Monday, September 10th marked day five of the Toronto International Film Festival (September 6 to 15) and the date of the Real to Reel cocktail reception. It was warm and sunny, and doc-makers attending the festival from around the world happily mingled on the patio of the party’s café venue, wine in one hand, business card in the other.
Films were already causing a stir and conversation centered on them. Distributor Jan Rofekamp and director Michael Rubbo lounged against the bar and marveled over how accepting audiences were of the theories Rubbo’s film Much Ado About Something proposes concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Rubbo had been looking forward to a good debate and he hadn’t gotten one. George Ratliff of Cantina Pictures in New York had seen the Sunday afternoon screening of Arthur Bradford’s film How’s Your News? The documentary, about five enthusiastic individuals with a range of mental and physical disabilities who travel across America gathering the ‘news’, had received a standing ovation and impressed Ratliff. Ratliff’s own film, Hell House, was scheduled to screen Tuesday afternoon and he was visibly excited.
Then, the tragedies of Tuesday, September 11th, blackened the screens of the festival and inserted an atmosphere of shock and grief. Quickly, everything was referred to as ‘before’ and ‘after’.
Most attendees applaud the festival’s decision to continue screening films ‘after’, but all acknowledge it wasn’t easy to return to business. Says Ratliff, ‘It was hard to refocus on the festival, but you had to. Then, you felt guilty for worrying about your little movie when these world events are happening.’ Filmmakers worried their films would be seen differently, and were nervous about audience reaction.
‘The houses were still full, but the films were resonating rather differently,’ confirms Sean Farnel, programmer of TIFF’s Real to Reel program. ‘Films like The Struma and Promises, became a lot different. Hell House played very, very well and it screened both times after Tuesday, but even that resonated differently because there’s a group in a Pentecostal church saying that end times are nigh.’
Simcha Jacobovici’s film The Struma investigates the sinking of a ship carrying Romanian Jews during World War II. It screened twice after Tuesday to a full crowd. ‘During the screening, people were literally hanging on every word,’ says Jacobovici. ‘I would like to think it was my filmmaking, but I also think it was because people suddenly had patience. They wanted to understand how tragedies happen and they connected with the loss.’
Jacobovici says The Struma won the approval of New Yorker Films, and will likely have a theatrical run in New York. Ratliff is also in discussions with several U.S. distributors who are interested in giving Hell House a theatrical release. Says Ratliff, ‘I have always wanted to have a theatrical release for this film. I realize it will probably be limited, but it doesn’t matter. I think it should be seen on the [big] screen.’ Promises – directed by B.Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro and Carlos Bolado – records the opinions Israeli and Palestinian children hold about the peace process. Goldberg says the film’s TIFF appearance awakened interest from several U.S. distributors and the filmmakers are currently in discussions with Canadian provincial pubcaster TVO about a TV debut. Peter Lynch’s Cyberman, produced by Michael Allder of the CBC’s The Nature of Things, also secured U.S. representation at the festival.
Farnel says Tuesday’s events make assessing this year’s festival difficult, but he points to the packed theaters as a clear sign that docs are gaining an audience. ‘Most of the doc screenings were sold out, and those that weren’t were really well attended,’ he explains. ‘I’m sure the documentary audience has nearly doubled from last year and we had a big increase last year over the year before. So, in three years, we’ve really made significant gains in terms of attracting the public to the festival.’