It begins around the middle of August, with advertisements in bus shelters and streetcars plastered with logos. September comes, and virtually every store on Bloor Street between Yonge Street and Avenue Road has a movie theme in their window. Mannequins are wrapped in film strips, old televisions play DVDs, and signs welcome attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival. Most of these stores have no direct affiliation with the TIFF, other than being in the neighbourhood where several of the screenings take place. For 10 days though, it would seem, everyone wants to be a part of the city’s (arguably) largest and most important annual cultural event.
Toronto has come a long way in the past 30 years. For decades, it was known as ‘Toronto the Good’, a town of teetotalers and conservatives. Then something changed. The rest of the film world began to notice how hungry Torontonians were for films. And Torontonians were a discerning lot; a movie could be made or broken by the judgment of a TIFF audience. By the 1990’s, TIFF was a premiere festival and it brought the world to the city.
Today, the film festival stretches the length of downtown. Several bars stay open until four in the morning to accommodate festival patrons, and most of the downtown movie theatres are taken over by festival films. Almost all media outlets devote themselves to TIFF coverage not only during the festival, but for weeks before and after. All eyes of the city are turned to the festival, while the city brands itself through the festival as host to one and all. A patron from out of town arrives in the city that encompasses the world. The city becomes an extension of the festival: it is international, offering its citizenry, shops and restaurants to its service.
For 10 days, the city seems to exist in festival time. Stepping inside the bubble of downtown, life runs along a schedule of quarter hours. Time is allocated into travel distances between theatres and necessities for food consumption. Spaces become a series of queues, darkened rooms with flickering lights, or darkened rooms with (hopefully) open bars.
But there are two separations of festival space and time in the city. The first is the world of Hollywood celebrities. A determined band of fans that wait outside hotels for the briefest glimpse of their favourite stars and wait for hours on the red carpet outside the gala theatres for a photo opportunity or an autograph.
Then there is the festival of the film lover. The cinephile will spend hours pouring over ‘The Book’ (as the TIFF program guide is called), searching for the buried treasure of films by undiscovered directors that might never be seen in North America again. These fans, who take their vacations to coincide with TIFF, are willing to wait hours in line, and chat with strangers about films seen and to be seen.
It seems the rest of the city can wait. Toronto serves the festival as it welcomes the international community and accommodates its citizens in their film adventures. In a city where more than 100 languages are spoken, TIFF (featuring films in dozens of those languages) brings the city together as perhaps no other event can.
TIFF has begun screenings films for free at Yonge-Dundas Square, a major public downtown meeting place. While most of the attention might fall on the movie stars, TIFF is going back to its roots. The festival that stops the city for 10 days makes space for the city to stop and enjoy part of what it has created.
This piece is also published at Little White Lies