The Eyes of TIFF

Programmers for the 46th Toronto International Film Festival chat about the degrees of intensity they look for in a festival film, and help us zoom in on the gems from TIFF’s 2021 program, by genre and region.

Intensity can be achieved in so many different ways. I know it when I feel it. You feel it in your gut.” —⁠Cameron Bailey

It’s almost business as usual for TIFF this year. In-person events and red carpets return, but a healthy virtual program is also available for Canadian-based folk unable to travel, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues its onslaught.

TIFF co-head and artistic director Cameron Bailey has been with the festival for just over half its life, and says while some of the technology has changed in that time—“you’re no longer sitting in front of a TV monitor with VHS tapes… or waiting for 35mm prints to be spooled up and projected for you” —⁠the “basic process of falling in love with movies” has not.

It’s a challenge, Bailey says, to winnow down the films he falls in love with for the final TIFF lineup. And even then, it is an annual challenge for film lovers tight on time to narrow down their own selections. So, ahead of the fest, Bailey joined fellow TIFF programmers for a Twitter Spaces conversation with our editor in chief Gemma Gracewood, in order to help Letterboxd members make some watchlist decisions.

Joining Bailey were Thom Powers (TIFF Docs), Peter Kuplowsky (Midnight Madness), Robyn Citizen (senior programming manager), Diana Sanchez (Special Presentations, Spain, Latin America, Portugal and the Caribbean), Diana Cadavid (International Cinema) and Nataleah Hunter-Young (Africa, “the Middle East” and the Black Diaspora).

Edited highlights of the conversation follow, so have your watchlists close at hand.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, written by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, written by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter.

Thank you all for joining me today. You watch a lot of films as you’re going through the selection process. How does one make itself stand out to you?
Cameron Bailey: For every programmer it’s going to be something different. For me, it comes down to an intangible quality of intensity. That can be emotional intensity, it can be the intensity of formal elements, the cinematography, the performances, the writing. Some sense of concentrated emotion and momentum, where you get the sense that a filmmaker is trying to find a way to distill the essence of what they’re trying to do and communicate it to an audience through all of the tools that cinema provides. That doesn’t mean the movie has to be fast-paced or have a lot of dramatic jolts, as intensity can be achieved in so many different ways. I know it when I feel it. You feel it in your gut.

What would you say are some of the performances that have struck you the most this year?
CB: Jessica Chastain is the lead in a film we’re premiering called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Michael Showalter. If you were watching TV in the ’80s and ’90s, you will remember Tammy Faye Bakker, and her husband, Jim Bakker, who were TV televangelists. You couldn’t miss Tammy, as she had these giant eyes and makeup with giant eyelashes, and this is essentially her story. It’s hard to know at first that it’s Jessica Chastain underneath all of that makeup, but she gives a performance that’s not just about the exterior. It’s about a woman who is shaped by a difficult upbringing, shaped by this incredibly deep need she has for affirmation, to be on TV, to be in front of the camera, and that guides her decisions into extremes. She’s fantastic in it.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back with two films. He is the lead in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. It’s an understated, slow-burn performance in some ways, which he can do so well. He’s also in a film that’s on the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. It’s based on a real person, and when you watch the film you will be amazed that this person actually existed. Wain, in the early part of the twentieth century, was a prodigious painter who turned his talent towards painting thousands of cats. Cute cats, big eyed cats, fuzzy, adorable cats. He’s largely responsible for cats becoming as big as they are as domesticated pets. It’s a wild story.

I’m still recovering from watching The Power of the Dog’s trailer earlier today, and had to promise myself that I wouldn’t take up this entire time talking about Jane Campion’s obsession with hands. The Spencer trailer dropped as well, which has a lot of buzz around it.
CB: Yes, Spencer is a remarkable portrait. Some of us remember Princess Diana, some of us have watched The Crown, and so have a very recent image, but this is a completely different performance that Kristen Stewart gives. She’s remarkable in it. I think everybody’s going to want to see this film.

Charlotte, written by David Bezmozgis and Erik Rutherford, directed by Tahir Rana and Éric Warin.
Charlotte, written by David Bezmozgis and Erik Rutherford, directed by Tahir Rana and Éric Warin.

