Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

The 41st Toronto International Film Festival

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

The 41st Toronto International Film Festival

Article excerpt

September 8-18, 2016

The closest subway station to the heart of the Toronto International Film Festival is St. Andrew, at the intersection of King Street and University Avenue. The station is named for the nearby historic Presbyterian church, which for 11 days in September each year is very much eclipsed by TIFF as a site of worship. As with many other communal rituals, regular daily operations are suspended and transformed during the festival. One of the most prominent - and, for non festival-goers, disruptive - changes is that King Street itself, a key east-west thoroughfare, is closed to traffic for several blocks during TIFF's opening weekend, and filled with unfamiliar sights and activities.

People from around the world take part in the annual pilgrimage to TIFF. They agonize over which specific films to watch and then agonize again as they try to get tickets to those films, or to take their chances in a rush line. They form bonds with fellow pilgrims also standing in lines, also excited about movies. They help create new rituals in the theatres, beyond watching the films themselves. Before each movie a few brief notices and advertisements appear, and within days of the festival's start audiences have developed liturgical responses to them. During a Royal Bank commercial about funding movie ideas, we see a screenplay being typed out - and people shout the lines just before they appear. At the end of a reminder/request to turn off electronic devices, everyone says "Aaaarrgggh" in a kind of low grumble, reminiscent of the sound played over Joss Whedon's "Mutant Enemy" logo.

Another ritual is of course the pursuit of heavily sought after icons, Hollywood celebrities, who show up to red carpet galas and hundreds and hundreds of fans. Icons also appear in one of the other short videos that played before each screening. This 18second ad encouraged audience members to cast their vote for the Grolsch People's Choice Award by pointing to the hallowed history of film.1 The narrative simply involves a young man walking up to a vending machine and making a selection from a host of holy film relics. These items include ruby slippers (The Wizard of Oz); a cup of ominously vibrating water (Jurassic Park); mirrored sunglasses (Cool Hand Luke); an old clock radio turning over to 6:00 (Groundhog Day); a red stapler (Office Space); pink soap (Fight Club); a hand-imprinted volleyball (Castaway); and, of course, a showerhead (Psycho).

At the screening of Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch's documentary on Iggy and the Stooges, TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers made the film/religion link explicit when he said that, if there were a shrine to independent filmmakers, Jarmusch would have a place of honor there with the largest votive candle. Iggy Pop, who was also on hand to help promote the film, concurred. He said further that Jarmusch is great because he understands that what is sacred in both film and in music is to follow your own vision, to never let someone else tell you what to do in order to make more money. This point echoes a famous Iggy quote, which appears at the very end of Gimme Danger: "Music is life, and life is not a business."

During TIFF, for an enormous number of people, film also is life. These are people who simply love movies. In fact, it is largely due to the breadth and depth of this passion in Toronto audiences that the festival has become what it is today. TIFF initially appeared on the scene in 1976 as the Festival of Festivals, showing movies selected from other festivals. That first year, an estimated 35,000 people saw 127 films from 30 countries. TIFF now draws close to half a million people a year, showing almost 400 films from over 70 countries at more than two dozen theatres in Toronto. And then of course there are the 3200 orangeclad and incredibly helpful volunteers. TIFF is now considered by just about every commentator to be, with Cannes, one of the two most important film festivals in the world. …

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