The Toronto International Film Festival had long been on my radar as far as movie events went. How could it not? Any self-described film fan usually has a cursory eye on the happenings at one of the largest festivals in the world, even if one is on another continent. As for myself, I actually only live a few hours away in Montreal, in the neighbouring province of Québec. While I had entertained the thought of attending TIFF for some time, the formulation of plans to possibly go only began a few years ago. That said, due to timing and one unfortunate September’s finances, it wasn’t until 2017 that said plans finally came to fruition.

First and foremost, I should thank Goomba Stomp editors Ricky D and Simon Howell for lending me a critical helping hand in August when time came to select films, informing me as to how the selection process works and setting me on my way. (Much obliged, gentlemen.)

On the topic of the selection process, one supposes that for a festival operating on the scale that TIFF does, intricacies are part and parcel. Certainly one can simply go to a box office and purchase some tickets, but if one is steadfast in getting ahead in line, a TIFF membership awards a timed window to select films of their choice before the public even gets a chance. An interesting process, and naturally the membership costs a few dollars, but there are evidently plenty of cinephiles out there willing to pay, for one of the films I had hoped to see was substituted for a back up choice because no tickets were left — and this was with the benefit of Simon helping me via his own membership!

Living in Montreal — a reasonably large city but not overwhelmingly so — one gets the opportunity to attend a selection of respectable film festivals, such as Fantasia and the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (or FNC for short, and which I like to describe as ‘TIFF light,’ as it happens literally a month later and features plenty of TIFF premiers) are two that come to mind immediately. Having been to both as a patron and a member of the press, they’re very enjoyable events, quite affordable, well managed, albeit more modest in scale in relation to other festivals.

TIFF is a monster; a brilliant, beautiful, expensive monster.

For those that know TIFF, its venues, and the city of Toronto inside and out, most of what follows is unimpressive, perhaps even part of your daily or weekly routines. Having not visited Toronto in almost a decade, not only was experiencing TIFF for the first time a thrill, but so was rediscovering a remarkably vibrant, exciting, and extraordinarily polite city. To be completely honest, the politeness demonstrated by Torontonians makes Montrealers come off as a bunch of no-good punks.

The Venues

The famous Bell Light Box, found on King St, was clearly a place I was keenly interested in visiting. So many blogs and Toronto or Ontario-based film podcasts have made reference to it. I was incredibly curious to see how it would measure up to the hype. Sleek and modern, it’s a very attractive location to indulge in some cinemania, albeit more so from the inside than the outside, where it looks like any ordinary modern, glass-heavy building. Operating on multiple stories with its own sophisticated café restaurant, it’s quite pleasant to walk around, especially since some film and festival history adorns its many walls, with posters for classic art house movies as well as vintage TIFF posters from yesteryear presented for visitors to appreciate. The rooms themselves are wonderfully comfortable — maybe too much — so you might want to grab a coffee or tea if you’re seeing something rather late at night after attending a few films already throughout the day. Truly, this is a place made for cinephiles, by cinephiles.

Inside the TIFF Bell Light Box

It should be noted that King St is also where TIFF has most of its branding and cross marketing via several snack and beverage stands that go on for multiple blocks. Events like Just for Laughs and the International Jazz Festival sport such features as well, but it was the first time I saw so much space and activity for a film festival.

Another venue that had been spoken very, very highly of was the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre. Located on Yonge just north of Queen, the Winter Garden is an actual theatre built in 1913, used by TIFF during the festival for the premier of higher-profile films, such as First Reformed, the movie I saw there. The interior lives up to the hype, notwithstanding seats that could be a wee bit more comfortable. What captures attention from the outset once stepping into the actual screening room are the hundreds of dried beach leaves that hang upside down from the ceiling — quite a site when finding a seat to watch a movie.

