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Toronto Festival Seeks the Proper Perspective

Movies* Terrorist attacks in the U.S. disrupted last year's screenings. Now, organizers struggle to balance pain and hope.

September 04, 2002|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TORONTO — This year's Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off on Thursday, takes place under the long shadow of Sept. 11, which interrupted last year's festival midway through and briefly shut it down.

To what extent the first anniversary will affect the 2002 festival is a matter of debate, but there's no doubt that last year still haunts people who were here.

"I never want to go through what I went through last year," says Piers Handling, the festival's director. "We were under real serious pressure. I couldn't remember what we had done that day until a month later."

"It's always going to be a bond between the film people who were there," says Tom Ortenberg, head of acquisitions and marketing at Lions Gate Films, who stayed in Toronto for the duration last year while many others headed home.

Aside from shock and grief, filmmakers, distributors, journalists and others visiting Toronto that day shared an urgent need to see to friends and loved ones, so there was a mad rush for car rentals, train tickets and--for those who could afford it--private aircraft. Despite this feverish activity, the streets of Toronto were eerily empty that day, as if the city had been abandoned.

The air went right out of the festival after the terrorist attacks. The screenings, halted around noon on Sept. 11, resumed the next day, a decision that initially raised a few eyebrows. No doubt there were financial reasons for keeping the festival going, but the overriding sentiment seemed to be that shutting it down would be a disservice to the public.

The post-attack screenings were well attended, though the normally enthusiastic Toronto audiences were understandably subdued. Sept. 11 affected the movies too; films that needed a bounce out of the festival didn't get one.

"I think it was devastating to films that were using the festival as a launching pad and to those that were trying to sell," says Bob Berney, president of Newmarket Films, who rented a couple of cars with actress Debra Winger and raced back to New York on Sept. 11. ("She's a really take-charge gal," he says.)

One of the questions about this year's festival is whether the film slate will be marginalized the same way last year's was. Certainly the minds of many Americans will be elsewhere. Maybe their bodies too. "I've talked to a lot of journalists who want to be in New York on the 11th," Berney says.

Obviously, this year's festival cannot ignore what happened a year ago, but organizers are not about to dedicate the bulk of the programming to it. Handling and company have decided to delay screenings on Sept. 11 until 11 a.m., and there will be two Sept. 11-related gala presentations that night: "The Guys," directed by Jim Simpson, and "11'09"01," a compilation of shorts from 11 international directors.

Both of these films directly address events of Sept. 11, but in radically different ways.

"The Guys" is the film version of a stage play (being presented in Los Angeles at the Actors' Gang Theatre with changing casts, launched by Tim Robbins and Helen Hunt) about a journalist and a fire captain trying to craft eulogies for his fallen men. It's fairly apolitical.

"11'09"01," on the other hand, bristles with attitude, and some observers question whether this is really the way the festival should memorialize the date. "I'm not sure this is the way you commemorate the death of ... people in America," says Artisan chief executive Amir Malin, who admits he hasn't seen the film but whose offices are a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. "It's not to say this film shouldn't be seen, but I wonder if it should be seen on 9/11."

In interviews with The Times, some of the directors reject the idea that their films are in any way anti-American, and Handling responds by saying that the short films are "very moving, very respectful, very thoughtful, in some cases very provocative. In light of what happened on that day, there was a desire for an airing of opinions from around the world.

"I think it allows us as North Americans to see how people from Iran, Egypt perceive that day. There may be one or two films that will cause controversy, which is their right, but I don't think they are anti-American. I think that's a very pat cliche put-down."

These special events aside, Handling insists that this year will be business as usual, though in the normal variation of things, the 10-day festival seems to be light on splashy mainstream films (some years, the studios use the festival to launch serious fall fare). And there isn't likely to be an acquisitions frenzy, because most of the high-profile material already has been picked up for distribution or simply didn't go into production at all, because of the attacks or the economics of the indie film business.

A number of distributors say they will be looking at their competitors' films to scout filmmakers they want to do business with in the future.

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