There was no shortage of star power at the Toronto International Film Festival or "TIFF" as it's known locally. Celebrities from Brad Pitt to George Clooney to Madonna walked the red carpet at the premieres of their latest titles.
But with more than 250 features from 65 countries screened during its 10 days, the 2011 TIFF was also a major showcase for smaller, independent films.
The top award, selected by audience ballots, went to Where Do We Go Now? a bittersweet piece by Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki about Muslim and Christian women finding common ground in their war-torn village.
Nigerian-born writer-director Akin Omotoso was also at TIFF with his film, Man on Ground, set in South Africa.
"I'm a fan of the festival. I have come here over the years, and it's just a real honor to have my feature film premiere here," says Omotoso.
TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey heads a programming team that travels the world year-round to select entries for the festival. Bailey says, like audience favorite Where Do We Go Now?, Omotoso's violent and disturbing drama shows how films can spotlight current issues.
"The film Man on Ground by Akin Omotoso is about a very real issue that is happening in South Africa today which is the conflict between South Africans and migrants who have come into the country from other parts of Africa looking for better lives and facing incredible hostility and in some cases quite brutal violence. It's a real conflict and something that the director wanted to address and addressed it truthfully," Bailey explains.
While there is no formal theme to the festival, Bailey acknowledges that many of this year's choices tackled the ticklish topic of sex.
"Steve McQueen's new film Shame, about a sex addict, is a powerful film …very intense and graphic in some ways. A film from France, Elles, by Polish director Malogoska Szumowska, with Juliet Binoche giving one of her best performances in many, many years [is] also very confrontational, in a way, about sex," notes Bailey. " There are a number of films like that where I think filmmakers are taking more risks. As a festival programmer and director, I like to see the filmmakers pushing the limits of what they are comfortable with and what their audiences might be comfortable with, as long as it's in the aim of greater truth."
That search for "greater truth" can run up against political obstacles. As Bailey explains, the government in Tehran prevented the makers of an Iranian film from attending this year's festival.
"The Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is under a ban in Iran and is forbidden from making films and is not allowed to leave the country. But he made a documentary in his apartment with a co-director, Mojtaba Murtahmasb," Bailey says. "The co-director was scheduled to come to Toronto. He had a plane ticket and at the airport he was detained and he was also not allowed to leave the country. We were very disappointed, but we were lucky that Panahi's wife was able to travel to Toronto with their daughter, so they were able to present the film to the audience here. But it was a fairly stark reminder that what filmmakers do …what artists do generally …is often under political constraints and that is really unfortunate."
With the 2011 TIFF now over, Cameron Bailey and his team are already starting their search for new works to present at next year's event.