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Enjoying the show

A Toronto Film Festival virgin delights in fine art, big stars and intimate conversation.

Alan Miller

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My first experience of the Toronto film festival started when someone who looked remarkably like Francis Ford Coppola spilled his drink over me on the flight up from New York. Aha, I smiled as he swore and apologised, this is a far cry from struggling filmmakers’ workshops in London.

Another Coppola, Sofia, premiered her funny and poignant second film Lost In Translation. Bill Murray is magnificent, his timing impeccable and facial expressions hilarious – and there is a realism to the spaces that occur between things. The space in between things is also what Jim Jarmusch claimed he always tried to represent. Jarmusch, speaking in the Maverick Film Makers session organised by the Rogers Industry Centre, was promoting his new film Coffee and Cigarettes.

The Toronto Film Festival has all the big players there, but it still maintains a sense of intimacy. When standing in the ‘rush lines’ (which are anything but) you are sure to meet writers and directors with films at the festival. The atmosphere is one of excited cinephiles – on every street you overhear people talking about films, themes, arguments and actors.

Toronto is getting on its feet again, after the impact of 9/11, and then SARS. Many I spoke to had experienced the impact of SARS – the panic hit people far harder in jobs and pay than the disease ever did.

Of the 336 films that are on show, some will never get significant distribution – but all the execs are here, darting from one film to the next. Documentaries this year have a special interest after the financial successes of Bowling for Columbine, Spellbound and Capturing The Friedmans. It is quite funny when the head exec from Twentieth Century Fox is attending a screening of The Story of the Weeping Camel (Die Geschichte vom Weinenden Kamel), a graduation film by Munich students about a family of nomadic shepherds in the Gobi Desert.

More people are using the blending of reality, drama and documentary to tell their stories. Ron Mann’s Go Further features an evangelical Woody Harrelson on a cycling road trip to raise consciousness against drinking milk and eating chocolate and meat. The Simple Organic Living Tour is excruciatingly banal and juvenile, lightened only by the silly antics of his friend Joe.

Continuing the theme of evil corporations running amok in the world, Joel Bakan’s book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Power and Profit has been used to make three one-hour-long films and one theatrical film dealing with, well, the pathology of corporations.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Robert Altman, the master of ensemble and sound was here to present The Company, an in-depth look at the day-to-day work of a ballet company, featuring Malcolm McDowell and Neve Campbell. I could not resist seeing the brilliant Nashville again. In fact, Altman delivered my favourite quote of the festival. When actors ask him how he thinks they could do a section, he calls to one of his crew: ‘Get this guy some new boots.’

Meanwhile, the great John Sayles has turned his attention to the issue of adoption. Casa de los Babys tells the story of six American women who travel around Latin America, desperate to find a child. It is dealt with intelligently, not wanting to fit into easy platitudes. The IFC (Independent Film Channel) produced this, and it is another testament to its eclectic and stimulating repertoire.

My favourite world cinema film was Io Non Ho Paura (I’m Not Scared) directed by the renowned Gabriele Salvatores with beautiful photography by Italo Petriccione. And what a buzz when I went to the wrong screening only to see (Sir) Anthony Hopkins as he arrived for the screening of The Human Stain with Nicole Kidman. Robert Benton has presented this Philip Roth story with delicacy and sophistication.

If there was a clanger to avoid, I did not see it, but Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny is a US Indie road movie that nobody seemed to have a good word to say about. Where else in the world would you get the box office attendant telling you: ‘It is the worst film I have ever seen’? (Although buying a pass from abroad did make me think that this was one of the worst box offices I had ever encountered….)

While Cannes has the red carpet and Venice the beautiful surroundings, I was completely smitten with Toronto. Whether one was on a mission to raise money, meet some of the giants of film or simply bask in a range of beautiful screenings from all over the world, Toronto gets a definite two thumbs up.

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