the UN have gone to war when there were two thousand UN troops briefly there to get foreign nationals out? One could go on for months on this topic.

But the simple fact is nobody did a damn thing and then nobody did anything after that. What did happen is that Dallaier was kicking himself about it ever since.

This film is especially important when we see what's going on in Darfur, Sudan.

The reason nobody did anything was simple, by the way. Look at how Bush was treated over other words the world would go nuts blaming the rescuers and nobody wants that.…

Finally, we head up to the press office and get our credentials. There were problems over the summer as none of the hotels in the area wanted to deal with the press and refused to house the thing, so they had to rent an office in the Cumberland Mall, which turned out to be extremely convenient. They had wireless internet, and the underground tunnels made life much easier for me and all involved.

I always knew that there were tunnels underneath Bloor Street, where the main venue for press screenings were, but I’ve never had to actually use them before. This year is different. One just gets off the subway and then goes through a series of tunnels and violá, you’re there, and you don’t have to dodge traffic. This would be routine for most of the next eight days.

The routine was for the most part the same. Five to seven screenings a day, one party and one of the panels, actually an interview with Terry Gilliam that was called misleadingly called a master class, but more on that later.

The venues were primarily at the Varsity multiplex, which for hundreds of us critics was our home away from home. There are seven large screening rooms and three smaller ones, which made traveling between them rather easy…that is unless one discovered that you had to go over to the Cumberland Theater about four blocks away, then you could either dodge traffic or use the tunnels to wind up across the street and run like hell, something I did rather frequently during my time up there.

But Toronto is famous for scheduling conflicts, and this year was no exception, as one friend told me "You don’t see what you want to in Toronto, you see what you can."

The way to deal with conflicts is to find out where the public screenings are and if it’s possible to get on the "rush line." I tried that three times and managed to get in twice.

For the public screenings, getting there’s a bit trickier. There’s the Ryerson Theater at the college of the same name about a half a mile from the Variety multiplex. When I was there, they had a false alarm and we had to wait out in the courtyard for almost a half hour. Nothing like that happened at the Paramount Googleplex, which was across the street from the NFB office and has some really good seats. Finally, there’s the Famous Players screening room, which is next door to the Cumberland inside a dank basement.

Thus was the routine for the great Sitzfleich marathon, my personal best from last year is five: will I manage to break the record?

We wake up sometime around a quarter of seven and do the normal morning ablutions, then we take the subway up to Bloor Street where we head to one of the local cafes (either Starbucks, Timothy's or some other trendoid place) before heading over to the Variety multiplex in where one takes one's seat for the first screening of the day, which is about 8:30 AM, which is usually too early to go to the movies but this is Toronto…

…So we managed to get a total of 45 films in all told and a personal best of seven in one day. The films ranged from animated cartoons for children [Shark Tale] to hard core gay porn [the Raspberry Reich].

I’m stoked for next year.