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TIFF cautiously rebounds from pandemic with 100-plus features planned, but no popcorn

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The Toronto International Film Festival is hoping COVID-19 will be more of an annoyance than a threat for moviegoers come September, as it cautiously prepares for a 10-day celebration of cinema that will be significantly bigger and more in-person than last year’s event.

“It’s been a tough year and we’re so glad to be back,” said Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director and co-head, in a press statement heralding a return to something closer to normalcy for the fest.

TIFF announced Wednesday that its 46th edition, running Sept. 9 to 18, will screen more than 100 feature films from around the world, including a special advance screening at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere Theatre of Denis Villeneuve’s eagerly anticipated sci-fi blockbuster “Dune,” which is due in theatres this fall.

The fest will coincidentally also have films saluting two award-winning Canadians with the same first name: pop singer Alanis Morissette, whose landmark alt-rock album “Jagged Little Pill” gets a 25-year reflection; and documentarian Alanis Obomsawin, the lauded Abenaki filmmaker, singer, artist and activist whose decades of government-challenging films about Indigenous communities will be honoured with a retrospective curated by Jason Ryle, the former head of the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

TIFF 2021 will also expand the festival’s reach nationwide for the first time, offering satellite screenings of festival films in theatres across Canada.

The 100-plus features planned for TIFF’s Official Selection are a big increase from the 61 features screened at the 2020 festival, TIFF’s first to be struck by the pandemic. There will also be several dozen short films. In a normal year, TIFF screens some 250 features and 80 shorts.

TIFF is cheered by news this week that more than 75 per cent of Toronto adults have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 25 per cent have received their second dose. This allows it to plan for in-person screenings at its indoor theatrical venues, including Roy Thomson Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre and festival headquarters TIFF Bell Lightbox. (There will also be many digital screenings, as there were last year.)

Viral precautions will still have to be observed: masks and physical distancing will be required of moviegoers during indoor screenings, where popcorn and other snacks will not be sold to avoid people removing their masks to eat. (These rules won’t apply at the Ontario Place drive-in and open-air theatres, TIFF venues introduced last year, which are returning.)

“We fully anticipate that by the time the festival arrives, all Ontarians will have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated,” TIFF said in its press release.

“Public health indicators, such as hospitalizations, ICU occupancy and case rates indicate that we’re on the right — and safe — path to fully reopening. In addition, audiences will confidently be able to enjoy in-cinema screenings by maintaining a safe physical distance and wearing a mask.”

TIFF is currently not planning to demand proof of vaccination for indoor attendees, something that is happening in the U.S. at sports events, concerts and film festivals.

“We’ll see what happens in Canada, what others are doing,” said Joana Vicente, TIFF’s executive director and co-head, in an interview. “But right now we’re not planning it.”

The reduced threat of COVID means TIFF can focus more on its film offerings, which “will build on its unwavering commitment to greater representation of voices by challenging the status quo, celebrating diverse storytellers and audiences, and making space for Black, Indigenous, people-of-colour, women and LGBTQ+ creators and other under-represented talent,” the festival said.

The advance screening of “Dune” at the Ontario Place Cinesphere is a big get for TIFF, Bailey said, even though the film will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival a few days earlier. Director Villeneuve, who hails from Quebec, has long been a supporter of TIFF, and the Ontario Place Cinesphere is the world’s first purpose-built cinema for the made-in-Canada IMAX large film format that “Dune” employs in part.

“We decided we’d focus on just the Canadianness of it all,” Bailey said in an interview, noting that the screening will celebrate not just Villeneuve and his work but also IMAX, whose co-founder Graeme Ferguson, a Toronto filmmaker and innovator, died last month at age 91.

“Denis is very excited to do that as well. He was talking to us about a month ago about having shot some of the sequences of ‘Dune’ in IMAX with that technology and really being eager to show that to an audience the way it was meant to be seen.”

Besides “Dune,” TIFF announced 12 other films for its 46th edition, several of them Canadian or Canadian co-productions, with many more to be unveiled in the weeks ahead.

The other 12 are: “Le Bal des Folles,” a thriller about a Paris hospital escapee, by actor/director Mélanie Laurent; “Benediction,” a biopic of English poet Siegfried Sassoon, by Terence Davies; “Belfast,” a blue-collar family drama set in the 1960s, starring Judi Dench, by Kenneth Branagh; “Charlotte,” an animated tale of courage about German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, set in Nazi-occupied wartime France, by Eric Warin and Tahir Rana; “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” a doc about pop icon Warwick, by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner; “The Guilty,” a police drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ethan Hawke, by Antoine Fuqua; “Jagged,” a doc about Emmy-winning Ottawa pop star Alanis Morissette, by Alison Klayman; “Lakewood,” a small-town lockdown drama starring Naomi Watts, by Phillip Noyce; “Last Night in Soho,” a time-travelling horror mystery set in 1960s London, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, by Edgar Wright; “Night Raiders,” a dystopian sci-fi about a mother’s quest to rescue her daughter, by Danis Goulet; “Petite Maman,” a fantasy drama about a young girl’s woodland adventure, by Céline Sciamma; and “The Starling,” a comedy about a grieving woman and a frisky bird, starring Melissa McCarthy, by Theodore Melfi.

More details, including ticketing information, are available at 🌓

(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star).

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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