10 AM Wednesday September 7. I write an entertainment column in The Globe and Mail, and I’m the president of the Toronto Film Critics Association (TFCA). A happy advantage we Toronto critics share is that by the time TIFF officially begins, we’ve been screening films for two weeks. So as I bound into the Varsity theatre this morning, excited to be here in person — at long last, and armed with four Covid shots — I’ve already seen, among other TIFF titles, Triangle of Sadness, Moonage Daydream, The Son, and several strong Canadian titles, including Something You Said Last Night, North of Normal, This Place, The Swearing Jar, The Colour of Ink, and Brother. (Plus all episodes of Hillary Clinton’s AppleTV+ series Gutsy, because I got to interview Hillary and her daughter Chelsea in advance of TIFF, via Zoom, which was a delight.
But for me, TIFF properly kicks off now, in this screening for Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. Over the years I’ve interviewed both Miriam Toews (who wrote the source novel) and Sarah Polley (who wrote and directed the film). (Here’s the most recent Polley interview). I love both their work so much, my heart is in my mouth for this one.
Everything feels like it’s going to be great: Polley, the perfect choice to adapt the story of Mennonite women in an isolated community, who meet in a barn loft — hastily, secretly — to discuss how to react to the repeated sexual assaults they’ve been enduring. The dream cast, including Jesse Buckley (whom I first interviewed here), Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand and Judith Ivey. The incredible timing, as women’s rights in the U.S. are being systematically eroded. But what if it isn’t?
After two minutes, I realize I’m levitating an inch from my seat with happiness. This movie is everything I’d hoped and more. There is not one wasted syllable. I keep swatting away tears of anger (on behalf of the characters, and their real-life counterparts). I can feel the emotion rolling up and down the rows, that feeling you can only get in a theatre full of people who are having a collective experience. I won’t know this until a few days later, but Women Talking sets the tone for my whole TIFF: brilliant women directors, squaring their sites on the patriarchy. And experiencing their work in public again, finally.
8 PM Wednesday September 7. The TFCA throws an annual bash to welcome out-of-town critics – or we used to, pre-pandemic. So it’s thrilling to be back, this time at the Rec Room (Cineplex’s arcade/sports bar/party complex), with Telefilm as a sponsor, part of their Back to Cinemas campaign. You know that level of your social life that you were missing during the pandemic: people whom you really like but don’t know quite well enough to Zoom with or to have over for socially-distanced backyard drinks? They are all here. Cameron Bailey, head of TIFF, and Jane Schoettle, programmer for Special Presentations; Sarah Polley, whom I buttonhole and shower with praise for a loooong time; Chandler Levack, a film critic (and colleague) who’s making her feature directorial debut — the extremely winning I Like Movies — alongside her star, Romina D’Ugo, who plays the manager at a Blockbuster-esque store who helps the lead character, a teenage film nerd, grow up. It’s a gas to be amid the noise of scores of people yakking away again, and to eat the first (beef) of the approximately 87 sliders I will consume this week. But here’s another thing I won’t know until later: I think I catch Covid here.
3 PM Thursday September 8. #RIP Queen Elizabeth, not exactly the way TIFF hopes to start off (especially since they’ve already taken flack for their disastrous ticketing system, which crashed like a highway pileup). I’m sitting in the hallway of the top floor of the Shangri La Hotel, waiting to interview…Sir Elton John. It’s not a TIFF story, but he did just buy a penthouse condo in Toronto, and he’s playing his final two concerts here, ever. (The TFCA party last night wrapped at the same time as Elton’s first concert, and the venues were side by side. So I made my way to the subway amid throngs of concertgoers, dressed in sparkly top hats and angel wings and platform shoes. Many were carrying folding chairs with Elton’s face on them. Feather boas littered the sidewalk.)
