American Beauty, The Wrestler, 127 Hours, Black Swan, Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, and The King’s Speech. Over the last several years, these are some of the films that have either premiered or won awards at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). These are also some of my favorite films; ones that have changed the way I see, experience, and think about my life and the greater narrative of the world’s stories.
It’s refreshing when an organization’s motto actually says something about the way they operate. At the beginning of every film shown at TIFF, someone from the programming team introduces the film, thanks the TIFF sponsors, and mentions TIFF’s motto “to change the way you see the world through film.”
For a little background, TIFF is a two week long film festival that began in 1976 under the name “The Festival of Festivals.” Each year, over 300 films from 60 different countries are shown throughout the city of Toronto – in movie theaters, school auditoriums, and other staged theaters – and thousands of people from all over the world sit down to see and be changed. It’s considered second only to Cannes in terms of the films it shows and the stars who attend. And it is an important film festival because it launches the season of Oscar-hopeful films hitting the screen.
I loved everything about my experience of going to TIFF this year. Seeing 7 films in 2 days. Buying tickets to films based on a one sentence description. Having no expectations for what I’m walking in to a theater to see. Being surrounded by people who engage movies as more than entertainment. Seeing films that will likely never make money or ever again be shown in a big screened theater. The conversations that happen (and that you overhear happening) as you wait in line or grab a bite to eat between films. The palpable silence that hangs in the air as credits roll at the end of a powerful and unexpected film.
The whole experience was absolutely incredible.
I think what strikes me about movies, and about how a festival like TIFF captures them, is the way that film adheres to life. Not matter what the story, these are filmmakers and filmgoers who are processing the essence of life through film. They are exploring questions about what it means to be human and pointing us towards those spaces that offer hope, healing, and relationship. These are films that reveal tension and tell stories as a way of maintaining (rather than reducing or solving) that tension.
Here’s how the films I had the privilege of seeing at TIFF did this [with great care taken to avoid any spoilers]:
Passion: A strange and intense relationship between two female coworkers turns deadly as they attempt to destroy each other’s careers, and then lives. This film deals with questions about what is real and how we make choices when we don’t know what to believe or who to trust. Relationships are about projected identities and those identities can be genuine or self-created manipulations. We are strongest, and yet most vulnerable, as we engage in relationship with another.
The Attack: A prominent Arab doctor living in Israel discovers that his wife is the suspected suicide bomber in a terrorist attack that killed 17 people, 12 of them children. During his quest to understand his wife’s transformation, he is confronted with two very different understandings of the story he is living; a tension that people are willing to die, hate, and kill over. Who are we in the midst of our cultural, religious, and geographic stories? One of my favorite films of TIFF.
White Elephant: Two priests living in Buenos Aires confront poverty, drugs, and gangs as they fight to finish a building project that would permanently house people living in the slums. This is a story about calling, about how the church engages with social justice, and about our ability to fix brokenness. It’s not an especially hopeful film, but it’s an important reminder that hope doesn’t lie in any particular individual or project, but in the sustained pursuit of a community.
Ginger and Rosa: Two girls grow up together as inseparable best friends. That is until one of them becomes engaged in a particularly disturbing relationship that sends the other into a painful story of betrayal, abandonment, and death. Taking place during the Cold War era, the story of one girl’s life gets infused and tangled with the world’s story of mistrust and looming destruction. This film made me feel more than any other film I saw.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car: A fairly typical, yet engaging story of family dysfunction and healing surrounding the clash of two very different families coming together for a funeral. Billy Bob Thorton directs and stars in this film which is as strangely compelling as he is. Sprinkled with stories of war, marriage, and brotherhood, it’s a film that deals with daddy issues on multiple levels.
Twice Born: A passionate and epic love story confronts the brutal realities of the Bosnian war. This film deals with what it means to be a woman and a mother. It deals with our attempt to hold the beauty and brokenness of the world together, and both the tragic and redemptive endings to those stories. It’s a beautifully unexpected story and my other favorite film of the festival.
The Paperboy: A strange and disjointed story about love, justice, and identity. A team of news reporters inquire about the supposed innocence of a man on death row, an investigation spurred by the intensely misplaced and deadly affection of the man’s fiancé. In what felt like emotional manipulation, this film exposes the uncomfortable, painful, and hidden realities of our stories and what happens when we try to interject relationships into them. This is a film you will definitely have the opportunity to see in the theaters, but one I would not necessarily recommend is worth your time (or money).
Something significant happens when you begin to see movies with the posture and expectation of having your worldview changed. If this is something you’re at all interested in exploring, I highly recommend you attend a reputable film festival. And until then, start asking this question about the movies you watch:
How does this film change the way I see the world?