As I sit here with tears welling in my eyes, having joined the rest of the nation in watching The Tragically Hip’s farewell concert, I want nothing more than to scream. To unleash the rage inside and break free of sense of the melancholy that has been holding me down for months. If there was ever a year that deserved the middle finger it is 2016.
While every year seems to have its ups and downs, this one in particular has been especially emotionally exhausting. It has been filled with so much gloom that it has been hard to see the rays of light within the thick clouds of despair. I am not merely speaking to the news of the terminal cancer that has inflicted The Hip’s front man Gord Downie. Truth be told, I was a casual fan of the band at best until their heart-wrenchingly beautiful performance, during the live and uninterrupted televised concert, made me appreciate their artistry on a whole new level. No, I am referring to the draining nature of the year as a whole.
This has been a year where we have mourned for those around the world, especially after the horrific events that occurred in Orlando, Libya, Brussels, Somalia, and Syria to name a few. We were forced to say goodbye to iconic artists and figures like David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali and numerous others. In addition to all of that, the rampant sexism and racism on social media has only gotten worse.
On a personal level, the increasing number of deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of a select number of trigger happy police offers, as well as the subsequent killings of police officers by a few radicals, has left me gutted. I cannot tell you the amount of times this year alone my wife and I have looked wearily at each other upon hearing news of yet another senseless death occurring. Couple this with the reckless xenophobia rhetoric that has been spewing out of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign like a faucet whose shut off value is broken, and it is easy to be disheartened by this year. It feels like I have been standing in the eye of an emotionally draining storm unsuccessfully trying to make sense of why the world around me is spinning in reverse.
What does all this have to do with the glitz and glamour of the Toronto International Film Festival? Well TIFF has always been somewhat of a calming voice in the sea of chaos for me. In 2001, my first year attending the festival, it was cinema that helped me to navigate the state of uncertainty and fear that the events of 9/11 had left on the world. There was something about the communal experience of watching Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, a day after the festival had temporarily closed due to the tragedy, that reassured all in attendance that we would be alright. As long as we allowed love to triumph, there was nothing humanity could not overcome.
The festival has also been an outlet for personal catharsis. After my uncle passed away from cancer during the 2004 festival, it was the darkened theatres that projected the mixture of emotions I was feeling inside. I could barely keep it together while watching Christian Bale’s withered body in Brad Armstrong’s The Machinist as my mind drifted back to my uncle’s own frail form in the final days. That is the beauty of a festival like TIFF, its films touch the soul when we need it to the most.
While TIFF’s identity has been defined in recent years as an integral stop on the road to Academy Awards glory, a position that some Oscar prognosticators claim has been usurped by Telluride, the festival has always been about more than that. The true strength of TIFF is not in its star-studded red carpets, but rather its ability to champion works that reflect the world we live in a whole new light. In a year when #OscarSoWhite once again was a lightning rod for heated debate regarding the nature of diversity in Hollywood, TIFF has quietly complied one of the most diverse selection of films of any festivals.
As some are simply satisfied to proclaim the need for change, while simultaneously supporting the status quo with their dollars at the box office each week, TIFF consistently walks the walks. Like chefs constructing their own socially conscious buffet, TIFF programmers curate a festival that allows cinephiles to experience films that speak to them the most. If one is looking for films solely made by female directors; tales that shed light on conflicts in particular regions of the world; thought-provoking explorations on the impact of climate change; positive portrayals of the black experience; or works that show that love has no borders, TIFF has it all and more.
The festival gives a voice to those who need to be heard. Say what you will about the sad state theatrical distribution for Canadian films at local multiplexes, but TIFF still makes showcasing homegrown talent a priority. Gems like Gabrielle, Stories We Tell, Sleeping Giants, C.R.A.Z.Y, Incendies and countless others have benefitted from the festival’s support in recent years.
Though it has evolved from a small local festival for film lovers to an international powerhouse that attracts the cream of the cinematic crop, at its core, TIFF still cares deeply about bringing the world together through the power of film. As much as 2016 feels like a never-ending cavalcade of sadness and uncertainty, I look forward to the films at TIFF once again delivering the soothing medicine I crave. It is one of the many reasons why think we, as a culture, need TIFF now more than ever.