Sir Elton is leery of Covid, wisely, so I take a rapid test an hour before meeting him. Negative. Still, Elton, his husband David Furnish and I all wear masks as we sit at a round table in their cushy suite. Elton’s mask, combined with his tinted glasses, makes his ears fold over, which drives him nuts. He wears a black velvet track jacket with a crystal E on the left breast, and I wear an insane grin behind my N-95. For 25 minutes, we talk Toronto, family life, the future of music. As I’m leaving, I tell Sir Elton how great it was to be out last night with his fans, and how tickled I was that so many were taking their chairs home.
“Pardon?” he asks.
“It’s part of the deluxe package, you get to keep the chair,” Furnish says.
“Hah! First I’m hearing of this!” Elton says. Oh, to be Elton.
5 PM Thursday September 8. Rotten Tomatoes party. Generous drinks, lots more yakking. Jesse Tyler Ferguson sighting. Sliders #2 and 3 (chicken, pork).
6 PM Thursday September 8. Gala premiere of The Swimmers, Princess of Wales theatre. It’s the true story of sisters, Syrian refugees, who made it to the Rio Olympics. TIFF cut back on the number of press screenings this year, which I feared would be a disaster. But they increased the number of tickets to public screenings that the press could access, from 10 to 20. Which turns out to be my favorite part of TIFF. I’ve nearly forgotten the buzz that ticket buyers get, watching directors stride out for their premieres, seeing stars, and how contagious that is. In a good way.
Cameron Bailey amps up the already-giddy crowd: How great it is to celebrate art about our shared humanity, while sharing it with humanity – “the best audiences in the world!” The room whoops. Director Sally El Hosaini, wearing a silver sequined jacket, says, “There are tens of thousands of refugees in Canada. It’s the most dramatic human experience we can have or witness…Thank you, audience, for showing what this city stands for.” She introduces her stars, followed by the real-life sisters, holding hands. Throughout the film, I can hear people crying. After two years of at-home screenings, it’s a weirdly joyful sound.
9 PM Thursday September 8. Corsage press and industry screening, Sociabank Theatre. The room is packed to see Marie Kreutzer’s feminist, deliberately anachronistic take on the year (1877) that Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) turns 40, and is therefore considered an old hag. Strapped into bruising corsets, suffering from anorexia, Elisabeth smokes, masturbates, does heroin and flips the bird to her royal court and her public. For me, Krieps is the new Isabelle Huppert, dazzlingly weird and seductive. The press applauds, which they don’t always do. I get the feeling they’re happy to be back together again, too.
11 PM Thursday September 8. Swimmers party, Soho House. It’s on my way to the subway, so I pop in, chug a margarita, eat slider #4 (beef), and head home.
11:30 AM Friday September 9. I head west down King Street, aka Festival Street, temporarily closed off to traffic from University Avenue to Spadina. Volunteers in baby blue T-shirts take photos of tourists in front of the chunky, lighted TIFF sign. People line up for free Nespressos and L’Oreal makeup. Artists paint murals, selfie-takers pose in front of mirror cubes. The mood is sweetly jubilant. But I keep moving, because the Taylor Swift hordes are coming (she’s appearing at events today), and that’s one crowd I’m steering clear of.
Noon Friday September 9. The Woman King panel, sponsored by Twitter, Mademoiselle restaurant. (In his introductions, Cameron Bailey tells us it used to be a strip club.) The room is aglow with gorgeous people, and happily, unlike most TIFF events, white faces are the minority here. The snacks are stunning, too, sliders, plus sushi and delectable lamb chops. The moderator, God Is Rivera, Twitter’s director of culture and community, leads Viola Davis (rocking a flowered jumpsuit) and four castmates through a frank discussion about Black female representation. “We’ve had to water down our voices, our images, for white moviegoers,” Davis says. “To ease their fears. That’s why it’s so important that this movie is led by an all-Black, female team.”
