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Anonymous celebrities
The stars of foreign screens enjoy their time at a film festival in a country where they're not swarmed by fans

By JENNIE PUNTER, Special to The Globe and Mail
September 13, 2002

TORONTO -- Javier Camara loves to swim naked. If the star of Pedro Almodovar's latest film, Talk to Her, had a free afternoon during the overheated days of the Toronto International Film Festival, he could have visited the clothing-optional beach at the city's Hanlan's Point without worrying about someone taking a picture of him in his birthday suit. But in Spain, where he is the star of a hugely popular sitcom called 7 Vidas (or "Seven Lives," which he describes as the Spanish equivalent of Friends), this activity is now impossible.

"I cannot do it because there is paparazzi," he says, sitting on the patio of Toronto's Hotel Intercontinental last weekend. "That is the worst side about this because I lose my privacy, not only on the streets but everywhere I go. When everybody knows your face, you have to defend your family, your house, your life."

Camara is one of dozens of foreign celebrities -- many of them popular film or television stars in their home countries -- for whom the bustle of TIFF is a break from the flashbulbs and autograph-seekers they encounter back home. He is in town to promote and attend the screenings of the latest film from the revered Spanish director Almodovar, who won an Oscar and Golden Globe Award two years ago for All About My Mother. (Talk to Her opens in Canada later this year.)

"To work with Almodovar is the dream of an actor, because your dream is to work with emotions and to work intensely," Camara says. "I think he is a genius, but I am not objective with this film. I am touched in my heart. It changed my life as an actor, and now I focus my life in another way. When you work in TV, it's more like a party. People in Spain are charmed with the film, but now they are angry because they want me to return to the sitcom."

Camara took classes to improve his English before flying over, and is accompanied by an interpreter to help smooth the conversation. He knows the media attention he has been receiving here is because he is the sole representative of a film by a high-profile director at an important festival. Anyone who opens a newspaper or turns on the TV knows that the red-carpet action, the Hollywood stars and big-name directors get most of the ink and airtime during the festival.

But in a multicultural city such as Toronto, other kinds of mob scenes happen off-screen. Earlier this week, Korean director Lee Jung-hyang was delighted and surprised when she arrived at the airport to find dozens of fans clamouring for her autograph; the premiere of her feature, The Way Home, was followed by a similar scene.

Tuesday night the Korean Film Commission threw a party for the 10 films and seven visiting filmmakers from Korea, the country in the festival's national spotlight this year, and last Friday the Finnish consul to Toronto held an intimate reception at her home to welcome the Finnish actors Anni-Khristiina Juuso (The Cuckoo) and Kati Outinen, who won the best-actress prize at Cannes earlier this year for her performance in Aki Kaurismaki's The Man Without a Past. These are just a couple of the smaller events that have been taking place all over town, as the glamorous, exclusive post-Gala bashes unfold, complete with security guards and VIP sections, keeping the talent at a safe distance from the riff-raff.

When you're covering the festival, pacing the corridors of the Four Seasons and the Hotel Intercontinental and walking the stretch of Bloor Street between them, you find yourself bumping into Hollywood celebrities at every turn -- Michael Caine having lunch, Willem Dafoe adjusting his belt as he exits the men's room, Sigourney Weaver towering over everyone in the elevator. Such sightings becomes so commonplace that an encounter with a foreign star, especially one whom you suspect has the potential to become the next Penelope Cruz, is a thrill.

On Tuesday, I wandered into a small restaurant on Yorkville Avenue to check out a party being held for two films from the Philippines, Wretched Lives and Small Voices, both of which star Alessandra de Rossi, an award-winning 18-year-old actor whose first feature film, Dog Food, was shown here in 2000. With a dazzling smile and a delightful sense of humour, she told me she had already met dozens of Filipino-Canadians who knew all about her, even though they have never seen her work.

"I was surprised, but they told me they read about me on the Internet," explains de Rossi, who stars in two popular TV shows, Clik, the Dawson's Creek of the Philippines, and a soap opera called When You're Gone (directed by Joel Lamangan, who also helmed Wretched Lives, his fifth film to screen at the Toronto festival).

Small Voices, in which de Rossi plays a young teacher going to work in a small provincial town, is directed by Gil M. Portes, who told me that after the media/industry screening that the audience gave the film a standing ovation and several people in the audience were spotted crying -- an unusual reaction for what is a typically tight-lipped crowd. De Rossi is in high demand in her country, and tells me she would eventually like to try working in Italy, where her father was born. She speaks the language, and her ethereal beauty and accomplishments so far will no doubt help.

But for now, after her appearance in Toronto, she will return to Manila, her hectic TV shooting schedule and the daily life of a superstar in the Philippines. "I like to go out with my friends," she says, "I still have fun but now everywhere I go people always call out, 'Alex, Alex,' and ask for my autograph. I guess I'm just used to it."

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