Toronto International Film Festival 2020: Where Art Meets Politics

As TIFF (September 10-19) takes off in a new post-pandemic avatar, showcasing names like Regina King, Spike Lee, Chloe Zhao and Mira Nair, it also remains true to its commitment to gender parity and diversity.

As the 2020 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) kicks off, one of its most anticipated entries is actor Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami. Earlier this week it became the first film directed by a female African-American filmmaker to be screened at the Venice Film Festival. 

A still from filmmaker Regina King’s ‘One Night in Miami.’

King had won the supporting actress Oscar for her dignified and reflective  performance as the mother of a young girl trying to prove the innocence of her lover,  falsely accused of rape, in Barry Jenkins’ achingly romantic and piercingly political film, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). Now, with One Night in Miami, she is being pitched as a frontrunner for the Academy award for best director.

Based on Kemp Powers’ award-winning play of the same name, One Night In Miami is a fictionalised account of a momentous night in 1964 when four Black icons—boxer Cassius Clay Jr. (who changed his name to Muhammad Ali later that year), Nation of Islam leader and human rights activist Malcolm X, singer-songwriter-composer Sam Cooke and football player Jim Brown—had gathered together to celebrate Clay’s  historic dethronement of the reigning heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston.

King’s film is a perfect fit for TIFF, in that it exemplifies the values of gender parity and racial equality that the festival has consciously tried to underline through its programming without giving short shrift to artistic merit. In that sense, it presents a contrast to the Venice film festival, which is critiqued ever so often for its lack of substantive gender representation and political heft.

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In keeping with Canada’s policy of multiculturalism, TIFF has consistently shown a strong commitment to the representation of women, Black people, indigenous people, and people of colour in its selection. In 2017, the festival embarked on a five-year fundraising campaign, ‘Share Her Journey’, aimed at increasing opportunities for women before and behind the camera.

Not just that, TIFF’s Media Inclusion Initiative, now in its third year, approaches the task of accreditation with care, being mindful of the principle of diversity —  it seeks to amplify the voices of eligible media practitioners from across the world — Black, indigenous, people of colour, LGBTQ+ and female film critics.

The last in the Golden Triangle of fall festivals — Venice, Telluride and Toronto —TIFF, especially its People’s Choice award, is also regarded as the barometer for the Oscar nominations which follow later.   

Unlike the somewhat rarefied ambience of a highbrow Cannes or Venice, the most heartening aspect of TIFF is the openness and ease of access that it offers to cinephiles. In a year when the global COVID 19 pandemic has called for a major shape-shifting exercise in the film festival circuit, where  being  a part of TIFF translates to watching the Toronto film selection on a digital platform in the confines of one’s home in Mumbai, the human touch of a lively on-ground event is missing – especially the Torontonian’s passion for films, the overwhelming public participation, the patient, mile-long queues and cheerful, efficient volunteers across venues, from TIFF Bell Lightbox and Scotiabank to Elgin and Winter Garden theatres.

Another downer is the lack of availability of some of the major titles—like Chaitanya Tamhane’s portrait of a classical musician, The Disciple—that have been geo-blocked for specific regions, in this case India.

A still from Mira Nair’s ‘A Suitable Boy.’

The film package is smaller too. Unlike the usual 300-plus films that comprise the official selection at TIFF every year, this year it is a package of just 50 films. But what is clear is that the festival remains anchored to the principle of diversity and inclusivity.

Of all the titles in this year’s line-up, 43% are directed, co-directed, or created by women, and  49% of titles are directed, co-directed, or created by Black, indigenous, or POC (people of colour) filmmakers. The overall number of speakers at this year’s Industry Conference represents a 50/50 gender parity, as do TIFF Talent Development initiatives such as TIFF Studio and Filmmaker Lab.

Among the major titles helmed by women this year, are Academy award winning actor Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised in which she also stars in the lead role of a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter struggling to take a shot at the title and regain custody of the son she had abandoned earlier. Describing it as a “classic redemption story”, Cameron Bailey, the artistic director and co-head of TIFF, writes in the festival catalogue: “Berry crafts a textured portrait of a woman defined by her fight-or-flight reactions to the challenges life has thrown her way. Through her explosive performance, the character Jackie simultaneously radiates tightly coiled rage and heart-rending vulnerability.”

Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair’s six part BBC One series, an adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, will bring down the curtain on the festival on September 19 (Indian viewers will be able to watch it on Netflix later in October).

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Acclaimed filmmaker Naomi Kawase explores the issue of adoption in contemporary Japan in True Mothers. Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as a woman with an itinerant heart, who keeps moving on in life to find new workplaces and homes, along America’s West. French writer, actor, filmmaker Suzanne Lindon’s debut feature, Spring Blossom, is about a teenager’s forbidden love for an older man. All of 20 now, Lindon wrote the audacious script when she was just 15. Another debut title to watch out for is Irish filmmaker Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, which locates the troubled lives of its protagonists—two sisters—in the larger political turmoil in the country’s own history.

Stacey Lee’s documentary Underplayed focuses on gender inequality in the electronic-music industry. Tracey Deer is making her debut with her part autobiographical Beans, a coming-of-age story about a young Mohawk girl during the Oka Crisis of 1990, when there was a standoff between the indigenous communities and the government in Quebec. She is slated to receive the TIFF Emerging Talent Award this year.

Academy Award–winning actor Kate Winslet gets this year’s TIFF Tribute Actor Award; the other awardee being the legendary Sir Anthony Hopkins. Winslet stars with Saoirse Ronan in Francis Lee’s same sex love story, Ammonite, that has been referred to as “2020’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire” by Cannes Film Festival’s delegate general Thierry Fremaux. It is being touted as one of  Winslet’s  best performances.

A still from Spike Lee’s ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’, the opening film of the festival.

The festival opens with a timely film: Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia, a filmed version of former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s powerful Broadway show, conceptualised as an “anti-dote” to a divided and divisive America. Even as it raises social and political issues, “Spike’s latest joint [as his films are referred to] is a call to connect with one another, to protest injustice, and, above all, to celebrate life,” says the festival catalogue.

TIFF also marks 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement with special events under the banner of Planet Africa 25, started in 1995 as a programme dedicated to cinema from Africa and the African diaspora, which had a ten-year long run.  This year, four new films from the selection have been highlighted as the inheritors  of that spirit, among them Tommy Oliver’s 40 Years A Prisoner, the story of nine people from Philadelphia-based Black liberation group, MOVE, who were convicted of murdering a police officer they likely didn’t kill, and remain in prison 40 years later; and Dawn Porter’s election year documentary, The Way I See It, in which the former White House photographer Pete Souza dwells on the presidency of Barack Obama, , having had a ringside view of it. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s discussion on art, activism, and Black Lives Matter brings together the concerns of gender and race relations yet again, just like Regina King’s One Night In Miami. It is TIFF, after all.

Namrata Joshi is an independent writer and well-known film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).