Is TIFF Worth the Effort?

Working the festival—and this year’s films about work

Illustration by Heather Horton
Illustration by Heather HortonHeather Horton

On the second day of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I was biking home from a screening close to midnight when I passed the Ryerson University auditorium on Gerrard Street. A long, long line of chilly filmgoers snaked around the block, waiting patiently to get into a midnight screening. The intermittent glow from their phones was like fireflies. It’s a familiar sight in Toronto in early September, these refugee TIFF lineups. I was both touched and slightly baffled by the effort that the people in this city will go to watch a movie.

Consider the work involved: first you do the research, wading through a Proust-sized program book to choose your films. Then comes the paperwork, filling out lengthy online forms and plotting a course through TIFF’s leviathan schedule of 300-plus screenings. Next you have to navigate the city’s crazed, meth-paced September traffic, or search in vain for an available bike ring, in order to line up for an hour or more in sun or rain before getting into the theatre. Have we all become unpaid TIFF interns?

It’s a lot of work to work the festival.

I say this as a spoiled veteran of every TIFF season since the festival began in 1976. My husband Brian Johnson is a film critic, so I get into some events on his coattails, and most years I write about the festival myself, so I’m able to attend the press and industry screenings, which is a privilege. But TIFF is the great leveller. Sooner or later everyone, probably even Meryl Streep, has the same festival experience of finding yourself on the wrong side of the red velvet rope. You are gripped by anxiety that le vrai festival, the core festival, is eluding you. But the fact is, that no human can properly “do” the festival; their eyeballs would incinerate. (When my husband comes home after seeing five films in one day, his facial features look subtly rearranged, like Mr. Potato Head. The nervous system can only take so many images.)

Yet, like Everest, TIFF is there, and one can’t help wanting to tackle it, and summit. (Oxygen tanks on lanyards for festival-goers is not a bad idea, actually.)

Even the process of booking tickets can be an expedition. This summer I witnessed what must be the longest commute ever to the box office. I was staying with friends who have a place in a remote pocket of Algonquin Park. You must navigate a logging road for twenty minutes, then travel by boat to reach a rustic compound with no electricity, running water—or wireless Internet, needless to say. My friends had bought a ten-ticket festival pass, but in order to reserve their choice of films, they had to go online during one narrow window of time—a certain hour on a particular day, when they happened to be up north and off the grid.

So, wearing rain ponchos, they set off in their aluminium boat to make their way across the bay and up the lake to a landing where they got into their car, drove along the power line (watching as usual for huge logging trucks bearing down on them) to the town of Whitney. There, they went to a café called The Mad Musher to get internet access in order to book their TIFF tickets. Logging in didn’t work. They got through on the phone. Even then, two out of five of their first choices were already “OFF SALE.”

Such a trek takes commitment. It shows ardour. And it’s what has made TIFF such a phenomenal success, this limitless appetite for the film experience.

But each morning as I bike over Toronto’s Afghani road surfaces through perpetual construction sites to make a screening, I ask myself:

(a) Why am I doing this again?
(b) Is it worth it?

We do it, I think, for the same reason we endure gridlock on the 400 to get to some wilder place. When you find yourself immersed in a good film, it’s like that first plunge into a summer lake. Your consciousness shifts. And all the hassle it took to get there evaporates.

In these early days of TIFF, several remarkable films have already been worth the bumpy commute—and as it happens, the subject of all them is work.

The first is The Selfish Giant by Clio Barnard, a feature debut by a young British director. This is a Ken Loach–like drama with a comic edge, set in a working-class north England town. Two schoolboys—one mouthy and hyperactive, the other one bigger and gentler—are thrown out of school for bad behaviour. Their home lives are violent. To earn a little money, they use a horse-drawn cart to collect bits of scrap metal, which they sell to a local dealer named Kitten, a rough character who also races harness horses. Barnard portrays their friendship, the only bright spot in their harsh world, with great warmth. But when one of the boys turns to theft and the other discovers a gift for handling horses and racing them, their friendship unravels. “Success” comes between them. It’s a sharp, deft, pungent film about the choices we all make in the world of work—whether it’s harvesting scrap iron or leveraging loans.

The next “work” film was Tim’s Vermeer, directed by Teller, of Penn & Teller fame. For a film in which, for long stretches, we watch a bearded man with a tiny brush paint white dots on a canvas, it’s intensely entertaining. It’s also a sort of art-procedural story that challenges romantic notions about the nature of art and what constitutes “cheating” in the creative realm.

Tim Jenison is a video engineer who became fascinated with the 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer, and the possibility (which several existing books have explored) that the astonishing realism of his paintings could only have been achieved using a mechanical device involving a mirror, or a lens. Jenison invented a lens-and-mirror device of his own, which allowed him to magically but mechanically recreate a Vermeer, without any prior experience as a painter. Then he went one crazy step further and reconstructed the setting and props of The Music Lesson, one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, in order to test his hypothesis.

Using his device, Jenison worked for 130 days to recreate The Music Lesson in every mindboggling detail, down to the weave of the rumpled Turkish carpet. The result is stunning—even artist David Hockney, an expert on Vermeer, was impressed. But what is more striking is the heart, patience, and dedication that Jenison poured into this project. You can’t watch the movie without reflecting on the work and attention to detail that goes into filmmaking as well, but Teller keeps the film lighthearted, un-earnest and nimble.

At one point, Jenison even admits that if his labours weren’t being filmed for this documentary, he might have walked away from the project. It was too hard to keep going. But like a novelist, once he had entered the narrative of the painting, he found he couldn’t back out. The project demanded that he work it to the end.

Later, I caught a second documentary that investigates another mystery about a remarkable body of artwork. Finding Vivian Maier is a portrait of a solitary woman who died in 2009, at the age of eighty-three, after spending her life working as a nanny, while taking thousands of photographs in the streets of Chicago. When her belongings, held in storage, were finally auctioned off, a young amateur historian, John Maloof, bought all her possessions and what turned out to be boxes of film negatives—more than 100,000 frames in all.

When he began to develop the film, he found a photographer whose portraits of street people, children and city streets could stand beside anything by Robert Frank, or Diane Arbus or even Eugène Atget. And Vivian Maier has found posthumous fame.

The documentary, directed by Maloof with Charlie Siskel, digs up her former charges and, using clues in her photographs like something out of Blow-Up, follows her trail to a tiny town in the Swiss Pyrenees, where they remember her as the lady who was always taking pictures. She lived a stringently private life, with no partners, children, or family. The children she cared for have mixed memories of her, and Vivian Maier clearly had a dark side. But the work she did with her camera shows wit, compassion, and an avaricious eye for the world as it is, without filters.

The question I left the theatre with was why take pictures if you don’t intend to show them? Again: why make the effort? My theory is that Maier had no particular ambitions as an artist. As a lonely figure and a self-described “mystery woman,” I think she took her pictures for the brief naked moment of connection that is palpable in so many of her portraits. As she held her camera, a twin-lens Rolleiflex, down at her waist, she could come in close to these strangers and look them in the eye, as they gazed back at her. It allowed for a fleeting sort of intimacy that seemed to be missing in the rest of her life.

Marni Jackson
Marni Jackson is the author of four books, including Don't I Know You and The Mother Zone.