299. This is the total number of films I have seen at TIFF over the past eleven years. It may seem like a lot to some, but it is really not that many. While in line for TIFF films, I have met people who average over 50 TIFF films each year. By no means am I up for that challenge just yet. First and foremost, I just do not have that type of cash to spend. As great as TIFF is from a film lover’s perspective, it can be a costly affair over the course of eleven days. Every year I lament about how expensive tickets are getting only to encounter that inevitably great film that totally justifies the cost. It is a vicious cycle.
While I have sat through six films in one day at TIFF in the past, attempting to maintain that number over the course of the week makes me exhausted just thinking about it. Heck, I barely have enough energy to balance work and chasing after a two year-old, but I digress… As the anticipation and excitement builds for this year’s TIFF, I cannot help but reflect on how my TIFF experience has evolved over the years. TIFF has been an important facet of my life from both a film going and mental scrapbook standpoint. The very first year I went to TIFF was in 2001. Fresh out of university, and with no job prospects lined up, I figured that it might be my only chance to take in the festival. TIFF took on a whole new meaning though when the events of 9/11 occurred. I was in line for John Dahl’s Joyride when the first plane hit. I only caught wind of what was happening outside my little TIFF bubble while in line for From Hell; the film in which I had silly hopes of catching a glimpse of Johnny Depp. It was a somber festival after that day, but I still learned a lot of valuable things that year.
The two most important things I learned and observed: 1) The power of the human spirit from talking to the stranded Americans at the festival, and 2) film’s ability to unite and uplift people in times of grief and uncertainty. The second point was truly emphasized by the rapturous screening of Monsoon Wedding right after the festival organizers decided to reopen the festival. 2001 also taught me a lot about how TIFF worked from a film selection standpoint, and also that too much mainstream is indeed a bad thing. Of the 25 films I saw that year, the majority involved big name stars and were either disappointing (Training Day) or average at best (Enigma). Not only did I skip over films I would later come to love (Amélie, Mulholland Dr.), but all the films I really enjoyed that year were smaller titles (In the Bedroom, No Man’s Land, The Son’s Room).
2002 and 2003 were instrumental years for me for different reasons. In 2002 I had a better handle on the scheduling and took far more risks in picking titles. I had a great mix of films made by directors who I had already loved (Punch-Drunk Love, Spirited Away, Talk to Her, Bowling for Columbine) and films by directors who were relatively new to me (Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters). It was also the year that the term “The Whale Riders” was coined. The term is a reference to the films that I initially scoffed at or passed on based solely on the program book’s description (e.g. Whale Rider) only to later realize that they were exceptional films I should have seen. After the highs of 2002, 2003 paled in comparison partly due to the fact that an uncle I was extremely close to passed away early on during the festival. While I still saw some fantastic films (Dogville, Lost in Translation, The Station Agent), it was a year when I temporarily lost my faith in modern French cinema. It just felt like I picked all the wrong French films (Errance, Raja, Who Killed Bambi?). Fortunately, my love of French cinema was reignited again a year later thanks to François Ozon’s 5X2.
The beauty of TIFF is that if you lose faith or decide to take a break from a particular genre, there are plenty more for you to discover. For example, thanks to the festival I was able to broaden my knowledge of Korean cinema (Old Boy, Save the Green Planet, Treeless Mountain). The festival has also allowed me to dip my toes in Africa (Bunny Chow, A Screaming Man); gain a better understanding of life in East Berlin in the 1980s (The Lives of Others); watch love blossom in the Philippines (If I Knew What You Said); track a family’s history in India (Gangs of Wasseypur); explore the corruption in Mexico (Crónicas); spend four straight hours, a personal TIFF viewing record, in Japan uncovering a mystery (Penance); and even contemplate the artistic spirit through films that did not see the light of day after TIFF (the Spanish film November immediately comes to mind).
Recently I have made a conscious effort to expand my own cinematic knowledge by taking in a few of the older films that TIFF includes in the programming. Last year I got to experience recently restored films such as Stromboli and Far from Vietnam for the first time, and on the big screen no less! Sure not all 299 films where wonderful experiences, there were some downright stinkers, but they are not worth mentioning here. The truth is, if I was to add up all of the films I disliked, the total would probably be close to 30. For every awful film I encounter, there are at least four great films that quickly help me to forget the poor experience.
What treats will this year bring? That still remains to be seen. I am still finalizing my schedule, and should have the films I will be seeing posted next week. Regardless, I know that it will be yet another new and exciting experience.