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TIFF 2021: A Torontonian’s Take on a Tumultuous TIFF | Festivals & Awards

There were agreeable diversions, like Will Sharpe’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” where Cumberbatch fell into some of his traditional quirks that made him famous on shows like “Sherlock.” I caught “Mothering Sunday,” the Eva Husson post-Great War tale that I had missed in Cannes and was treated to a predictable tale predictable elevated by the ever sublime talents of Olivia Colman and Colin Firth.

In the end, the festival managed to screen a share of selections from other major festivals around the world, and didn’t particularly land big with any title that was unique to Toronto. Whether or not this is an increasing indication that TIFF is once again turning into a “festival of festivals” is up for debate, and one can only guess what 2022 will bring in terms of audience involvement, how much will remain in-home and virtual, and so on. It’s a precarious time for cinema in the best of cases, and festivals bear the brunt of much of the shifting changes in the industry and viewing habits of its patrons. Yet concerns about the decreasing importance of TIFF on the calendar were increasing before COVID ever happened, and for many the need for international press and patrons to join locals at this celebration of cinema was already being questioned.

I love this festival, and it’s been my home for much of my cinematic education and many professional opportunities. I worry tremendously about its future well beyond concerns about the current plague, and see seismic shifts affecting its future. Witnessing a downtown core near empty of patrons felt all the more gut wrenching, even knowing the cause, a stark reminder of a diminished festival that we were spared during last year’s lockdown-only event.

I do not for a moment begrudge the protocols put in place to maintain a secure health environment. While that process worked fantastically well, there was a myriad of other logistical elements that were downright embarrassing. From ticketing to screening windows nothing quite felt like it was working as it should, even though by the end of the festival many of the truly egregious elements had been repaired. Still, it was clear that in so many ways TIFF 2021 felt more than a bit broken. Time will tell if it can be rebuilt to what not so long ago it was, and whether the right people are in place at all levels of the organization to make this happen and steer things back on track.

There were moments of absolute joy, as there always are. There were brief encounters from friends from all over the world that come to attend. There were cinematic marvels that filled with joy and wonder, and even a gathering or two that felt, if very briefly, blissfully normal, where new friends are made and passionate discussions are held. It’s this that I cherish about all festivals, but since TIFF is home, its diminution pains even more on a personal basis.

I can only hope the future for TIFF shines far brighter than it did in this challenging year, as we firmly take hold of this pandemic and find a way of making the festival recover its stature. For the heart of TIFF, beyond all the baggage that surrounds its selection process and logistical concerns, is to gather en masse, bathed in a flickering light from a projector, sharing that rare experience of discovery and wonder, and finding collectively something to truly cherish. I believe there are thousands, be they local or from around the world, that share this same hope.

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