As I write this, word continues to pour in from colleagues and other trusted sources that the 65th Venice Film Festival (August 27-September 6) has been plagued by swarms of mosquitoes and bad movies. Meanwhile, here in Canada, where the curtain goes up later today on the 33rd annual Toronto International Film Festival (September 4-13), festival organizers (and attendees) are understandably hoping for a considerably less pestilent affair. Only time will tell.
In the three decades since its inception, Toronto has grown into one of the largest events of its kind in the world, and also one of the most important — at least if we are to speak of how seriously the festival takes itself, and the credulity it is given by Hollywood, which has increasingly viewed Toronto as the first-round bell of the fall movie season, and the start of the long and winding road towards Oscar gold. Toronto is also, as I have noted in past years, many different things to many different people — a split personality perfectly summed up by the hazy, blurred image of I'm-not-sure-exactly-what that serves as the cover art to this year's official festival catalog. For some in the international press corps, the festival functions as a kind of über-junket for the next few months' worth of studio and mini-major releases — a steady diet of screenings and cattle-call interviews after which John Q. Journalist can happily report back to his editor that he scored an enviable, 15-second Brad Pitt soundbite. Meanwhile, for producers, agents and distributors, Toronto is a runway show at which the latest fashions in independently-made motion pictures parade down the catwalk hoping to snag the interest of potential buyers.
Once upon a time, however, Toronto was merely the Festival of Festivals (as it was called for its first 17 years) — a movie lover's paradise that brought together under one roof the very best in international cinema, from the heart of Hollywood to the margins of the avant-garde. This year, in fact, the festival is dedicated to the memory of one of the guiding lights who helped to shape Toronto's sensibility in those early days: the critic and programmer David Overbey, who worked for the festival from its second year until his death in 1998, during which time he played a major role in introducing such directors as Paul Verhoeven, Edward Yang, John Woo and Charles Burnett to North American audiences. Next week, Toronto will pay tribute to Overbey with three retrospective screenings of films that he championed during his festival tenure: British director Terence Davies' magnificent Trilogy (1984); Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta's debut feature, Sam and Me (1990); and Filipino director Lino Brocka's My Own Country (1984), which was the last film from that country to screen in the official competition at Cannes until this past May.
To some extent, Toronto is the same festival now that it was in Overbey's time: among the more than 250 feature-length films that will show here over the next 10 days, one can find high-profile new work by the likes of Spike Lee (Miracle at St. Anna), the Coen Brothers (Burn After Reading) and Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles) screening right alongside the latest from experimental filmmakers James Benning (RR) and Jennifer Reeves (When It Was Blue) and intriguing-sounding offerings from new or relatively unknown filmmakers working as far afield as Serbia, Indonesia and Kazakhstan. And yet, glancing over this year's program — the first overseen by the festival's newly appointed co-director, Cameron Bailey — there are certain errors and omissions that suggest the festival may be catering more to its industry clientele than to the constituency that first put the festival on the map and remains its bread and butter: the audience. Somewhere, I have the feeling, David Overbey is glancing down with a skeptical eye.
Consider, for example, the absence from the Toronto program of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's disorienting thriller The Headless Woman, which this critic was not alone in thinking was one of the best films at Cannes this year. Martel's third feature film is admittedly a divisive affair, but in Cannes even those who didn't care for the movie couldn't seem to stop talking about it. Yet, somehow, Bailey and his team of programmers (including the festival's resident Latin America specialist, Diana Sanchez) didn't deem the movie worthy of inclusion, despite having shown both of Martel's previous features at the festival, and despite finding room in this year's program for 11 other Argentine movies, including Martel's fellow Cannes competitor, the earnest, well-acted and ultimately forgettable women-in-prison drama Lion's Den. Also notably MIA is Night and Day, a typically sui generis outing from South Korean iconoclast Hong Sang-Soo (many of whose seven previous features have played Toronto) that was one of the highlights of this year's Berlin Film Festival; Bullet in the Head, a riveting study in voyeurism from Spanish director Jaime Rosales that will have its North American premiere at next month's New York Film Festival (where, in there interest of full disclosure, both I and The Village Voice's J. Hoberman sit on the selection committee); and Afterschool, a remarkable debut feature by Brazilian-American director Antonio Campos (about the aftermath of the death of two students at an elite, east coast prep school) that is one of the few standout American indies in a year that has seen many foretelling the demise of American indie cinema. Perhaps most disappointing (and surprising) of all is Toronto's snubbing of Melancholia, the latest epic from Filipino director Lav Diaz, whose nine-, 10- and 12-hour epics received their first North American exposure in Toronto, and who is arguably his country's most important filmmaker since Lino Brocka.
Given the chance, I'm sure the Toronto programmers could respond with compelling reasons as to why each and every one of those movies (as well as quite a few others that I don't have time to mention here) didn't make it into the final 250. But to the outside observer, the 2008 Toronto program looks weighted less towards the sort of challenging, boundary-shattering work that can expand an audience's ideas about cinema and more towards starry, distributor-friendly fare like Management, a Jennifer Aniston-Steve Zahn romantic comedy that the festival program notes optimistically liken to Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, and $5 a Day, a Christopher Walken vehicle from director Nigel Cole, whose “excellent past work” (again per the program notes) includes the elder-porn farce Calendar Girls and the elder-pot-smoking romp Saving Grace. All film festivals, of course, need balance in their programs, but as Toronto 2008 gets underway, there is reason to believe that the scales here may be tipping in an unfortunate direction.