Reeling Them In

By Jason Sahlani

Once the paparazzi flash bulbs have stopped popping, the stars have retreated to their villas and the local economy has absorbed the estimated $67 million generated by the celebrity filled juggernaut of popular film that is the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the city remains a bastion for film and the festivals dedicated to screening them.

The size and reputation of the TIFF means that the other festivals in town take a break come September. Like a harbour clearing itself of traffic when an ocean liner ports, the other festivals in Toronto give the TIFF a wide berth. However, left in the 11 month wake of the world renowned event is a culture thirsty for original and dynamic films and a festival scene eager to quench that thirst.

“The TIFF nurtures audiences, expanding film’s fan base throughout the city. The evidence of this is the 70 or so festivals that run in Toronto annually that have very diverse subjects, themes and political angles,” says the Toronto-born programmer of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Hussain Currimbhoy. “If people want to know, if they need to know, about other perspectives, then festivals can flourish. That’s what festivals need, well, that and funding.”

To secure the funding, public interest, and community support they desperately need, festivals strive to cultivate a place within a niche area of interest. It didn’t take long for the founder and executive director of Toronto Singaporean Film Festival (TSFF), Yeow-Tong Chia, to realize that survival meant reliance on the community found within his particular niche. “We’ve been around for three years and one of the first things you learn is you can’t do it alone. You need sponsors and funding, but you also need help from people who share the same ideas and interests as you from all over the country and all over the world,” says Chia. “That’s what makes Toronto special, that it’s the most diverse city in the world.

So that uniqueness has a chance to be represented by different festivals, each one able to express ideas or interests of that group that may not be heard.” Like the TSFF, many of Toronto’s festivals deal with the issues of one specific group as defined by a cultural, religious or national identity. But festivals in the Big Smoke come in all shapes and sizes, covering an ever expanding range of subjects.

For 15 years, organizers of the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival have done their best to bring discussions of mental illness and addiction out of the doctor’s office and into the mainstream. Festival Director, Lisa Brown, learned long ago that working within a niche in a city teeming with festivals creates a symbiotic relationship: the community helps keep the festival alive, and in turn, the festival helps to generate discussions and build awareness of an issue throughout the general public.

“When we started no one was really talking about mental health issues,” Brown says from her posterstrewn basement office at the foot of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “It was one of those topics where there was this image of a man ranting at the sky at Yonge and Bloor as being indicative of mental illness. But out of our population, one in five will have a mental illness and one in four will have a mental illness and an addiction. Two-thirds of that population will never seek treatment or help because of the stigma attached.”

Brown explains that Rendezvous not only screens films that address mental health issues, but also gathers together panels for post-screening discussions where audience members are encouraged to engage with panel members and reevaluate pre-established conceptions of mental health. “People can sit in a dark space and watch these films, and they might be able to identify with the issues,”  Brown says. “But they don’t have to be in the spotlight about it. They can just be a regular film goer and experience all that the film and the conversations that follow have to offer.” Currimbhoy says the dynamic that can evolve during a festival screening is something singular to the festival scene. “The best part about a film festival is the audience. Having an audience to share a film with makes you talk about it afterwards with people you know or, hopefully, people you don’t,” he says. “It keeps the debate running, it keeps art running and it proves that we are not all just puppets.”

Currimbhoy fondly describes the experience of a festival flick screening as one of those rare moments when people voluntarily surrender their individuality in order to enjoy a shared experience as one single group. He says it’s a “reciprocal expression of passion” that fosters this unique environment. The Executive Director of the Images Festival, Scott Miller Berry, couldn’t agree more. “People can download the latest movie, or whatever, and watch it at home. But we’re a festival. We bring people together to share an experience in a cinema.”

When the Images Festival began in 1988, the only other festival in town was the TIFF. And while the TIFF has become a world-renowned populist festival, Images has endeavoured to celebrate the world of experimental film and video he art, acting as a conduit for independent artists to grasp at audiences otherwise out of reach.

As director of the largest exhibition platform of contemporary media art in North America, Berry knows the important role festivals play in the filmmaker audience dynamic, and has seen first hand how valuable festival exposure can be for artists.

“We only screen films where ownership rights are retained by the artist. When people have other outlets, like a BBC deal or TVO deal or Bravo, that’s great, but we’re about providing an outlet for people who don’t have those opportunities,” Berry says.

Apart from helping independent filmmakers carve paths in the industry, festivals are one of the few arenas where politically-charged films can find exposure. The 2007 TSFF screened a short documentary detailing the 17 years of self-imposed exile from his homeland by Singaporean journalist Said Zahari. Banned in Singapore for giving viewers a glimpse into the life of a political dissident, Zahari’s 17 Years was a film Chia believed had to be shown.

“We really wanted to screen the film, not because it was banned per se, but because of its message,” explains Chia. “There is also the mutual benefit of publicity for both the film and the festival. Politically-charged films always generate interest among people and will get more people to come to see other films.”

Independent filmmaker Steven Hoffner explains, that getting audiences to show up at screenings is just as important for the survival of the filmmaker as it is for the festival.

“Essentially as an artist you always want stuff screened to showcase your work,” says Hoffner. “And from a career standpoint, showing at festivals is your best option for getting yourself on the map.”

After directing two features while in school (Wooditis: An American Gothic and The Most Beautiful Thing), the Toronto native knows that before you candirect “big budget features or television stuff,” you need to have a reputation inthe industry. A great screening at a festival can act as a catapult for up-and-comingfilmmakers, helping them breach the divide between obscurity and fame.

Screening at a festival can be so helpful to a career that Hoffner admits he now takes into consideration the popularity of a film’s genre in the festival scene when planning upcoming projects. “I’d like to make a comedy. One, because I have a comedic background personally and two, you can sell a comedy better.”

Money – or the lack of it – is the one thread binding together more than a few of Toronto’s festivals. Many rely on governmental agencies, but with so many festivals running annually there isn’t always enough government cheese to go around.

“Something like 18 cents of every dollar paid in taxes goes towards arts and culture, and while that’s something, it’s really nothing more than a drop in the bucket,” explains Berry.

Both Berry and Brown are crystal clear when explaining the role government funding plays in Toronto’s film festival scene. “We looked at a number of festivals and found that the most that was raised from box office sales was 23 per cent of the overall budget; the rest had to be raised either through writing grants, memberships or donations,” says Brown in a cold-hard-facts tone. “Even the major art institutions like the AGO need governmental funding. I really don’t know who can survive without it.”

Echoing Brown’s tone Berry says: “We get funding from all three levels of government but if just one of the sources disappeared we’d have to cut back somewhere. To not be so tied to funding that is not guaranteed [all government assistance must be applied for] we’d need to have more private funding, but we’re not the easiest sell.”

The situation facing many, if not most, of Toronto’s film festivals is summed up by Currimbhoy. “If governmental funding were to disappear then so would most of the city’s festivals,” laments Currimbhoy. “But the number of festivals currently running says to me that it’ll take more than that to kill the film scene in Toronto. That’s the thing about film festivals, it turns otherwise normal, law-abiding citizens into film junkies.”


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