Toronto International Film Festival 2019: ‘An eye-opening experience’

Culture Screen

A well timed family holiday to Toronto meant I was fortunate enough to attend the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.

It’s interesting to first note that every film began with a thanks to the indigenous tribes that owned the land where the theatre stood. This is was a welcome recognition of First Nation peoples, one that resulted from Trudeau’s promise to fix Canada’s relationship with its indigenous community.

The first film I watched at the festival was Antigone, which went on to win the Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film. A retelling of the classic Greek tragedy, it was a timeless story about family honour and sacrifice. The French Canadian director Sophie Deraspe chose to set the film in modern day Montreal and focus on an immigrant family. It tells the story of their battle against police brutality and an unforgiving, discriminatory criminal justice system. 

Nahéma Ricci, who played Antigone and was named as one of TIFF’s “Rising Stars”, gave a stellar performance.

What was particularly enjoyable about this film was Deraspe’s innovative camera work. Mobile phone footage was used to capture a moment of police violence, reflecting the kinds of footage we have become all too familiar with. Nahéma Ricci, who played Antigone and was named as one of TIFF’s “Rising Stars”, gave a stellar performance.

The Report proved to be an equally compelling film from a different genre altogether. It tells the true story of Daniel J. Jones, a Senate investigator on the US Intelligence Committee. In the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror, he finds himself responsible for compiling a report on the use of torture (or ‘Enhanced Interrogation’) by the CIA. At times this film was difficult to watch, but this was unavoidable and felt necessary. I left feeling horrified by the amount of information that was censored from the report, and the obstacles Jones faced as he tried to hold one of the world’s most powerful governments to account. 

The director, Scott Z. Burns managed to translate a dry subject matter (even the heavily censored version of the report released to the public was over 500 pages long) into a captivating personal drama. At no point does the film lose sight of its central message about the importance of government oversight. An appearance from Daniel Jones himself at the end of the film reinforced the reality and power of his story. 

My favourite film of the festival, and one of its headliners, was Just Mercy. This was another moving true story, this time about Bryan Stevenson, a young black attorney. Stevenson moves to Alabama to set up a legal aid initiative and takes on one of the most infamous cases on death row, that of Walter McMillian. As a powerful attack on capital punishment it moved me in ways that, in an age of media overconsumption, it has become difficult for a film to achieve. 

On multiple occasions the film had me in tears. Thirty of the fifty states in America still use capital punishment, and mass incarceration isn’t going anywhere fast. This made Just Mercy a sobering look at how little has changed since Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989.

As a powerful attack on capital punishment it moved me in ways that, in an age of media overconsumption, it has become difficult for a film to achieve. 

It wouldn’t have been a true festival experience (or so I am told) had I not seen at least one film that I thought was really ‘out there’. About Endlessness is a Swedish drama directed by Roy Anderson. Despite getting rave reviews from the upper echelons of the film critic world, I wasn’t impressed. What I found jarring was a particular narrative device that it employed.

First it would show a twenty to thirty second scene narrated by a woman who began by saying: “I saw a man”. She would then describe the action taking place before a cut to another, unrelated scene. For me, this stylistic choice made it very difficult to follow the plot or understand what the film was trying to say. That said, my dad loved it, so each to their own!

The films were screened all over the city at a range of Toronto’s beautiful venues. My personal favourite was the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre that has foliage hanging down from the ceiling.

If you ever get the chance to go to a film festival of any size, I would thoroughly recommend it. Seeing films you’ve never heard of or otherwise wouldn’t see is an eye-opening experience. They give a voice to up-and-coming directors outside of the mainstream, alongside the soon-to-be box office stars.

Image credit: Andos_pics