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Has Hollywood hijacked our festival?
This year's event introduced some fabulous movies.
But it was also swamped by Hollywood junkets and a media-driven
cult of celebrity, writes LIAM LACEY

Monday September 18, 2000

There's an expression called "the fog of war," which refers to difficulty in interpreting history in the midst of chaos. You could also talk about the "fog of the Toronto International Film Festival," for any single point of view is inevitably partial and incomplete.

With more than 300 films from around the world, a huge Hollywood presence, and a celebrity-mad newspaper competition all taking place in Toronto, the picture of what the 25th annual Toronto festival is gets more and more complicated.

As far as the films went, it was a happy year. Topping the list is Jafar Panahi's politically dangerous The Circle, a blisteringly critical film about women in Iranian society, which was a revelation, and Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, which confirms his status as a pre-eminent stylist. The audience's enthusiasm for a Chinese-language film, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was inspiring, and Gary Burns's waydowntown showed that a director from Calgary can make a youth comedy that's hipper, funnier and more truthful than almost anything out of Hollywood.

So let's start with the mutter campaign that has run through much of the past 10 days.

The rap against this year's festival is that the Hollywood studios have hijacked the event. This observation comes not only from the Canadian media but some of the top American critics as well.

This year, on the 25th anniversary, the city was flooded with entertainment and industry reporters. Every party had VIP holding pens. Massive security guards with headsets were everywhere. The festival has turned into a superjunket -- a place to market slightly off-centre studio movies that can't assure their success with saturation television advertising, to hit as much press as possible in the shortest time and then bail out.

The stars swanned into town, and the local newspapers bowed down obligingly: You don't get Al Pacino, Robert De Niro or Richard Gere in town every weekend. With more than 300 films to write about, you can't really tell your editor that instead of waiting 2˝ hours for Minnie Driver to pull herself together, you'd rather see that Chinese masterpiece Platform, which ran for 3˝ hours on the second-last day of the festival.

When U.S. director Robert Altman was asked for his views on the "cult of celebrity" by a CBC documentary crew, he rightly answered that perhaps the media could answer that question better than he could. In a multichannel, multinewspaper universe, he said, everyone seems to get the same simple idea: Let's find someone famous and then make them more famous.

Not all media are the same. The Canadian press finds itself treated as second-rate in its own town by a system that persistently views Canada as a 10-per-cent corner of the U.S. market. (At least three times, other critics suggested we should perform some sort of collective protest against the studios' behaviour.) Yet the daily coverage across the board has changed in recent years to look less like the international potpourri of Film Comment and more like Star Tracks in People magazine. Fifteen years ago, it was considered irrelevant, if not downright ill-mannered, for newspapers to write about invitation-only parties that had limited significance to readers outside the film industry. Now, about a third of all festival coverage seems to be about these absurd photo-ops.

How much does this mean to the typical festival filmgoer? At first glance, nothing. The media and film industry presence combined is less than 1 per cent of the 250,000 people who attended the festival. Toronto audiences continued to fill screenings for Iranian, Icelandic, Tunisian, Vietnamese and Canadian films. Just because the newspapers are chock full of the wisdom of Gwyneth and the parties of Farrah, that doesn't make Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love any less brilliant, does it?

The answer is: It hasn't hurt yet. Other national delegations were struggling for attention. At a luncheon for the French press, the access to genuine talent was absurdly easy. Suddenly, you're sitting on a sofa with a great French filmmaker, Olivier Assayas, who is anxious to talk about his film, devoid of pretension, and completely free of personal handlers. Compared to the conveyer-belt mentality of the Hollywood junket and the absurd protocol around protecting the "talent," the French filmmakers are amazingly normal.

If the foreign media don't get the attention, why should they come? Kelly Alexander, who runs the industry centre for the festival, says that the festival works because of a collusion of forces:

The distributors arrive to buy films. They monitor the highly attentive Toronto audiences and they monitor the daily reviews, because a piece of positive print goes a long way to making a deal. Each year, about 40 significant film deals come out of the festival. What this means is that the kind of films that can usually only be seen at film festivals might have some chance for continued life.

Piers Handling, director of the festival, says that the picture isn't simple: In fact, coverage of international cinema is much more thorough than it was 10 years ago, even as the Hollywood coverage has increased.

"It's a question of keeping the balance, and we don't think we're out of balance at this point." He says it's impractical to tell stars to stay away, as much as it's impractical to ask newspapers not to devote columns to them. His answer to the Europeans is to encourage them to bring their own stars, the Michael Caines, the Juliette Binoches, Catherine Deneuves or Gérard Depardieus, to counter the American star wattage.

If there's one man worth taking a lesson from this year, it is American director Joel Schumacher. The uber-successful director of such blockbusters as Batman Forever, Batman and Robin and A Time to Kill was the ultimate Hollywood machine director. This year, he came to Toronto to premiere an inexpensive film called Tigerland, about a group of young men preparing to be shipped out to Vietnam in 1971.

He had reached the point, said Schumacher, where he felt he wasn't running the movies, they were running him and he wanted to recharge himself creatively. He took the lead of the Danish filmmakers from the Dogma 95 group, and shot it in 16mm with an unknown cast. It's probably his best film. He also appeared at the Mavericks industry symposium with other directors, walked the streets and gave interviews as long as he wanted.

Call it Schumacher's Axiom: There's nothing inevitable about market forces, and deleterious trends can be halted with a little determination and creative application.

Yes, the usual market forces are at work at the Toronto film festival -- greed, competition, simple-mindedness -- but the situation is not inevitable. From the festival's point of view, it could risk toning the event down in its negotations with the studios. The Toronto International Film Festival is a raging success, so the stars and sponsors and all the "special access" claptrap that goes with them are an option instead of a necessity.

As for the media coverage, it can't really be regulated. (Most American critics I spoke to were amazed that one city managed to have four newspapers, a fact that, in itself, assures some variety of coverage.) In spite of the grumblings about second-rate treatment, it's probably neither desirable nor possible for the Canadians to just say no to high-handed American studios. But there are creative alternatives that can keep the advertising department content while reflecting what the festival audiences truly love: A chance to see films that aren't available anywhere else.

There could be more dedicated columns exclusively devoted to the best in international cinema, to offset the party coverage; more spotlights on different national cinemas represented at the event, with some political background.

Perhaps, once again, the festival can be understood as a window onto the great wide world rather than a peep through the keyhole into the lives of the rich and tiresomely famous.

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