The Toronto Film Festival is fundamentally different from any other film festival.
Yes, it is a festival for the presentation of new films and a festival in which stars, audiences and filmmakers gather, as in others. It is a festival that takes place over a few busy days. It is also a festival attended by journalists and photographers to capture events, activities and women's fashion, but the difference is that, despite its large size, it does not care about the presence of juries and therefore there are no official prizes.
Toronto is a festival that is free from most of the traditions that bind most of the big festivals and does not really compete with any other festivals.
In the nineties, its name was “Toronto: Festival of Festivals” because it relied on showing the majority of films taken from other festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Locarno.
Its reliance was not on films that had their world premieres at other festivals. The Canadian festival was born to show Canadians and those who live in Canada what other festivals have done, because viewers there would not be able to see these movies unless the Toronto Festival brings them.
Twenty or so years ago, the situation changed dramatically. Toronto Film Festival still showed imported films, but it was no longer the majority. Still no jury and no awards. What happened was that it no longer accepts to be the “festival of festivals”. It rather wanted it to be a first-grade festival that is on the same rank with the most famous festivals of the European continent. And it has become so.
What it did is that it began to play a new role as a key to the diverse films that the world market would witness.
Specifically, in this context, it showed what would be offered in the US market. Being held at the beginning of the second week of September meant that it could be the key to the coming months and the place where foreign films gather in search of opportunities to distribute productions in the United States and Canada, and an opportunity for US films themselves to test the strength of the market they will enter after their world premieres in that date.
The Toronto Film Festival has succeeded in playing this role. It is true that it is not a festival that mobilizes cinema with artistic values as done in Venice, Locarno, Berlin, Cannes and others, but it does show artistic films anyway.
What it stresses and builds on is a success that no other festival can reach, the number of attendees reaching about 500,000 viewers waiting for its sessions from year to year.
The equation is easy when you look at it from the angle of what films the Toronto Film Festival is showing this year and how it has planned to be a major player for many parties.
For example, Florian Zeller's "The Son" and Andrew Dominic's "Blond" were shown at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival, but they are also shown at the Toronto Film Festival because the big difference between their Italian and Canadian showings lies in an important issue: the screenings of the two films, and others that have moved then to the Toronto Film Festival (about 16 films) were directed at an audience who loves art in cinema, looking for new, big or famous directors. Their performances in Toronto are a test of their commercial success when they begin American showings.
About this, Toronto can be described as the most important pre-test of the commercial value of films as it deals directly with the wide audience for which the largest proportion of films are produced today.
An Ambitious Girl
So, this is a Toronto that collapsed like most of the other festivals during the coronavirus crisis, and is back today even stronger than it was. This enforced absence and this return have an important economic story that reveals much of what film festivals are going through in terms and decisions that only specialists follow.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Canadian festival to rescind its role and drastically reduce its activities. In 2020, the festival screened only about 60 films.
This was less than a quarter of what it was showing before the outbreak of the pandemic, when the number of films shown was no less than 250 films.
Accordingly, the festival met, according to its announced numbers, 5 million people who rejoiced on the screens of digital or virtual platforms — a number that no other festival has ever reached.
In 2021, Toronto did not want to establish its status as a virtual festival, so it reduced its activities in this direction and contented itself with showing only 24 films.
This year, the festival has completely emerged from the crises. There are 200 films on offer, many of which are new and important on one level or another.
A total of 200 films belong to almost the same number of directors who want to leave an imprint, whether artistic or commercial, or artistic and commercial together.
The festival kicked off its screenings with a series of worthy, if not powerful, films. One of them is the movie by US actress Sanaa Lathan, after she moved from front of the camera to behind it for the first time in the movie titled “On the Come Up.” The film depicts the experience of a sixteen-year-old girl (well played by Jamila C. Gray).
Lathan is good at drawing the situation and knows what she wants to do, but the film's flaw is that it tends to have melodramatic, sympathetic scenes. This involves the protagonist of the story going through emotional lows before realizing that failure is a step on the road to success.
