19 September, 2011
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
The 36th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) came to a climactic close on Sunday with the announcement of its award recipients at a reception at the Four Seasons Hotel. With the Festival further solidifying its status as one of the Top Four in the world (with only Cannes, Berlin and Sundance in the running), it remains distinguished by not having a juried competition, with the exception for awards given to native Canadian films. So while there is no TIFF Grand Prize per se, the films that have been singled out are given remarkable momentum for their success in the marketplace in the months to come. If anything, Toronto adheres to its preferred position as the official launch of the awards season, with such high profile titles as A DANGEROUS METHOD, MONEYBALL, THE DESCENDANTS, THE IDES OF MARCH and others figuring prominently in this year’s Oscar races.
In addition, TIFF’s reputation as a “people’s festival” with a discerning audience also makes its Audience Awards a bellwether of which films will make waves at the box office when they open theatrically later this year. This year’s Cadillac People’s Choice Award went to WHERE DO WE GO NOW?, by Lebanese actress/director Nadine Labaski. The film, set against the backdrop of a war-torn country, tells the heartwarming tale of a group of women’s determination to protect their isolated, mine-encircled community from the pervasive and divisive outside forces that threaten to destroy it from within. The film, backed by French company Pathe, with co-production partners in Lebanon, Egypt and Italy, makes parallels to the “Arab spring” uprisings and the uncertain status of women in positions of leadership under the new realities. The award includes a cash prize of $15,000 and a custom award, provided by sponsor Cadillac. Another Middle East-themed film, the Berlin Golden Bear winner A SEPERATION by Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi, was the first runner-up, along with the Quebec dramedy STARBUCK, directed by Ken Scott.
The Cadillac People’s Choice Documentary Award was given to American director Jon Shenk for THE ISLAND PRESIDENT, a portrait of Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the island nation of the Maldives as he fights to save his homeland from rising seas caused by climate change and the greedy habits of the world’s powerbrokers in North America, Europe and Asia. In the popular Midnight Madness section, which showcases genre films, the Cadillac People’s Choice Award went to one of the breakout hits of the Festival….the Indonesian martial arts film THE RAID, directed by Gareth Evans and starring Indonesian martial arts sensation Iko Uwais. The film follows a SWAT team that is trapped in a rundown apartment block in Jakarta filled with heavily armed drug dealers and killers. It has been sold across the globe and promises to become the first big Indonesian film in decades.
TIFF has hosted an international jury of journalist from the international critics association FIPRESCI for twenty years. Members of the FIPRESCI Jury this year included Diego Batlle (Argentina), Carmen Gray (United Kingdom), Freddie Wong Kwok-Shiu (Hong Kong), Sam Adams (United States), Pascal Grenier (Canada) and John Semley (Canada). The FIPRESCI Prize in the Discovery debut features section was awarded to Swedish director Axel Petersén for AVALON, in the words of the jury “an assured, darkly humorous portrait of an affluent class in hedonistic self-denial that marks the arrival of a promising new voice in Swedish filmmaking.” In the Special Presentations section, which includes more veteran directors, the FIPRESCI Prize was won by Italian director Gianni Amelio for THE FIRST MAN, a co-production with France and Algeria. In this adaptation of a classic novel by existential French writer Albert Camus, the director has explored the legacy of colonialism and its repercussions on both the master and the servant. The jury lauded the director’s sensibility that combines “the tenderness of a memoir and the unflinching gaze of a war reporter.”
TIFF takes its vaulted international position seriously as a showcase for new Canadian cinema. Films from new and veteran Canadian auteurs were quite visible in all the sections of the Festival, including the inclusion for the first time of iconic director David Cronenberg (with his Jung-meets-Freud pscho/sexual drama A DANGEROUS METHOD). TIFF affords a dazzling showcase for this “north of Hollywood” talent with a series of juried awards. The SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film was won by Toronto-based writer/director Nathan Morlando for EDWIN BOYD, an evocative biopic of Canada’s most notorious bank robber, with local star Scott Speedman reaching a new maturity in the lead role. The award, which includes a cash prize of $15,000, will help the film find substantial international distributor interest across the border and beyond. The jury gave a special citation to Quebec director Anne Émond for the provocative NUIT #1, the erotic and candid portrayal of a hot one-night-stand sexual encounter.
The City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian Feature Film was unanimously voted to Montreal-based writer/director Philippe Falardeau for MONSIEUR LAZHAR, the tale of an Algerian immigrant who attempts a new beginning in a new land. The story focuses on the lead character, a teacher and his relationship with two of his pupils: a 10 year old boy traumatized by his encounter with death and a girl whose own interpretation of fate and destiny provoke unforeseen revelations. Sponsored by the City of Toronto, the award carries a cash prize of $30,000.
So, the curtain closes on another TIFF…..with films still reverberating in the consciousness of attendees and many beginning their slow, upward climb to critical and audience recognition. For the most celebrated films, TIFF provided their first significant encounter with both groups. For the many hidden gems in the Festival’s program of over 300 films, they await discovery and championing. Those of us who furiously attended are catching our breaths, waiting for both things to happen.