Bad Times At TIFF

The world’s biggest film festival had crime! Violence! Psychological warfare! And that just my week.

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

2019 marked my tenth time covering the Toronto International Film Festival. Most of my interviews in this paper come from there: Ralph Fiennes, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt aren’t just sitting around waiting for me to call them, ya know. TIFF is a 10-day marathon of movies, interviews, the odd party and constant hope I’ll somehow find five continuous hours to get some sleep. It’s usually a pretty good time with a few inevitable annoying surprises.

Not so much this year. You would think given my decade of experience I’d be ready for anything, but nothing can prepare anyone for the sight of a massive crack around their AirBnB’s door handle late at night. Yup — somebody had kicked the flimsy door open, trashed the place, stolen my computer and, to add insult to injury, urinated on the toilet.

This happened to me on the eve of Day One of TIFF. I got two hours of sleep at the only moderately priced hotel I could find at four in the morning (it still wasn’t cheap) and wasted half a day trying to find another AirBnB for the remaining nine days in an over-booked city during maybe the biggest event of the year.

Sure, it sounds like something one shouldn’t blame the festival for, but I see it as a symptom. Covering TIFF has become expensive — hotels jack up their prices so much that AirBnBs are the only option left, and you don’t know what you’re going to get. Worse, a growing number of the journalists covering the festival have to get themselves to Toronto, because their outlets are unable or unwilling to cover their travel.

I’ve made an annual vacation of it, but the robbery and other ignominies I’ll detail in the next few paragraphs have soured the TIFF experience for me.

Tell Me About Round Tables

While Planet S has some pull, it’s very unlikely studios will give me a full hour to talk to Meryl Streep about whatever the heck she’s promoting (this year, the very preachy The Laundromat). This often forces me to participate in round tables in which four to five other journalists pepper the star du jour with stupid questions and talk over each other to an embarrassing degree. It gets bloody.

If you’re lucky, you get to share the table with friendly colleagues whose cunning contributes to the conversation. But most of the time you end up dealing with unprepared reporters whose every query starts with “tell me about…” (ever heard of the five Ws?). Then there are those who waste valuable time asking about information readily available on the Internet: “How did you get started?”, “what attracted you to the material?”, “how was working with so-and-so?” I mean, come on.

Somehow, the red carpet is worse. Last TIFF I stood next to a TV journalist whose go-to-question was “what do you do in the fall?”

I have witnessed reporters ask Olivier Assayas if he had a twin, David Lowery about believing in ghosts and Antonio Banderas about how he portrays “feelings” (um, by acting?). But none of that prepared me for the Harry Potter experience.

Harry Potter And The Table Of Dimwits

It has been eight years since the last Harry Potter movie. Since then, Daniel Radcliffe has done over a dozen movies and TV shows, including Guns Akimbo, one of the main attractions of TIFF’s Midnight Madness program this year. A video game-inspired actioner reminiscent of The Running Man, Guns Akimbo is a genre flick through-and-through starring Radcliffe and up-and-comer Samara Weaving (The Babysitter).

The round table hadn’t even started when four “journalists” started bombarding Daniel with Harry Potter queries. The questions weren’t even clever: “What spell would you like to use in real life?” “Are you still friends with Ron and Hermione?” “Would you do another Potter movie?” Radcliffe was extremely gracious and answered to the best of his abilities. It was clear it wasn’t his first rodeo. Samara was being thoroughly ignored.

By the fourth or fifth Potter Q, I couldn’t take it anymore: “I actually have a question about the movie…”

Radcliffe was receptive and the conversation changed gears, to the chagrin of the Hufflepuffs in front of me. Towards the end, as I congratulated Samara Weaving for Ready or Not, Daniel was mobbed by the alleged journalists asking for selfies. One of them pulled a wand — A WAND — for Radcliffe to sign.

I approached Daniel after he finished signing and posing for the journos to thank him for his time. He shook my hand, grabbed my right shoulder and said “thanks for keeping us on track”. Good dude, Daniel Radcliffe.

Coda: one of the fans masquerading as reporters came to me and complained, “you shouldn’t be so aggressive”. Of all the things I could’ve said, I went with “sure”. I couldn’t be bothered.

What Do You Mean There’s No Closing Ceremony?

This TIFF was the first in 25 years without CEO Piers Handling. Under co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente, the festival is taking a more star-centric approach: buzzy titles (Joker, Jojo Rabbit, Ford v. Ferrari, Knives Out) take precedence over discoveries, and tribute awards to the likes of Meryl Streep and Joaquin Phoenix are now “a thing”.

There’s no good reason for the godawful The Sky Is Pink to be on the fest sched beyond having Priyanka Chopra walk the red carpet.

What got axed to make room for the star-schmoozing? Oh, nothing big, just the AWARDS CEREMONY. Granted, by the last day of the festival most of the journalists and filmmakers are gone, but the event provides the sense of an ending and certainly beats a press release with the year’s winners. It also gives those attending a chance to say goodbye.

Given that film and media are industries in permanent flux, you never know if you’ll be back again.

All in all, not a banner year. Now I just need to decide if it was my last.


The Best of TIFF

I don’t know if this year’s Toronto International Film Festival’s films were a fair trade for my skyrocketing ibuprofen bills, but some of them were a nice distraction from my multifarious woes. Here are my best of the fest. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

THE PLATFORM Class warfare and the bullshit of trickle-down economics distilled into one effective sci-fi/horror flick in the vein of The Cube. We’ll get to see it on Netflix. There’s a lengthy interview with the director ready for when that happens.

PARASITE Again, the bottom of the social barrel strikes back. Director Bong Joon-Ho is getting even better at cross-pollinating genres to deliver searing social critiques.

THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY This thriller set in the art world doubles as a satire in which dealers, critics and artists get a well-deserved whooping. Extra points for casting Mick Jagger as the devil…ish billionaire who prompts the action.

PAIN AND GLORY A never-better Antonio Banderas portrays his mentor, Pedro Almodóvar, in a semi-autobiographic story of getting over writer’s block when your body is broken.

JOJO RABBIT Critics got it wrong. Jojo Rabbit is a delightful takedown of fascism by the way of empathy. Also, the comedy lands. Ballsy effort by the ever-brilliant Taika Waititi.

THE PAINTED BIRD Imagine three hours of humanity at its worst: an impoverished Jewish kid is so mistreated by superstitious, horrid Polish farmers that one starts thinking he’ll have it better with the Nazis. He doesn’t. Traumatizing.

THE SOUND OF METAL Riz Ahmed is a metal drummer who loses his hearing and doesn’t cope well. Not to get too technical, but the sound design is something to behold (behear?).

WEATHERING WITH YOU If you liked Your Name, you’ll love this tale of sunshine girls, runaway kids and Tokyo’s sex trafficking underbelly. It all comes together, I promise.

THE TWO POPES A potentially stale subject becomes a dynamic essay about the Church’s role in modern times, thanks to the visual inventiveness of director Fernando Meirelles and a delightful turn by Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis.

KNIVES OUT While I’m less enthusiastic than others about Rian Johnson’s film (unlike with the masterpiece, The Last Jedi), Knives Out is a perfectly amiable homage to Agatha Christie. Just don’t expect anything life changing.