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Toronto International Film Festival 2018 looks to read the moment and move it forward

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 looks to read the moment and move it forward
A scene from 'If Beale Street Could Talk," starring KiKi Layne and Stephen James. Directed by Barry Jenkins and adapted from a novel by James Baldwin, the film will have its world premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. (TIFF)

If you are feeling particularly anxious, concerned or upset by the cultural and political moment, the Toronto International Film Festival is here for you. Though perhaps not exactly to mellow any troubled minds.

This year’s festival, which runs Sept. 6-16 and has a longstanding reputation as an awards season launching pad, brims over with movies that reflect a charged sense of unease and uncertainty. These films may not provide easy answers, but they do give voice to questions that audiences are already asking themselves.

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And as the first edition of the festival to convene since the revelations of the #MeToo/TimesUp era began, the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival feels mobilized and making the effort to properly read the moment.

Among the most anticipated world premieres at Toronto is “Widows,” director Steve McQueen’s first film since the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” adapted from a 1980s British TV drama by McQueen and “Sharp Objects” author Gillian Flynn.

With a deep cast that includes Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson, the film manages to be both a sharp, sleek crime thriller and a deeply nuanced take on the intersections of gender, race and class in modern life. Few films are likely to hit the target of feeling more exactingly 2018.

“We very much wanted to keep things very current, we wanted to make a film about our times,” said producer Iain Canning.

“Every detail in there is about being set in 2018,” Canning added, noting the work of production designer Adam Stockhausen. “I think the film does feel very contemporary, and that's a real special aspect of it.”

Elizabeth Debicki, left, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo in a scene from Steve McQueen's "Widows."
Elizabeth Debicki, left, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo in a scene from Steve McQueen's "Widows." (TIFF)

The sense of social engagement and political awareness pulses through numerous other world premieres across the festival, including the special presentation of Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The film, about an African American woman fighting to free her falsely accused husband from prison, serves as Jenkins’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.”

Also among the special presentations are “Gloria Bell,” Sebastián Lelio’s English-language remake of his own Chilean film about a mature woman’s path to self-discovery, starring Julianne Moore, and Amma Asante’s World War II coming-of-age interracial romance “Where Hands Touch.”

Nicole Holofcener’s piercing comic-tragic examination of class privilege, “The Land of Steady Habits,” starring Ben Mendelsohn, will play as a gala, as will “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly, the story of an African American concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) being driven on tour through the 1960s American South by a white chauffeur (Viggo Mortensen).

The discovery-oriented Platform section opens with Tim Sutton’s “Donnybrook,” a brawling thriller starring Jamie Bell, Margaret Qualley and Frank Grillo that explores the devastating effect of drugs and poverty on a rural community.

Even the genre-oriented Midnight Madness section will include films such as Peter Strickland’s macabre take on loneliness and consumerism, “In Fabric,” and David Gordon Green’s new sequel to “Halloween,” with Jamie Lee Curtis returning to the franchise for what has been billed as a story about grappling with the aftermath of trauma and abuse.

Michael Moore’s much-hyped “Fahrenheit 11/9,” about the buildup to and fallout from the 2016 presidential election, is only one of the charged movies debuting in the documentary section, along with Alexis Bloom’s “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.” Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” based on an extended interview with controversial former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon, will come to Toronto after premiering in Venice.

Algee Smith and Amandla Stenberg in 'The Hate U Give.'
Algee Smith and Amandla Stenberg in 'The Hate U Give.' (TIFF)

Playing as a gala presentation, “The Hate U Give” is directed by George Tillman Jr. and adapted by Audrey Wells from the popular young adult novel by Angie Thomas, involving an African American high school girl named Starr (Amandla Stenberg) who finds her life turned upside down when she witnesses the shooting death of a friend at the hands of a police officer.

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“I always felt like it's so great to tell a story that has something to do with what's happening now,” Tillman said, “but finding the way that you can still do what you expect when you go to the theater, to be entertained and to laugh and to find emotion in the material.

“We just don't really see it from an African American teenage girl’s perspective, dealing with these kind of things that you see on the news every day,” said Tillman. “And as a filmmaker, that's what you love, to be in the now.”

TIFF has also long been a key stop for foreign-language films looking to make their way to theaters across North America, and this year’s themes of social awareness and political awakening have crossed borders all around the globe.

There will be a world premiere of a new, combined version of Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino’s two-part “Loro,” in which “The Great Beauty” star Toni Servillo plays controversial Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi. (Parallel connections to any current American elected officials are likely invited.)

Another world premiere is “Maya,” from French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve, the story of a war correspondent (Roman Kolinka) who was held hostage in Syria. After his release he heads to India, where he rebuilds his spirit with the help of a young woman (Aarshi Banerjee).

Aarshi Banerjee and Roman Kolinka in "Maya."
Aarshi Banerjee and Roman Kolinka in "Maya." (TIFF)

Hansen-Løve has attended Toronto multiple times and has come to appreciate the encouragement from audiences who know and support her work.

“It's not the same as when you are somewhere and it just feels like people don't know about anything you've been doing before,” Hansen-Løve said. “When I’m there I started feeling some kind of link between my films and the audience in Toronto. Even though I don't know who these people are exactly or where they come from, I feel some kind of connection to the audience there.”

In a year when the festival’s selections feel particularly aware of their social and political aspects, organizers also have acknowledged the ways in which the press corps and industry attendees have a role to play in how those films are received, discussed and disseminated to the world.

Ahead of the festival, TIFF launched an initiative to increase diversity in its press corps, with a goal of accrediting 200 new journalists from underrepresented groups. The festival also has signed a pledge for 50% gender parity and inclusion by 2020. (This year 122 films in the festival are directed or co-directed by women, making up 36% of the program.)

There will be an official women’s rally on Sept. 8, featuring Asante, Geena Davis, Stacy L. Smith, Keri Putnam and other prominent industry figures as speakers and guests.

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“I think it was a number of things happening in fairly close sequence,” said Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of the festival, of Toronto’s more activist stance this year.

Bailey said that he and other TIFF organizers had begun to notice a disconnect between the way films were being discussed by the select press attending festivals and the way those same titles were being talked about and received once they reached a more diverse general audience upon wider release.

“And the more you notice that disconnect,” Bailey said, “the more you notice that what happens at festivals maybe needs to shift and get a little bit closer to the general reaction to movies.

“So we thought, ‘Let’s try to bring these things together more,’ ” Bailey noted. “We like when there are a real range of opinions and conflicting opinions on movies. We think that debate is really healthy. But let’s have it be one debate as much as possible, not one that happens at festivals and then a different one that happens afterwards.”

And just as TIFF itself is changing, a slate of films that does not shy from downbeat reflection, angered realizations and flashpoints of friction also reveals a desire to move forward to something else, something better.

When asked if movies can actually make a difference in the world, “American Dharma” director Morris pointed toward his own earlier “The Thin Blue Line,” which screened at TIFF in 1988 and eventually resulted in its subject being released from prison.

“I made a movie that overturned the conviction of an innocent man from murder. Clearly, movies can make an enormous difference,” Morris said. “Some movies are investigations into the real world and, hopefully, we can learn something — something that can help us think about what's going on in the world. And if we don't like it, what we could do about it.”

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