Are there any other titles you’d like to get the buzz started for, Cameron?
CB: On the animation side, I would say people should look out for a film called Charlotte, by Tahir Rana and Éric Warin. It’s a Canadian film telling a story based in World War II Europe about a woman in a Jewish family [exiled] in France during the occupation of France by the Nazis. She can feel what is coming. She decides to paint everything about her life, and her family’s life, trying to document what she feels is going to be very fragile, and what she might lose altogether.

As it turns out, before the end of the war she was taken away to a death camp by the Nazi regime, and she didn’t survive, but her paintings have survived and they were turned into a book, along with the story of her family. The animation is just gorgeous. I think that’s one that awards bodies are going to be paying attention to. It’s one of the best animated films I’ve seen in quite a while.

Thom, what are some of the documentary titles that you and the team think those awards bodies will have their eyes on?
Thom Powers: A big one to pay attention to is The Rescue, by Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who won the Oscar for their last film, Free Solo. Their new film is looking at the Thai cave rescue [in 2018], when a group of young soccer players and their coach got trapped by monsoon floods in a cave. When we were watching the news, we were seeing the journalists reporting from outside the cave. What this film does is bring you inside that rescue using footage that’s never been seen before. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are masters at the documentary adventure genre, and also [at] bringing a real human side to the people involved, which they do again here.

I’ll also mention Becoming Cousteau, by Liz Garbus, and Julia, a film about Julia Child, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who made the Oscar-nominated documentary RBG a few years ago. So many of us during the pandemic had to rediscover ourselves in the kitchen, and Julia Child’s life was about making people feel more comfortable in the kitchen, which makes it a terrific film to watch at this time.

Saloum, directed by Jean Luc Herbulot.
Saloum, directed by Jean Luc Herbulot.

Peter, what’s a movie from this year’s Midnight Madness lineup you’d love to recommend?
Peter Kuplowsky: We’ve got a lot of firsts at Midnight this year. We have Saloum, the first time a West African film has ever been in Midnight. We’ve also got Zalava, which is the first Iranian film to play in Midnight. Our opening film for Midnight Madness is Julia Ducournau’s Titane, which is playing at the Princess of Wales theater, and will be a spectacle to behold. When I’m looking for Midnight Madness, I like hearing the audience make certain noises in the room, whether that’s a gasp or screams or laughter. I feel that every note on the scale is going to be played during Titane by the audience.

Brilliant. Now, we’re going to bring in some audience questions. First up is Vincent, who says that one of their favorite films is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, and asks if there are any films in this year’s TIFF lineup you could recommend for a fan of that film?
PK: I’ve really been encouraging people to check out the films I just mentioned, Zalava and Saloum, and I think Zalava especially would fit here, as it’s more of a horror-drama. It begins as something that is steeped in the supernatural, but as it escalates it becomes something of a pitch-black comedy while still maintaining a gravitas to it. I think it’s one of the most fascinating discoveries in the genre space this year.

CB: I’d also add Good Madam, by Jenna Bass, from South Africa. It is a chilling movie, with a bit of an Eyes Without a Face vibe. If you like that sort of approach to cinema, I think you’ll like that.

PK: Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash just won the Golden Leopard at Locarno. With a title like that, this is a film that feels like it’s going to be sort of a strictly pulp crime film, but it’s so much more. It’s deeply romantic, incredibly eclectic, and beautifully shot on 16mm film. It feels like a film that was hidden away, shot in the late ’70s or early ’80s. It’s a throwback to 1980s Hong Kong action films, while also, I can’t stress this enough, being one of the most romantic films in the festival. You’ll fall in love with this relationship while it’s also working in fight sequences and magical realism.

Nataleah, what’s something you would recommend from your TIFF selections from Africa, “the Middle East” and the Black Diaspora?
Nataleah Hunter-Young: One I’d highly recommend is Costa Brava, directed by Mounia Akl, from Lebanon. Even amidst what’s going on in Lebanon right now, the film offers a beautiful and engrossing portrait of a family that includes a grandmother who’s a non-actor, but has impeccable comedic timing (that travels through the subtitles if you don’t speak Arabic).

Snakehead, written and directed by Evan Leong.
Snakehead, written and directed by Evan Leong.

Robyn, what’s a movie that surprised you most during your selections this year?
Robyn Citizen: I always recommend that people check out our Discovery section because that’s where we find new talent and nurture new voices. The film that really surprised me this year was Snakehead, by Evan Jackson Leong. Some people will know him from a documentary called Linsanity, and he did another documentary about evangelism in Korea. Snakehead has been a ten-year labor of love for him. He had to do a Kickstarter for the film, which is loosely based on the life of a woman named Sister Ping, who had a human trafficking ring that was the biggest trafficking ring for about 20 years.