Davis fought for seven years to get The Woman King made, and “there are no words to quantify what that fight is,” she says. “Every time you walk into that room, you’re hustling for your worth. So if you all don’t plop down money to see it, you’re not going to see us again.” (I wrote up the event for the Canadian publication Zoomer)
3:15 Friday September 9. I have a chunk of time to fill, so I wander over to the Scotiabank Theatre to see if any press screenings are starting. What luck. Charcoal, the debut feature from director Carolina Markowicz, is that perfect TIFF film – I know nothing about it, I have no “reason” to see it, and it’s great. A rural Brazilian family are persuaded to harbour an Argentine drug lord. It’s an astute social satire about how the powerful prey on the least fortunate, and how women get shit done.
5:45 Friday September 9. Premiere of The Woman King at Roy Thompson Hall. Viola Davis, now resplendent in a neon pink and orange ruffled gown, takes the stage with director Gina Prince-Bythewood. They introduce their department heads, all of whom are here. “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear,” Davis says.
I’m in the balcony, and I quickly realize the entire cast and crew are filing into the empty section right next to me. For the next two hours, they erupt in chants, stomps and applause at every kick-ass moment. And since it’s a film about female warriors called the Agojie standing up to white slavers in 1823 West Africa, the kick-ass moments are manifold. Davis and company conduct an earnest, heartfelt Q&A afterward, sitting in chairs on stage, and most of the room stays glued to their seats. I, sadly, have to hightail it out of there, to…
9:45 Friday September 9. Bros screening, Princess of Wales. “I’m super-emotional,” Billy Eichner, the film’s co-writer and star, tells the crowd. “A Hollywood studio is releasing an R-rated, gay rom-com in 3000 theatres in North America. Go, LGBTQ people!” I will have to see this movie again, because I caught only 250 of the 500 zippy lines, because people were laughing so hard. I want to stay for the Q&A after, but I’m suddenly exhausted.
10 AM Saturday September 10. I wake up sneezing, and take a Covid test. Negative.
11 AM Saturday September 10. Netflix-arranged a screening of The Good Nurse in the cushy theatre at the Shangri-La Hotel. It’s based on the true story of Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), a nurse who murdered patients, and Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), the nurse who stopped him. I’m set to interview both Chastain and the film’s director, Tobias Lindholm, so I scrawl questions into my notebook in the dark: “How respectful to the source material v making leap to your adaptation;” “How trust actors re stillness;” etc.
2:30 PM Saturday September 10. Visionaries event with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, TIFF Lightbox. “TIFF is exploding with women power,” the moderator (and Canadian first lady) Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau says. “Women Talking, The Woman King, and now Gutsy women.”
Sophie asks Hillary why there’s so much hate in the U.S. “People are uncertain about where the economy and society are going,” she replies, sounding empathic and calm. “They feel they missed out on a better time in the past. They need leaders who are reassuring and supportive, who point to positive pathways. Because when leaders stoke hatred and fear, it affects people. When they’re rewarded for demagogic, insulting and scapegoating behaviour, it creates chaos that sets people against each other. We have to reject fear-fueled leadership.”
After the “catastrophe” of the 2016 election, Clinton continues, “I walked in the woods to think. I met a young woman out walking her baby. She burst into tears because I’d lost, which made me burst into tears.”
“We’re still crying,” someone in the audience hollers.
8 PM Saturday September 10. New filmmakers party at the Loft, a third-floor bar on King Street. Sliders! Yum. But now my throat hurts. I hope it’s because I’m shouting above the music.
9:15 PM Saturday September 10. The Fabelmans screening, Princess of Wales. The ticket holders lineup stretches for blocks – Jessie Tyler Ferguson is in it, too! — so by the time I get to my seat, Steven Spielberg is already on stage. “Seventy-five years of experience went into this movie,” he says to the beaming crowd. His most autobiographical work ever, it’s the story of his family and how he became a filmmaker. But as charming as the first minutes are, I only make it to his Boy Scout years. I had Covid last Christmas, and I recognize this feeling: I am SICK and I need to GO.
