TIFF strategically trades champagne for screen time for Canada’s Top Ten movies

TIFF strategically trades champagne for screen time for Canada’s Top Ten movies
The Toronto International Film Festival has announced its annual Canada’s Top Ten list, and as always, the selections are both inclusive and elusive.

Six of the 10 films are directed or co-directed by women. They are ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch, Edge of the Knife, Firecrackers, MOUTHPIECE, Roads in February and What Walaa Wants. The male-directed other four — The Fireflies Are Gone, Giant Little Ones, Freaks and Genesis — have significant roles for women, but in fact all 10 films do, including the documentaries ANTHROPOCENE and What Walaa Wants.

Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky follow up Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark with a sobering meditation on psychedelic potash mines, expansive concrete seawalls, mammoth industrial machines, and other examples of humanity’s massive, destructive reengineering of the planet.

Edge of the Knife, a historical supernatural drama set on B.C.’s Indigenous archipelago of Haida Gwaii, has the unique distinction of being the first feature made entirely in the Haida language, an endangered tongue now spoken by fewer than 20 people.

While Canada’s Top Ten gets high marks for comprehensiveness — there’s also a good mix of young and seasoned directors — the list comes up short for availability of viewings. Even though all but two of the features screened at TIFF 2018 in September, just one of the 10 has to date had a proper theatrical release in Toronto.

That would be ANTHROPOCENE , directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky, which has been playing for weeks at TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival’s headquarters at King and John Sts. This masterful doc, which uses astonishing images to show the damage mankind has wrought upon the Earth, will next month have its international premiere in a special showcase slot at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Moviegoers simply haven’t had much of a chance to see most of the films on Canada’s Top Ten, a list compiled by film programmers and movie critics that TIFF ironically touts as “must-see” cinema. It’s a familiar story for movies in this country, where only a tiny fraction of homegrown fare makes it to theatres from sea to shining sea. Most Canuck films end up on TV, VOD, DVD or remain unseen by the masses.

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Michaela Kurimsky, left, and Karena Evans in Firecrackers, one of TIFF s Canada s Top Ten films for 2018.  (Courtesy of TIFF)

TIFF aims to do something about the situation this year, although it’s an advance disguised as a retreat. TIFF announced last month that it’s retiring Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, an annual January showcase of the year’s most-celebrated features and shorts at TIFF Bell Lightbox. The festival included Q&A sessions with filmmakers and talent at screenings, with each film getting two showings during the fest.

Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival will be replaced by a guaranteed week of screenings at TIFF Bell Lightbox, at various points throughout the year, for each of the features on the Top Ten list. (The shorts will get their own special deal, a winter screening in TIFF’s Short Cuts program.)

This means every one of Canada’s Top Ten features will get roughly three times more viewings at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Canadian premier movie palace, than it would have during Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, had the fest continued. And runs may be extended for the most popular films, said Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and co-head.

Image from Edge of the Knife, one of TIFF s Top Ten features for 2018.  (Courtesy of TIFF)

“It’s still a struggle for Canadian filmmakers to get onto Canadian screens where Canadians can see them,” he said in an interview. “That’s partly why we shifted it this year to offering a theatrical release, for every one of the (Canada’s Top Ten) films. Because they just don’t have a lot of access to that.”

A week’s run at the Lightbox will also significantly increase the likelihood the films will be reviewed by critics, Bailey added, which could also attract more eyeballs. He’s right — it’s easier to do full reviews of individual films than the ones screened en masse at festivals.

Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival had been struggling a bit, which also contributed to its demise. Bailey said attendance had “plateaued” in recent years.

So the Top Ten filmmakers are losing a little champagne — although there was some at Wednesday’s announcement cocktailer — and other hoopla associated with a film festival. But they’re gaining significant screen time, greater access to audiences and increased engagement with critics. On reflection, this seem like a good trade-off.

Arlen Aguayo-Stewart in Roads in February.  (Courtesy of TIFF)

“I think there’s incredible talent coming out of this country, new talent being discovered every year, Bailey said. “I want those films to be seen more widely in Canada and I want them to travel more internationally and I want TIFF to do its bit to make sure that happens.

“There’s really no shortage of talent. It’s the awareness in front of the audience that I think is really what we need to work on.”
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