Some of the notoriously pricey festival's best offerings for cinephiles on a budget.
The annual tradition of complaining about the Toronto International Film Festival’s ever-inflating prices got a new twist last Sunday. Prospective ticket buyers made it through the labyrinthine computer system and traversed the half-dozen virtual waiting rooms to find that their order would be subject to a mysterious new surcharge on especially popular screenings. The festival’s adoption of demand-based “surge pricing,” as it’s called in the industry, was for some further proof that TIFF has betrayed its public roots as the people’s festival to become a bastion of cultural elitism, pricing out customers who can’t afford to dish out somewhere north of $60 for “premium” screenings attended by a taciturn, glassy-eyed Casey Affleck or a charmingly rumpled James Franco.
TIFF is, of course, a bastion of cultural elitism, albeit a fairly democratic one, where Lav Diaz and Guillermo del Toro fans—both exist!—can linger in the same rush line. But it’s worth remembering at the outset of its 41st year that the festival is also a charitable organization committed, as its philanthropy page insists, and as the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s yearlong ads keep saying, “to bringing the power of film to life for everyone.” One of the ways TIFF makes that power manifest during the actual festival is through its surprisingly robust and diverse slate of free programming. Though TIFF has always been free for celebrity rubberneckers willing to camp out behind the barrier closest to the red carpet, or those stealthy and knowing enough to stake out a venue’s alternate exit for autographs, in recent years it has stepped up its game in terms of what both casual filmgoers and more committed cinephiles can take in without having to enter the Kafkaesque ticketing system.
Take the fest’s recent addition of Festival Street as a hub spanning the stretch of King Street between University Avenue and Peter Street. Despite the goofy moniker, the pedestrian-friendly space has seen eclectic performances—like a DJ set from Sven Hansen-Løve, the model for Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, her personal history of electronic dance music in France—as well as more wide-reaching showcases, like a concert by Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf, all of them free and in both cases tied to films showing at the festival. This year’s programme continues the trend of alternating between generous film programming and short sets by decent-sized Canadian acts like The Heartbroken. Friday, night, for instance, will see a free screening of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, presumably in tribute to the recently departed David Bowie. More tempting for Star Trek fans and anyone interested in the history of television, Thursday night’s festivities kick off at the Slaight Music Stage with a screening of “The Man Trap,” the first episode broadcast of The Original Series, exactly 50 years to the day. (Proper fans will know that the series actually debuted two days earlier in Canada on CTV, but no matter.)
If Festival Street’s free programming is a big tent, TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective screenings are a more curated, respectable crop, ranging from Pan’s Labyrinth to an anniversary screening of Jonathan Demme’s cult classic Something Wild, the latter boasting a Q-and-A with the director. They also offer excellent alternatives to some of the fest’s most out of reach films. In the wake of last year’s #oscarssowhite controversy, prestige filmgoers in search of diversity have looked to the Toronto debuts of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a deeply affecting coming-of-age tryptic about a young black man running from and coming to terms with his sexuality, and, in spite of still-emerging details from the filmmaker’s ugly past, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. Both are predictably hot tickets, but budget revellers can opt to take in one of the foundational works of African-American cinema in Julie Dash’s beautiful, haunting, and Beyoncé-endorsed Daughters of the Dust, screening on Sunday. Though Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is at a premium thanks to the promise of Kristen Stewart hitting the red carpet for a film where she plays a spirit medium in hipster knitwear and haute couture dresses, cinephiles can take in a digital restoration of the director’s even better (if regrettably KStew-less) Irma Vep for free.
These programmes don’t necessarily mitigate the stress of the cramped box office lineups, virtual lobbies, and inevitable credit card bills. But they prove that there’s a leaner, gentler, more accessible festival couched in the overwhelmingly expensive one, if you know where to look for it.