2021 Toronto Int. Film Fest Diary: Entry 4 - The Uncanny Festival

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 20, 2021

A scene from "Silent Night."
A scene from "Silent Night."  (Source:Courtesy of TIFF)

Things have finally come to a close for this year's edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. Taking place over 10 days, the event concluded this past Saturday with the TIFF Tribute Awards, an awkward attempt to boost the profile of a festival already strained by circumstances beyond its control. Pre-taped acceptance speeches and Zoom recordings by celebrity guests took up most of the ceremony, where big names like Jessica Chastain and Benedict Cumberbatch received trophies before announcing the winner of the People's Choice Award for best film according to TIFF audiences. This year's winner was "Belfast," Kenneth Branagh's tale of a young boy growing up in 1960s Northern Ireland. It's a good sign for Branagh's film, since prior recipients like "Nomadland," "Green Book," and "12 Years a Slave" all went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars.

I'm sure the people running TIFF breathed a sigh of relief after the Tribute Awards, having gotten through the festival mostly unscathed (COVID exposure and film leaks notwithstanding) and asserting its reputation as the kickoff for Oscar season. In general, the inherent compromises in holding a film festival during a pandemic made this year's TIFF feel a lot stranger than the primarily virtual edition last year. The eagerness to return to some sense of normal clashed with the reality of COVID still wreaking havoc, and the film industry's precarious state added an existential weight to the proceedings. TIFF played the hand it was dealt with as best as it could, but the gulf between what it wants to be and what it has to be was certainly felt.

While the People's Choice award applies to the whole festival, it's not the only prize chosen by audiences. Similar awards exist for the Midnight Madness programme (which focuses on genre films) and for documentaries. While I didn't see most of the documentaries in this year's selection, I did manage to catch runner-up prize winner "Flee," Jonas Poher Rasmussen's doc that's been a sensation on the festival circuit with selections at Cannes, Sundance, Telluride, and New York. Rasmussen interviews his friend Amin, who left Afghanistan as a child and went through a tumultuous journey before earning refugee status in Denmark. Part of what makes "Flee" stand out is Rasmussen's decision to animate the film, a choice that's both artistic and practical; the format allows Amin's story to be visualized in a more evocative manner while protecting his identity given the legal complexities of his situation.

"Flee" can come across as a little too precious in its handling of Amin's story at times, but Rasmussen gets away with it by keeping the focus on his subject instead of aiming for the low hanging fruit of broad, political statements. Amin's story starts with the loss of his home, then becomes more complicated in his teenage years, having to hide his attraction to men while making tough choices that ensure his survival at the cost of staying with his family. Rasmussen packages it into a tidy and affecting narrative arc of losing a home and learning to build a new one.

The People's Choice award for Midnight Madness went to Julia Ducournau's "Titane," which came as no surprise given its Palme d'Or win at Cannes earlier this year. Having seen the entire Midnight Madness programme this year, my vote would have gone to Jean Luc Herbulot's "Saloum," a Senegalese genre mash-up set during the 2003 coup d'etat in Guinea-Bissau. A trio of mercenaries rescue a Mexican drug dealer from the region, until a mishap with their plane forces them to land in the Sine-Saloum Delta, a region we're told is full of myths and supernatural threats. The four men wind up at a hotel in the region, where secrets rise to the surface and spawn vengeful spirits who want to make sure no one leaves the region alive.

If anything, "Saloum" is a showcase for Herbulot, whose handle on tone and pacing makes his film feel like a shot in the arm, especially when playing in the middle of a film festival dominated by films with more deliberate storytelling. A lively and varied soundtrack, title cards and narration that quickly deal with exposition, and a ruthless efficiency with the narrative keep things moving along at a kinetic pace, with a sinister undercurrent that lets the transition to full-out horror happen naturally. Far from the first film of its kind story-wise (think "From Dusk Till Dawn" but with ghosts instead of vampires), "Saloum's" location and use of mythology give it an edge that prevents it from feeling too familiar, and Herbulot's assured hand behind the camera make his film one of the few genuine discoveries at this year's festival.

I was going to use the final part of this last dispatch to talk about Camille Griffin's "Silent Night," a dark comedy from the U.K. where a group of privileged friends get together the day before a poison cloud arrives and kills everyone. But it was such a terrible experience, full of vile people being unfunny before closing with the dumbest possible ending, I didn't want to finish things off on such a bad note. Instead I'll talk about "Ali & Ava," the latest film from Clio Barnard ("The Selfish Giant," "Dark River"). It follows Ava (Claire Rushbrook), an Irish/British classroom assistant who crosses paths with eccentric landlord Ali (Adeel Akhtar). They make an immediate connection despite their different backgrounds, but deal with blowback from friends and families as they try to pursue a relationship.

After the disappointing "Dark River," it's nice to see Barnard back in her element with "Ali and Ava." Working in Yorkshire again (where she was born and raised), Barnard gets to flex her skills at making strong, social realist stories with a blend of professional and non-professional actors. Rushbrook and Akhtar are the obvious standouts in their ability to take the more idiosyncratic parts of their characters and weave it into the story without feeling contrived, while Barnard's direction juggles between the kitchen sink drama of the working class characters and more pensive, lyrical moments that allow some insight into her characters' emotional states. While it's not as strong as "The Selfish Giant" and her documentary "The Arbor," "Ali & Ava" is the sort of unconventional love story that should win audiences over as it continues travelling the festival circuit.