The difficulties are part of the British-Egyptian film Sally Al-Husseini’s “The Swimmers,” which she provided for the Toronto Film Festival, although she was asked to screen it in European festivals.
The young director has found enough funding from Netflix to present a touching tale about two Syrian sisters: Manal and Natalie Issa.
The director sets out to explain the two sisters' relationship with the sea, as they are - at their young age - skilled swimmers, just as their father Ali Suleiman who taught them the art of swimming.
If war breaks out, they realize that the future in Syria is no longer secure and that if they want a better life, they must reach Berlin.
The journey, with their relative Nizar (Ahmed Malik), sets out by sea from Syria to Turkey, from there to Hungary, and from Hungary to Germany, but it is not an easy journey like writing or reading these words.
I found this film better, richer and truer than a similar film about immigration taking place in an atmosphere of repression and smuggling gangs. It is "Flee" by the Dane Jonas Rassmosen about the Afghan who fled his country and arrived in Denmark after great suffering.
The difference, or one of the many differences, is that the two champions of “The Swimmers" have a higher ambition than just emigration: to reach the Olympics to participate in the swimming race.
The director's ability is outstanding in adapting the image to tell poetry within a tale that she pursues with steadfastness and original aesthetics. Maybe there are minutes that could have been cut out. The movie is two and a quarter hours, but it's not too many.
History and Music
The Afghan issue is not absent from festivals these days. In Her Hands is a new documentary film by directors Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mittelseven. It is about women in Afghanistan 16 months before the American withdrawal from the country and Taliban’s takeover. It doesn’t mean to say that women enjoyed much freedom under the previous rule, but that Taliban’s takeover has put an end to the short journey women enjoyed. This is represented by one woman Zarifa Ghafari, who is trying to learn about the world beyond borders. Her main achievement was that she became a governor in 2018.
Apart from this daunting subject, there are two historical films that are worth returning to, as in previous films, when they are commercially distributed.
The first is "The Lost King" by British director Stephen Frears.
Actress Sally Hawkins stars as a woman who loves historical research and one day discovers the remains of King Richard III. The most difficult thing in the film is the link between these events that occur in our time and those scenes that take place in the era of King Richard III.
The researcher imagines the warrior king from time to time, and we see these fantasies moving from the present to the past and from reality to something of a fantasy. But this difficulty fades under Frears’ wise management.
The second film is "Chevalier," directed by Stephen Williams, starring Calvin Harrison Jr. and Samara Weaving. This film opens a forgotten and realistic page about composer Joseph Bologne , who is the illegitimate son of an African mother and a French father.
The events take place in the 18th century (Bologne nicknamed Chevalier, died in 1799). In fact, the film opens more than a page, moving between Boulogne's humble beginnings and his end, which included confrontations between him and Queen Antoinette.
One of the film's most important parts is the one that falls between him and Mozart when he challenges the unknown musician Mozart in a joint musical performance. Mozart did not want to share the stage with an unknown player, which leads to an exchange of sharp criticism.
Despite a presentation style that imposes its vision of what happened, "Chevalier" remains a new work in its subject and a good one under the experience of its director, Williams.
In the spirit of music, and with African-American actors, director Tyler Perry presented his new film, “A Jazzman.”
Tyler Perry is not one of the directors that movie buffs have been waiting for. He is one of those who sailed into comedy cinema two decades ago and achieved notable commercial successes despite the naivety of most of them. But here he is not only dusting off his old text, but also himself as he presents his first serious film.
“Sorrows of a Jazz Player” is not an opening in style. It is basically a love story between a black man and a black girl with white skin (they call this type a “trick” baby). The events take place in the thirties. Young Bayou is well played by Joshua Boone who meets a jazz singer named Liane (Sole Pfieffer) and they meet frequently to teach him to read and write. The film does not follow the lessons, but rather deals with the seeds of love that arose between them.
Unfortunately, Bayou had to leave the town alone. He wrote to her repeatedly and she did not respond to his messages, although they agreed to marry. Later (and the film opens in 1987 and returns to it at the end), he has only the sorrows of unfulfilled love.