We ask how TIFF's new competition programme can find its groove.
A couple of hours before a dozen Oscar bloggers typed “Natalie Portman is an Oscar lock for Jackie” into a dozen laptops at the dozen or so Starbucks outlets surrounding the Winter Garden Theatre, a very different scene was unraveling in the same space. It was the world premiere of Japanese supernatural horror filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype, a stately—some might say sleepy—thriller about a ghost haunting a photographer who clings to the titular old form as the best way of granting his subjects immortality.
As charged as the air seems to have been in the room for Pablo Larraín’s first English language feature, a portrait of the widowed First Lady Jackie Onassis in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was stale for Kurosawa’s first French film. The little tufts of lights from smartphones throughout the crowd weren’t for impolitely timed tweets about Oscar predictions but for discreet time checks. The first Q and A question wasn’t about the film’s prospects but about whether the director was related to Akira Kurosawa. (He isn’t).
Besides their period trappings and their fortune to screen in the same stacked Edwardian theatre that just grazes the edge of opulence, the only similarity that links the two films is that both are screening as part of TIFF’s Platform programme.
Inaugurated last year, Platform is named after Chinese master Jia Zhang-ke’s film of the same name, which signals something of the pedigree the festival is after. It’s a selection of 12 films with no underlying theme beyond the distinctiveness of each filmmaker. More importantly, it’s a juried programme, unlike the festival’s overstuffed Special Presentations and audience-loved Midnight Madness and Wavelengths slates. That is to say that when you’re taking in a Platform film, you can wonder what the improbable trio of Brian De Palma, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and Zhang Ziyi think about it—the same way Cannes audiences have had the rare privilege of asking what famous people as diverse as Jude Law and Johnnie To thought of the new Nicolas Winding Refn joint.
TIFF likes to go out of its way to emphasize the public nature of the festival—whether it’s shutting down traffic and opening up King Street to pedestrians or foregrounding red carpet fan encounters in their trailers. But the emergence of Platform in tandem with its 40th anniversary seems to suggest a minor course correction toward something more elite, not unlike Cannes or Venice. Launching such a prestigious programme in downtown Toronto would seem to call for a bold new strategy for integrating the city’s audiences, international talent, juries, and media for a novel experience. That seems to be the festival’s logic in ensuring that the first screening of each Platform title, for both the public and press and industry types, happens at the Winter Garden. (That they go on to have separate press and industry screenings the following morning dulls the effect of exclusivity somewhat.)
Any programme that can accommodate both Jackie and Daguerrotype is a varied one, but one wonders if, at the ripe age of one, Platform is already going through something of an identity crisis. There’s a lack of clarity about what distinguishes a Platform title from a Gala. Both Larraín and Kurosawa, for instance, have had lowercase-P platforms at the festival already—the former getting a retrospective at the Lightbox just last year and the latter infamously screening Pulse, with its late shot of a plane flying into a building, in 2001, just days before September 11. Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, whose Maliglutit premieres tonight, has routinely topped best Canadian film polls, including one conducted by TIFF, for Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Surely their filmmaking styles and voices aren’t in need of evolving.
If the festival is looking for a way to tie the programme together in a more cohesive way that audiences, press, and jury alike can agree on, it might take its cue from the actual films. This year’s clear Platform darling is Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous, lyrical, and affecting coming-of-age drama about a young Black man growing up queer in the waning days of Reagan’s America. It’s a powerful and accomplished film that deliberately tells an old story about a young man finding himself in a distinct new way, addressing the dearth of Black queer stories about boyhood and youth in prestige films. Mijke de Jong’s Layla M. similarly takes a potentially hoary trope—the angry youth film—and pushes it in an interesting, topical direction, considering how Islamophobia helps radicalize an intelligent young Moroccan woman in Amsterdam.
Taken together, films like Moonlight and Layla M. evoke a diverse, fresh, politically engaged point of view that transcends the cryptic official language of the programme, and which speaks directly to the urban audiences the festival is courting. If Platform is going to become a solid foundation for emerging international filmmakers to stand on, and a rallying point not just for critics but for Toronto audiences, it needs to attune itself to the talent it already has.