As if TIFF wasn’t enough, Torontonians will be able to enjoy movies when they venture into subway stations. Starting on Friday, the seventh-annual Toronto Urban Film Festival will begin to show silent short films, each roughly a minute in length, on over 290 Pattison Onestop screens throughout the subway system. (Onestop screens are those ceiling-mounted HDTV-like displays that show headlines, ads, and train arrival times.) The movies will run every ten minutes at most stations, and they’ll play uninterrupted at Yonge-Bloor, St. Andrew, and Dundas stations.
The festival is the brainchild of founder and executive director Sharon Switzer, who partnered with Pattison Onestop in 2006 when the company was looking for content other than headlines and ads. “It took about six months of e-mailing back and forth to convince them to run some arts programming,” Switzer says. The first TUFF was held in 2007. At the time, its goal was to provide local emerging filmmakers with some exposure.
This year’s 390 submissions are more than twice what the festival received that first year. “Our very first year we had about 174,” Switzer says, “but we actually crashed our server, so we might have gotten more.” This year’s submissions came from 35 countries. And while TUFF was once confined to films that were city themed, there are now no restrictions on subject matter. “It’s hard enough to make a silent one-minute film,” Switzer says. “I’m interested in any genre and any theme and any message.”
Working with Hot Docs programmer Angie Driscoll, Switzer selected an eclectic mix of 82 films for this year’s festival, including animations, comedies, action films, and abstract video art. She attributes the high quality of these short films to the prevalence of social video-sharing sites like Instagram and Vine, though she does have her reservations about the movement. “I don’t know if it’s helped in a bigger sense, this move to shorter and shorter and shorter. But the work I see, people are taking it so much more seriously,” she says.
Never one to be restricted by the format of the festival, Switzer has tweaked the viewing experience in several ways. First, she commissioned experimental artist Christina Battle to expand on the length of the shorts by making a series of one-minute films rather than just a standalone piece. Also, she’s bringing the festival above ground with a group of eight-second shorts by David Clark, to be run on screens just north of Yonge-Dundas Square. All the films are available on the TUFF website, where users can vote for their favourites. Screenings of the entire lineup will be held at the Drake over the final weekend of the festival.
As always, though, a guest judge will award almost $20,000 in cash and prizes. This year, Toronto director Bruce McDonald will join the illustrious company of past judges Deepa Mehta and Don McKellar—even as he premieres his new film, The Husband, at TIFF. For Switzer, McDonald is more than local talent. “I grew up on his films,” she explains.
While talks are underway to bring a sister festival to the Edmonton Transit System, Switzer sees the ubiquity of TUFF in Toronto as one of its greatest virtues, even if that ubiquity can sometimes make it difficult to gauge audience enthusiasm.
“When I mention it in the world, people have heard about it,” Switzer says. “So I think Toronto has adopted it as kind of a given, which to me is good. It means it’s part of their daily landscape. Which is what you want for public art. For people to expect it and look for it and enjoy it.”