9 AM Sunday September 11. I take another Covid test. Faint line, but positive. I cancel every event of what would have been my most fun day of TIFF: the panel at noon that I was to moderate for the Directors Guild of Canada, featuring Sarah Polley (Women Talking), Clement Virgo (Brothers) and Tobias Lindholm (The Good Nurse). (I send DGC head Hans Engel my prepared questions, in case they help.) The AppleTV+ party at 3 PM. A master class with Rian Johnson (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery) at 6 PM. The DGC dinner at 7:30. I turn my 1:30 interview with Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman for The Son – it would have been my first in-person interview in two years – into a phoner. They are sweet about it. I feel extremely sorry for myself.
Monday September 12. Still feeling sorry for myself, but less ill. I turn my 11:30 AM Jessica Chastain interview into a phoner. I miss Catherine Called Birdy. I miss Empire of Light and The Banshees of Inisherin and the party afterward. I miss The Whale and My Policeman and The Menu. I plow through Kleenex, but fewer and fewer as the day goes on.
Tuesday September 13. I wake up feeling… completely fine. I sad-scroll Twitter and read texts from TIFF-going friends who are having amazing experiences. I do the math. I likely got this Wednesday night, which made Thursday Day One, and this Day Six. Ontario protocol says I can go out tomorrow if my symptoms are gone. I go to bed very, very early.
2 PM Wednesday September 14. The Wonder screening, TIFF Lightbox. The director is a man, Sebastian Lelio, but the screenwriters are women, Alice Birch and Emma Donoghue (based on Donoghue’s novel), and the film is another in the mini-fest I’ve inadvertently curated for myself, about women who push back against a repressive patriarchy. (This mini-fest will go on to include the woman-rapper drama On the Come Up; Empire of Light, which I finally catch on the weekend; and Lena Dunham’s charming Catherine Called Birdy.)
I spend The Wonder glaring at representatives of the medical, legal and church establishment (played by the likes of Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones) in 1862 Ireland, who would rather let a young woman die than allow an English nurse (Florence Pugh) to expose their mistakes. “This is why Hollywood resisted telling women’s stories for so long,” I fume internally. “They knew they’d be damned by them.”
Another thing that’s great about TIFF being back IRL – after a film, if you have a question, you can ask the director. The Wonder begins and ends with a modern-day framing device that shows us we’re watching a film, and the first audience question is, Why?
“Because it’s a film about belief systems colliding,” Lelio says. “A belief is just a thought on which you insist. So the film juxtaposes fanaticism, in which people are not willing to move from the ‘truth’ they’ve ‘found,’ versus science, which holds doubt and is willing to be corrected. I didn’t want viewers to be fanatics about the ‘truth’ of the film. It’s about elasticity versus rigidity. The film had to make that declaration at the start, and again at the end.” Feeling quite satisfied by this, I decide not to push my luck (or anyone else’s) and go home.
As the week winds down, I see a few more films. On Thursday evening I attend the party for my friend Brian Johnson’s lovely documentary The Colour of Ink. (I’d interviewed its subject, ink maker Jason Logan, for The Globe and Mail) I eat chicken fingers.
7 PM on Saturday September 17: I go to my last party, on the roof of the TIFF Lightbox. Appropriately, it’s for an upcoming film festival, the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), in Windsor, ON, right across a bridge from Detroit. The head of the festival is here, to announce the ten Canadian TIFF films that will play in competition at WIFF. Many of the directors of the chosen films are here; the vibe is relaxed, chatty, homey. And yes, there are sliders.
I tell a few friends I had Covid and they all ask the same question: Was it worth it? For me, with my (it’s important to note) super-mild case, the answer is easy. To be out in public, running into friends again? To feel that opening-night frisson run through a packed house? To witness how other people experience being alive – because that’s what a great film shows us – while in the company of strangers who are sharing that experience? For me, the answer is always yes.