When the Toronto International Film Festival wraps up next Sunday, one lucky international filmmaker will be awarded TIFF's new Platform prize and go home with a $25,000 cheque. Is the populist TIFF going the way of the competitive Cannes and getting into the business of decorating the festival's most artistic offerings with palm leaves?
Not at all, insists TIFF chief executive officer Piers Handling: "Cannes is such an industry centered-event and Toronto is so public-facing. They are putting a spotlight on a particular kind of cinema: director driven, art house. Toronto is more Catholic, diverse and inclusive."
Still, the situations are parallel. The invitation-only Cannes surrounds the 20 films competing for its grand prize with a host of other non-competitive programs. Meanwhile, the new Platform program, which features 12 films by emerging international directors, sets up a mini competition within the much larger and publicly accessible TIFF. All the better to balance things, says Handling.
"We are still non-competitive; I completely believe in non-competitive … It's us trying to privilege a kind of cinema, young and emerging filmmakers, who get lost in the dust with all the focus on the red carpet."
Of course, TIFF owes its growth and its power to that red carpet – over the years it has successfully positioned itself as the place where Hollywood launches the fall season while larger and larger Toronto audiences have embraced the glamour the festival brings to town – so it has only itself to blame if auteurs are getting lost in the shuffle.
Wrenching even a couple of klieg lights around in another direction is going to take some doing, but TIFF has brought in some heavy lifters: the French director Claire Denis (Chocolate; White Material); the Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa; Washington Square) and the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, for whose second feature, Platform, the prize is named.
Over the next week, they will be screening 12 films that TIFF has pre-selected for the competition including Martin Zandvliet's Land of Mine about German POWs in Denmark; Ben Wheatley's dystopian High-Rise set in Thatcherite Britain and Hi Ping's The Promised Land, a romance of the new China.
How will a diverse jury of one Asian man and two European women decide on one winner from a field that features everything from a Canadian documentary about disgraced runner Steve Fonyo (Alan Zweig's HURT) to a debut feature from France about teenage sexuality (Eva Husson's Bang Gang)?
"The concept of judging films is not a concept I really like: a film … is unique and difficult to compare to another," Holland observed Friday as TIFF introduced the jury to the press, adding, "We will try to meet in the middle, to find something so powerful we don't have doubts."
It will be a visceral choice rather than a professional judgment, Jia explained through a Chinese interpreter: "It's not necessarily a professional sense of the word 'to judge' but an intuitive sense that opens us up to our instincts."
"Normally on a jury there is less ego than you might think," added Denis. "…It is not because we are different that it will be more difficult; everyone is different. We respect each other and we like cinema."
In keeping with the festival's populist reputation, the jury will not be screening the 12 films privately but will be sitting with regular audiences.
"We are [the] audience too," Denis said. "If somehow we were considering ourselves not like the audience and that we have to intervene with audience taste, that would be wrong. "