The film tackles what’s going on now with vulnerable populations being trafficked into America, in particular Chinatown in the US, and the main character, played by Shuya Chang, has to fight to find her daughter. It’s an exciting film, and very moving. It’s extremely tightly edited, and it looks fantastic.

We’ve got our next question here from a member who says their favorite genre is science-fiction. While Dune is at the top of their watchlist, are there any other sci-fi selections you could recommend?
PK: I would recommend After Blue (Dirty Paradise), which is a perverse science-fiction by Bertrand Mandico. It reminds me a lot of the French animated film Fantastic Planet. This one is about a planet which is inhospitable to men because of the way hair grows. The plot follows a young teenage girl who accidentally unleashes a notorious criminal that she and her hairdresser mother have to stalk through the alien landscape that is full of bizarre creatures and liquids and gases. I feel it’s kind of like the inverse of Dune, and an opportunity to explore a bizarre ecosystem.

NHY: I would totally insist that this member see Neptune Frost, from Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman. It’s a difficult film to put into words, but I’ve been summing it up by calling it an Afro-sonic sci-fi musical.

Whoa, that sounds like a whole new subgenre.
NHY: That’s just the beginning. There’s a lot to experience in this film. It’s a cosmic romance that follows an intersex hacker and a coltan miner who make their way to this kind of dream space where they connect with others as they travel through these lush mountainous regions of Rwanda and Burundi. It’s a beautiful anti-narrative that is impeccably colored and totally consuming. It’s a must-see for anybody who loves cinema.

Diana, what would you say is the best debut feature that you’ve seen among this year’s international selections?
Diana Cadavid: There are so many wonderful new talents, but I think I’ll go with an Argentinian filmmaker named Agustina San Martín. Her film, To Kill the Beast, is a co-production between Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and she worked for nine years to put this all together. She started working on it when she was 21, and we were actually having a conversation yesterday about her process, and how it’s a film that deals with the growth of a woman, and female desire. There’s this idea of the beast, something that’s either from inside or from outside forces, trying to control the human mind and body. It’s a very interesting film, gorgeously shot and very atmospheric.

Yuni, written by Prima Rusdi and Kamila Andini, directed by Andini.
Yuni, written by Prima Rusdi and Kamila Andini, directed by Andini.

We’ve got another question here from David, who says their favorite films are humanistic dramas, citing Hirokazu Kore-eda as one of their favorite directors. Would anybody have any recommendations for David?
CB: I can recommend at least one film, called Yuni, an Indonesian film from Kamila Andini. This is a naturalist drama about a high-school girl who is one of the top students in her class, and has a great group of friends. We slowly begin to see that her life is being constrained by one man after another, and then something happens at school, which begins to narrow her possibilities for her future. She’s trying to figure out things like sexuality and romance and what she wants to do with her future, and all of these obstacles keep getting placed in her path. It’s told in a very gentle way, but very incisive as well. Each scene really matters, taking you deeper inside this girl’s life.

RC: Our senior programmer Giovanna Fulvi programmed a film called Aloners, a South Korean film by Hong Sung-eun. This is her first feature, and it’s very much a film of our time. It is about a woman who works in the gig economy at a credit-card customer-service call center. It’s a very transient existence. She doesn’t talk to anybody, she eats by herself, she doesn’t really want to associate with the people in her apartment building. One day, one of her neighbors who has tried to talk to her many times passes away, and she has to re-interrogate the way that she’s been living her life, and figure out if it’s worth starting to form some human connections.

Next up is a question from Matt Neglia, from the Next Best Picture podcast. Matt says that he’s a massive fan of epics, whether they’re three hours long or just telling an expansive story with lots of world-building. Apart from Dune, are there any other films in the lineup that you would describe as epic?
CB: While Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World might not strike you on reading its synopsis as an epic, I think it actually is an emotional epic. It’s the story of a young woman who’s trying to figure out her life. Her romance with one boyfriend doesn’t quite fit the bill for her, and she begins this looking and exploring. Trier and his writer and lead actor do remarkable work, blowing open the idea of a person trying to define who they are at this turning point in their life. They make these stakes massive and they have all kinds of interesting, innovative, formal elements in [the film] as well. It’s incredibly cinematic. If you’ve seen Joachim Trier’s other films, this is kind of the conclusion of a trilogy that he’s made.

