The TIFF Film Reference Library Gets New Digs
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The TIFF Film Reference Library Gets New Digs

There is a place where the insectoid typewriter from David Cronenberg’s screen adaptation of Naked Lunch shares shelf space with Atom Egoyan’s private papers and Mary Pickford’s frocks. But to gain admission to this Canadian film Valhalla, there’s no need to spill blood for Odin. It’s on King Street.

The Film Reference Library has existed since 1990. Until recently, it was located in an out-of-the-way office on Carlton Street, where space constraints made it difficult for staff to accommodate the general public. But that changed this fall, with the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Now the FRL, a division of the Toronto International Film Festival, occupies a brand new set of rooms on the fourth floor of that building.
The most significant addition to the FRL in its new location is a large, dramatically lit exhibition space, called The Canadian Film Gallery, which is devoted entirely to displaying to visitors film artifacts from the FRL’s collections. Previously, the Library had had no place to show off its holdings. Another recent change at the FRL is that they’ve done away with their former $7-per-day usage fee, making the Library completely free to the public―assuming the public knows where to find it. (Just take the Lightbox’s lobby elevator to four.)
Sylvia Frank, director of the FRL, seems grateful for the move. “In our old location we weren’t visible, and we were in a nondescript office building,” she said.
Frank thinks of her library’s increased commitment to public accessibility as being of a piece with the Lightbox’s mandate.
“Bell Lightbox is part of a bigger community,” she said. “There are a lot of things that are happening for free [at the Lightbox], so we’ve been blended in with that.”
The public will have access to the FRL’s general collection of thousands of Canadian and international books, DVDs, tapes (both VHS and Betamax), and laserdiscs. All video materials are viewable in-house (and only in-house) in Mac-equipped private viewing booths. The Library also has over sixty-five thousand film production files and archived press kits, as well as a comprehensive collection of documents related to TIFF itself.
Aside from the general collection, there’s a special collection, accessible only by appointment, and only to academic or professional researchers. It consists of one-of-a-kind items, mostly of importance to Canadian film.
For instance, the FRL has the teleportation chamber from The Fly (Frank says it’s made of plywood), props from several other David Cronenberg movies, personal papers from prominent directors like Atom Egoyan and Deepa Mehta, and even the horse heads from that one part in Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. (“When the horse heads came, it was one of those days where we all gathered around and went, ‘we have some really cool things here,'” Noah Cowan, Artistic Director of the Lightbox, told us during a conversation last month.)
To the outsider this might seem like bric-a-brac, but there’s a reason TIFF finds it worthwhile to devote its resources to, for example, storing the game console from eXistenZ in a climate-controlled environment. “I think the research value, in terms of props, is knowing how someone actually created that object,” said Frank. The props will also be the basis for exhibitions both in the Canadian Film Gallery and in the Lightbox’s first floor gallery.
The Library’s holdings also make it an international destination for researchers looking for primary source materials pertaining to Canadian film.

The FRL’s holding room.

The FRL reopened on Tuesday October 26. On the Friday before that, there was a cocktail party in the Library’s Canadian Film Gallery space to celebrate the Library’s move to the Lightbox. Atom Egoyan gave a speech, and then quickly ensconced himself in a knot of conversation too tight to breach with a voice recorder and notepad. A waitress came by with a tray and asked, “Would you like a portobello frite?” We took one and ate it without really knowing what it was, so we’d at least seem like we were doing something other than longingly hovering over Egoyan. The frite was a little golden-brown stick of breaded mushroom flesh about the size of an AAA battery, precisely a bite’s worth of food. It came jutting out of a little plastic cup with some aioli in the bottom. The plastic cup wasn’t a Dixie cup; it was some sort of svelte variation on the Dixie design―white and rimless and tapered, with clean lines. It gradually became clear that Egoyan was beyond our reach, and so partly to assuage our guilt at not living up to our reporterly duties, and partly because he was interview worthy in his own right, we interrupted TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey on his way to the open bar and spoke to him for about ninety seconds, during which he didn’t say anything quotable. It occurred to us afterward that we should have asked him whether or not he regretted the bedbug tweet, but he might not have liked that.
Currently at the FRL, visitors can see the Canadian Film Gallery’s first ever exhibition, the most prominent feature of which is the actual grizzly-proof suit used in the 1996 documentary Project Grizzly. It stands in a corner next to an LCD screen displaying a video loop from the movie, in which Troy Hurtubise, the suit’s creator, tests the suit by letting people hit it with logs and pickup trucks while he’s inside it. It’s in surprisingly good condition, considering. The FRL purchased it on eBay.
Frank wouldn’t reveal what the Library paid for the suit, but a news website that was apparently following the auction as it unfolded reports the price at $2,226.
Most of the rest of the Library’s special collections, Frank says, were donated by filmmakers or other private entities. This includes the FRL’s collection of memorabilia pertaining to Mary Pickford, the silent film star, who was born in Toronto before going on to success and fame in the States. (In that respect, and in many others, she was a pioneer.) The Library’s Pickford materials were donated by a Mississauga collector named Rob Brooks. The Pickford Collection will form the basis of the Canadian Film Gallery’s first major exhibition, Mary Pickford and the Invention of the Movie Star, beginning in January 2011.
Frank thinks the FRL’s new space will help encourage more donations in the future. “People before who really thought there’s maybe no place to give your material to are suddenly thinking about us,” she said.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.