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CoronaCinema | Insights from Outside the Theater at TIFF 2020

The Big Picture: In an era when the world feels more isolated and oppositional than ever, unification through film feels romantic, and maybe even obvious. With movie theatres seeming like a death trap, film exhibition has been thrown into a spiral. With fall festivals currently underway in socially-distanced and virtual editions, it appears that the survival of cinema will be reliant on adaptation and sacrifice to the “new normal.”

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) felt close enough to the real thing in variety, quality, and presentation of selections, but brought about some interesting digital and distanced caveats.

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The Experience

Luckily for viewers, this year’s digital format was essentially FOMO-proof. By releasing every film at the festival for rental at the price of $19 or $26 depending on the film, TIFF, along with Bell, put the films in the homes of any cinephile in Canada, as well as people who might not usually go to see a festival film.

This came at the cost of a seriously reduced physical presence in the city of Toronto, where typically multiple venues throughout the downtown core will screen films from dawn to dusk. This year, the only indoor venue in use was the TIFF Bell Lightbox, with social distancing measures in place between seats. Outdoor and drive-in screenings were the way to go otherwise, but missing from most of these were appearances from those who were involved in the films.

Rather than risking their health by travelling to Toronto, filmmakers made introduction and Q&A videos beforehand to be viewed on the TIFF Digital Cinema app and before the COVID-adjusted screenings. This means the stars were all at home, rather than visible in Toronto hotel lobbies and coffee shops; the most public-facing and unintentionally cool parts of the festival every year.

The streaming platform itself was adequately designed, considering the short time frame within which TIFF had to adjust to circumstances, as well as the short length of the festival, running just under two weeks. Viewers simply paid for the titles for rental, which would begin a 24-hour viewing window as of the films’ premiere times, which were at 6 pm on any given day. After the viewer presses play, they have 12 hours to finish the film.

This system is extremely confusing when explained, but once I got into the flow of the festival, it made sense and I scheduled around the films accordingly. In my unfortunate case, one of the films I paid into timed out before I could watch it. While this happens sometimes at the regular physical festival, it stung a little more this time just because I could only blame my own schedule, not the festivals.

The Films

This year’s film schedule was a lot lighter than usual, with only 50 feature films and 45 shorts, as opposed to the regular 300-odd film selections. Despite this, the films I managed to see were, for the most part, up to par with the festival’s usual caliber.

Regina King, already an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress in If Beale Street Could Talk, made her directorial debut with One Night in Miami, based on the play of the same name, recounting a fictional encounter between Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X. The film is deeply involving, shedding light on how little change has been made in the fight for the rights of black people in America since the 1960s, with stunning performances from each of the four leads.

In terms of hotly-anticipated awards season contenders, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland shattered the potent early buzz surrounding it, delivering a timely and forward-thinking masterpiece. Frances McDormand leads the cast of mostly non-professional actors as Fern, a modern-day nomad living in her van, breathing life into a character that feels like the embodiment of the unfulfilled American dream. It seems as though this may be the most important release of the season, having taken home the People’s Choice Award, a regular indicator of awards-season prosperity.

Outside of the A-List premieres, impassioned analyses of the modern world were in no short supply. Neorealist films like Nomadland, as well as cinema verité and semi-documentaries, spoke to the state of the world we live in with breathtaking urgency; Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance lays out the past and future of Black Socialism with visionary clarity, illuminating the pride and injustice of historic black freedom fighters through the devised frameworks of the French New Wave. Michel Franco’s New Order begins as a bleak dystopian spin on the end of Parasite (you know which scene I’m talking about) and ends as a nihilistic statement on government oppression more akin to the work of Pier Paulo Pasolini.

Hao Wu and Weixi Chan’s documentary 76 Days shows a first-person account of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic through the eyes of healthcare workers in Wuhan where the virus first began its spread. The film is a harrowing journey through the still very much ongoing pandemic, inspiring deep emotion from the very first moment, as a doctor weeps while being escorted out of the hospital after their father is admitted for COVID. In the Canadian documentary world, Michelle Latimer’s hotly-anticipated adaptation of Indigenous author Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian took the festival by storm, walking away with the top documentary prize. With its exploration of the impact of colonialism on the Indigenous way of life, and in turn, the impact of Indigenous activists and artists on modern Canada, it is an absolutely essential watch for all Canadians.

The Short Cuts selections were exceptional this year by any measure. Toronto filmmakers were put front and centre, with their films symbolically grounding the festival in its usual physical place. Still Processing by Sophy Romvari and Point to Line and Plane by Sofia Bohdanowicz ran in two separate Short Cuts programmes, but feel connected by similar themes and motifs. Both films explore grief through visual media; photographs and art, respectively. Romvari embraces a diaristic documentary style, documenting her unearthing of undeveloped photos of her recently passed siblings, and her honouring their memory through them. Bohdanowicz instead fictionalizes her grief through the acting of regular collaborator, Deragh Campbell, processing the loss of a friend through the art he loved.

Finally, I must mention the thrill of seeing Emma Seligman’s feature debut Shiva Baby, an expansion on her short of the same name. I saw the short last year at TIFF’s Next Wave festival (which I hope continues in some capacity in 2021), and Seligman mentioned in the Q&A afterwards that a feature was being shot. Having looked forward to it since that moment, it was great to see the feature at TIFF, where it feels like a homecoming, as Seligman mentioned in her short intro to the film. The film is hilarious, tense, and extremely relatable for any zoomer who’s been stuck in a room full of boomers (and maybe their sugar daddy who they didn’t know was actually married with a child). Keep an eye out for this, as well as anything Emma Seligman or the film’s lead, Rachel Sennot, are involved in.

The Takeaway

By the end of the festival, I felt just as worn out as I would have if I had actually gone to Toronto. During the time of the festival, I only watched one film outside of the TIFF selections. After watching my last film, I was both sad and thankful that the festival was over. I felt like the duty I had to truly invest my time and attention, in between navigating this crazy world we live in, had been fulfilled.

While the contents provided by TIFF more than adequately delivered a fulfilling experience, the online presence of the festival was palpable. By following reviews and updates on Twitter and Letterboxd, it really felt like there was a lively conversation the same way you would hear people standing around the streets of Toronto talking about films they had seen.

The future of digital film festivals looks strong, with the New York Film Festival still ongoing at the time of writing, in a similar capacity to TIFF. The Vancouver International Film Festival is also currently unfolding online, streaming exclusively in the province of British Columbia, unlike TIFF, which was available across Canada. It is also worth mentioning that niche film programming online is not limited to festivals forced online by circumstance, but can be found on streaming sites like Mubi and Criterion Channel, whose main focus is curating selections of great films based on themes and specific film movements, rather than relying on algorithmic suggestions like Netflix.

Even though the future of film may be virtual, it’s safe to say that the cinema isn’t dead; it’s just rebooting.