Toronto Film Festival Rendezvous with Madness Gets Serious About Mental Health
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Toronto Film Festival Rendezvous with Madness Gets Serious About Mental Health

The specialty fest hosts screenings and discussions about mental illness and addiction.

Still from festival opener The Other Half.

Still from festival opener The Other Half.

Arriving partway between the cultural behemoth of TIFF and the cultural blight that is December’s glut of awards-aspiring Oscar bait, the Rendezvous with Madness film festival has its work cut out for it. The specialty festival, now in its 24th year, stands out from the seemingly infinite options around it by promising a streamlined programme that illuminates both the facts and falsehoods around mental health and addiction. But what really sets Rendezvous with Madness apart is that unlike a number of its brethren on the specialty fest circuit, highlights like ImagineNATIVE aside, it puts its films in their proper social, cultural, and political contexts with a number of post-screening panel discussions.

Whatever you think about moderated audience Q-and-As—our ultimate bad experience being Academy Award winner Steve McQueen bluntly shooting down each inane question with “No” after a cryptically received TIFF screening of Shame—they’re important to a festival that prides itself on starting an earnest conversation about both popular and idiosyncratic representations of mental health, most of which come from outside the affected community. For all the recent waves made toward broadening our horizons toward neurodivergence and accessibility in schools and in the workplace, and for all of Claire Danes’s Emmys for playing a bipolar spook in Homeland, stigma around mental health issues has never really gone away in Hollywood and on television. Although you could point to the sympathetic portrayal of alcoholism in The Girl on the Train as a recent redemptive example, you can also draw a pretty straight line from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming Split, which seemingly trades in Anthony Perkins’s neuroses for an equally pulpy riff on the horrors of dissociative identity disorder. Suffice it to say, for people living with mental health issues, for whom their divergence from the norm is a fact of life anther than a tidy metaphor for what ails or scares society at large, the stakes of these representations are high.

That’s where Rendezvous with Madness comes in. This year’s edition, programmed by Globe and Mail critic and longtime festival friend Geoff Pevere, expands a little farther into the city than usual, taking up space at festival hub Workman Theatre (in the Workman Arts Centre) as well as expanding to Jackman Hall and the Revue. The films more or less represent that same ambitious spirit. The opening night selection is Joey Klein’s The Other Half, which skipped TIFF on its route from SXSW to here. Starring newly minted Emmy winner, sometimes clone, and Toronto local Tatiana Maslany (along with her real-life partner Tom Cullen, from Weekend). The film tracks the rocky relationship between the grief-stricken Cullen and Maslany’s bipolar lead, who Now Magazine critic Norm Wilner has compared to Gena Rowlands’ performance in A Woman Under the Influence (which Maslany herself has celebrated in interviews).

Prospective audiences looking for something a bit more topic-specific might do well to leave the burgeoning stars behind and take in Saturday afternoon’s program Shadowed, which compiles a number of international contemporary short films about trauma. Those seeking something a bit more local might also consider Sunday’s Workman Arts Shorts Program, which features shorts by the arts and mental health organization that sponsors the festival.

As for the more adventurous offerings at the fest, we’d do our best to take in the Toronto premiere of I, Olga Hepnarová, which took home the prize for Best First Feature at the Berlin International Film Festival. The monochromatic film is a docudrama about the eponymous mass killer, who deliberately drove a truck into a crowd of pedestrians in 1973. We haven’t screened it yet ourselves, but word out of Berlin was that it mostly dodged the sensationalism you might expect from that story. Our own favourite in the lineup is Trey Edward Shults’s Krisha, returning to Toronto after an earlier MDFF-sponsored screening this summer. The film, which was a Grand Jury and Audience prize winner at SXSW, sees a recovering addict returning to Texas to face her family at a tense Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a powerful, unnerving, immersive film that exorcises the feeling of being gripped by anxiety, which should inspire exactly the kind of conversations around health, recovery, and sobriety the festival hopes to start.

Visit the Rendezvous with Madness website for screening times and ticketing information. The festival runs from November 4-12.