Listening to Kenny G, directed by Penny Lane.
Listening to Kenny G, directed by Penny Lane.

Next up, we have Sarah, who is looking for movies about music, and also some body horror.
CB: We’ve got a number of great music docs this year. I have to mention Dionne Warwick, the queen of Twitter, who is the subject of Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over. It tells the story of this incredibly talented, determined and glamorous musician who broke so many barriers. She toured in the south during the Jim Crow era, making gains as a Black woman in the music industry and in the pop-music industry, not the so-called race-record or Black-music industry, which simply wasn’t done at the time. This documentary tells that story, and also shows her later work in the ’80s contributing to the fight against stigma and hysteria during the AIDS crisis.

PK: I’ll follow up Cameron by mentioning the Alanis Morissette film Jagged. We’ve also got a film about the great jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, called Oscar Peterson: Black + White. Lastly, there’s a film about Kenny G, called Listening to Kenny G.

Diana Sanchez: For the body horror, I’d like to mention the debut film by Ruth Paxton, titled A Banquet. It’s about a young woman who insists her body is no longer her own, and is a service to a higher power. Her mother has no idea what to think. She stops eating, and her mother doesn’t know [whether] to believe her or not. I love Ruth Paxton’s work, the way she shoots the film, the way she shoots the food. It’s almost, as she refers to it, pornographic. It looks delicious and gross all at the same time.

I’d also like to flip to comedy quickly to mention Official Competition. The film stars Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez. Cruz plays a filmmaker who puts together a well-known theater actor and a well-known box-office glamor guy, played by Banderas. The film speaks to the tension between high art and more popular art, testing those boundaries. It’s incredibly funny.

We’d love to squeeze a few more films out of everyone for our watchlists. Could you each recommend one film and try to sell it in ten words or less?
CB: Let me try. Sundown, by Michel Franco. Tim Roth falls apart beautifully in Mexico.

TP: I’m going to go with the Mexican documentary, Comala. Filmmaker Gian Cassini explores the legacy of his father, who was a Tijuana hitman.

PK: I’ll go with Saloum, which is basically From Dusk Till Dawn in West Africa.

RC: I’m going to say The Wheel, a movie by Steve Pink. If you like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this is like that with a younger couple in a much more humane, intimate key.

DS: I’ll say I’m Your Man, a sci-fi where Maren Eggert dates a robotic Dan Stevens.

PK: I know Diana has been recommending a film called OUT OF SYNC, about an artist who begins to experience the sound of the world going out of sync. She starts hearing sounds from the past because people and things are out of sync with their surroundings.

NHY: I’ll go with The Gravedigger’s Wife, directed by Khadar Ahmed. It showcases the horn of Africa unlike you’ve ever seen it on screen.

Finally, for Cameron: with fall coming, what is the best TIFF 2021 movie to watch under a blanket, either because it’s cozy or because you’re terrified, or both?
CB: Great question, which gives me a chance to talk about Earwig, the new film by Lucile Hadžihalilović. If you’ve seen Innocence or Evolution, her two most recent films, you’re prepared in terms of tone, but you’ve not even seen Lucille make a film quite like this. It’s eerie, disturbing, hypnotic, mesmerizing. You can’t stop watching, but you’re always afraid that something awful and horrifying is about to happen… and maybe it might.

Night Raiders, written and directed by Danis Goulet.
Night Raiders, written and directed by Danis Goulet.

To bring it all back home, what would you say is the Canadian film of 2021?
CB: It’s always hard to say, but I think in a year where we have Danis Goulet’s feature Night Raiders, that’s got to be the one. Danis has made some exceptional short films over the last few years that people might know. Her feature takes on the horrific, devastating story of residential schools and children torn from Indigenous families and put in institutions where the goal was to erase their Indigenous identity. She takes that terrible, real history that we’re grappling with right now in Canada, and turns it into a piece of speculative fiction, a kind of propulsive thriller.

By turning it into fiction rather than reality she can use all of the tools of cinema to tell a terrific story that’s exciting and has high stakes, but also has this deep resonance of a truth that we are, I hope, coming to terms with in this country.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 18. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Follow TIFF on Letterboxd, and follow our Festiville HQ for regular festival updates.


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