Crowds

Apart from the aforementioned politeness, the people that attend TIFF are, as far as I could tell, astute film lovers that love chatting away about movies, but not obnoxiously so. I didn’t come across or overhear any dumbfounding, appalling, know-it-all commentary during my 5 days there. It was simply an enormous crowd that took great pleasure seeing different films, ranging from the elderly, teenagers, students, men, women, etc. Given the wide variety of people that lined up, TIFF seems to be truly ingrained in Toronto’s culture.

Speaking of queues, some of the warnings about lining up at ungodly times prior to a film’s start time are slightly exaggerated. From what I could tell, that pertains mostly to those that take their chances in the ‘Rush’ line, which is reserved for people that don’t have a ticket and are betting that someone who did purchase one doesn’t show. Sure, if you don’t have a ticket and want to see something, I understand how you might need to line up 90-120 minutes before a movie starts, but otherwise I quickly learned that showing up about 30 minutes before a movie started was just fine. I don’t think I lined up more than 45 minutes before anything, and not once was I relegated to first row seats.

The only time I overheard anything silly was before Three Peaks. A trio of relatively young people (I imagine in their late teens or early 20s) sat behind me. The two girls were rather knowledgeable about the festival, joyfully exchanging thoughts on what they had seen up to that point. The gentleman asked if the film they were about to see was in English. One of the girls answered no, it was a German-French co-production with actors speaking those two languages. The chap actually sounded disappointed that he wasn’t getting a dubbed version of the film. Really, at an internationally-renowned film festival, this guy thought a dubbed version of a German-French film was going to play?

The Programmers

Some mention should go to the programmers, who typically introduce the films and host the Q&As afterwards. Always well dressed, extremely articulate, friendly, and enthusiastic, not only do they help make TIFF happen by actually finding and vouching for the films that will end up showing there, but they also make the movie watching experience very engaging. It’s easy to tell that they’re extremely happy to be there and show a terrific film to an audience that probably hasn’t a clue what they’re in for. Again, it goes back to the fact that TIFF is attended and run by people who adore film but aren’t pompous about it in any shape or form.

The Volunteers

Lastly, I would be remiss to overlook the tireless efforts of the hundreds of volunteers that answer questions all day long, some of them surely stupid, and others they’ve been asked hundreds of times already. They also manage the lines, and have to get that cumbersome looking scanner working for every ticket holder that wants to get in. What’s more, there is always, always a smile on their face. There wasn’t a single volunteer in the morning, afternoon, or evening that looked as though they’d rather be elsewhere. Young and old, these are people either simply looking for something to do, or want to spruce up their resumes. Fittingly, before every film starts there are a series of adverts for the event’s sponsors, but amongst the marketing is one mini-film that lasts about 30 seconds in which an Indiana Jones-type character makes a dangerous, daring trek to a hidden treasure’s underground location. Once there, standing among piles of gold and jewels, he enthusiastically looks upwards at the apple of his eye. Cut to a TIFF volunteer t-shit. Cute.

Round 1 done

If TIFF has any significant downsides, I must have been far too enraptured by the overall experience to take much notice. Actually, that isn’t completely honest. I did buy a couple of tickets on my own accord; they certainly don’t give them away, especially not if the film you wish to see plays in the evening. Yikes! Better hope it’s a good one.

That being said, I have virtually nothing but positives to take away from my first TIFF experience. Round 1 is done. Why Round 1? Well, whether I end up helping Goomba Stomp on an annual basis, or be it merely on my own accord, I most certainly intend on going again. If I’m lucky, I’ll make it an annual tradition. That’s how nicely-managed, friendly, and open the event is. Having now finally been a part of the action, albeit for only half the event’s duration, it’s now clear to me why so many film fans the world over cite TIFF as a favourite, as a must destination for movie aficionados.

Well done, TIFF. Good job.

I’m sure you knew that already though.

Leave a comment below.

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A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted the previous incarnation of Sordid Cinema for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. He now offers his services to CutPrintFilm, and still writes about film noir after all these years. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. After all, nobody does it better.