Our Top Picks for the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival

From Trickster (2020), dir. Michelle Latimer (all images courtesy Toronto International Film Festival)

Taking place every September, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) typically kicks off the fall film season. This year’s edition will mark a shift, showcasing the new ways audiences engage with festivals in the time of coronavirus. Limited, in-person events will be supplemented by virtual screenings and talks, opening the festival to audiences beyond Toronto. Unchanged is TIFF’s drive to offer an engaging and diverse platform to reflect the richness of not only International cinema but also of the Canadian film scene. Although an integral part of the region’s rich cultural tapestry, Indigenous voices have long been marginalized; however, the festival’s recent initiatives have turned the spotlight on their work.

This year’s lineup includes 50 new feature films and five programs of short films, accompanied by a wealth of satellite events, including conversations with actors and directors. In recent years, TIFF Artistic Director and Co-Head Cameron Bailey has made inclusivity one of the festival’s top-priorities and it shows. Almost half of the festival’s titles are directed, co-directed, or created by women, while 48% of the films are directed, co-directed, or created by Black, Indigenous, or POC filmmakers.

From Inconvenient Indian (2020), dir. Michelle Latimer

At the intersection of these groups stands the work of Michelle Latimer, a prolific filmmaker, producer, and actor of Algonquin, Métis, and French heritage. Based on Thomas King’s comprehensive study of the same name, Latimer’s latest documentary Inconvenient Indian traces a brief history of the erasure of Indigenous culture and traditions in Canada and the distorted fables settler-colonizers disseminated in their place. Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, multimedia artist Skawennati, artist Kent Monkman — and his gender-fluid alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle — among other creators, appear in the film to testify to the thriving Indigenous creative scene. Much like her subjects, Indigenous artists like Latimer are asserting their stories both in and outside of the mainstream.

Latimer also sits behind the camera for Trickster, an upcoming CBC series premiering in the Primetime program. Adapting Eden Robinson’s bestselling novel Son of a Trickster (2017), the series is another essential step towards a more inclusive representation of Canadian communities. Trickster marries its exploration of a dysfunctional family — kept afloat by the series’ teenage protagonist — with the suspenseful pace of a thriller infused by supernatural imagery. This coming-of-age story adapts elements of Indigenous folktales — the archetypal trickster figure, found in many world cultures’ myths — to the grammar of contemporary television, weaving a long-overdue and necessary narrative.

From The Water Walker (2020), dir. James Burns

Similarly navigating the perilous waters of adolescence is Tracey Deer’s compelling debut feature Beans. The film is framed by the escalating events of the 1990 Oka Crisis, when two Mohawk communities in Québec protested plans for the disruptive expansion of a golf club onto their land. Marking a watershed moment in the life of its young protagonist Beans, the political and emotional turmoil of that summer also helps her find her place in her community. Another youthful voice to take note of is that of teenage environmental activist Autumn Peltier, the subject of James Burns’s documentary The Water Walker. Peltier has been nominated for an International Children’s Peace Prize in 2019 in recognition of her relentless fight for clean drinking water in Indigenous communities.

Hardly a year has left us as hungry for an uplifting, collective cinema experience as 2020. With its thundering energy and intelligent social reflections, Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia is the perfect opener for this year’s edition. Calling onstage eleven musicians from around the world, Byrne orchestrates a joyful musical experience that revisits Byrne’s 2018 album of the same name, as well as hits by the Talking Heads and Janelle Monae’s visceral protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” which Byrne performed as the closing song each night of his “American Utopia” tour.

From David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020), dir. Spike Lee

Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, on the other hand, stirs darker emotions. Best known for editing a few early Spike Lee films, Pollard’s latest directorial venture investigates the turbid waters of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to defame Martin Luther King and hamper his fight against racial discrimination. It’s a dive into the past to try and make sense of our present.

On the more immediately contemporary side sits Hao Wu’s 76 Days, a cogent diary of the COVID-19 crisis that, back in January, halted Wuhan, China for almost eleven weeks. Aided by Weixi Chen, a video reporter for Esquire China, and other anonymous helpers, Wu co-signs a piece of art that is already one of the most important documents of the pandemic.

From 76 Days (2020), dirs. Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous

In a world increasingly dogged by forces attempting to undermine efforts aimed at inclusivity and combating inequality, TIFF reaffirms its promise to deliver a forward-thinking and stimulating program. In the words of Joana Vicente, TIFF Executive Director and Co-head, “TIFF has a proud history of programming award-winning films, expanding the conversation to include a multitude of voices.” And this year, these voices will luckily be coming to a screen near you.

The 2020 Toronto International Film Festival kicks off online and at various venues around Toronto on September 10, and will continue through September 20.

Highlights to catch at its first virtual edition include Spike Lee’s David Byrne documentary, a strong slate of Indigenous-led films, and a look at the FBI’s efforts to defame Martin Luther King Jr.Read MoreFilm, Canada, Michelle Latimer, Spike Lee, Toronto, Toronto International Film FestivalHyperallergicRead More

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