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Toronto Festival Becomes Center of Film World

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Alan Silverman

Canada steals the spotlight from Hollywood for 10 days every September when stars, filmmakers and audiences gather for the Toronto International Film Festival. This year's  35th annual film showcase concludes on Sunday.

As a major film production center, Toronto is no stranger to top stars; but at the Festival even publicity-shy Oscar-winner DeNiro submits - albeit uncomfortably - to reporters' questions about his role in the new film "Stone."

"Uh, I mean the story …in general, my character and what he goes through is something that I could empathize with a lot, to say the least, and I think a lot of it is a classic situation," he said.

As the tense prison drama "Stone" unspools, in another cinema audiences can chuckle through "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," the new comedy from Woody Allen, also in town and fending off questions about the film's perplexing ending. "I didn't want the characters to neatly wrap up his or her story with a nice 'MGM' ending or something. I wanted the people to wander around in agonizing limbo …you know, like in real life. Naturally, nobody is going to pay to see this," he said.

But audiences, indeed, do pay to see the films at the TIFF, as the Festival is known locally. It's a terrific experience for directors like Andrew Lau, who arrived from Hong Kong just in time for the North American premiere of his martial arts drama "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen". "I was very happy. When I jumped out of the car I saw all the people outside the theater and I said "oh, this is wonderful," because a director loves to see that kind of thing: a long queue …we love that kind of things, so I'm so happy about that," he said.

Cameron Bailey, who is co-director of the TIFF, said "We have over 300 films at the Festival. About 260 of those are feature films, 122 of them are world premieres and they are from over 60 countries." Bailey heads a team of 20 programmers who scour the world every year for new films from veteran directors and first-timers. Bailey says they stress the "international" part of the festival title and it is something Canadian audiences welcome:

"I think we pride ourselves on being open-minded and curious about the rest of the world. We are not as inward looking as, maybe, some other countries …partly because, I think, particularly Toronto is such a diverse city. The majority of the population is people who were not born in Toronto, so we are outward looking. We are curious to see what the world is bringing to us and I think we pride ourselves on being engaged with the world, being fair minded, having a kind of ironic sense of humor about things (and) certainly never taking ourselves too seriously. I think you'll find that in the audiences at the movies here at the Festival," he said.

Irish writer-director Juanita Wilson was particularly moved by the audience response to her film "As If I Am Not There," a heartbreaking drama about women forced to be sex slaves during the war in Bosnia.

"There was a Bosnian couple who came up to talk to me. They had left because of the war and the woman was saying that she couldn't even listen to music from home because it was so sad and so upsetting. Yet she felt coming to this film was going to open a new chapter in her life. Things like that matter so much to me; and you make films for this reason, not for the awards and not for the reviews. You actually make it so that you can touch the hearts of real people and when you do it is such a privilege that you can do that when people are open to it. It just reaffirms the power of cinema," she said.

The early autumn dates position the TIFF as a major springboard for the annual awards season. Recent Toronto favorites like "American Beauty," "Juno," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Hurt Locker" went on to win Oscars. However, it is also a chance to spotlight new, smaller films. South African-born German director Oliver Schmitz brought his powerful drama of a teenager's struggle to keep her family together, "Life Above All:"

Of course, whenever filmmakers gather, they 'do lunch,' as they say: hold informal business meetings that can lead to a film being picked up for distribution in markets around the world or, as Oliver Schmitz points out, also pave the way for new projects:

"I think the best scenario for any film festival is to have one film that is screening and another one which is ready to shoot and looking for that final financing. It is what happened this year in Cannes on a project that I'm shooting in Germany next year and Paramount is part of that project so that was fantastic. Now I'm concentrating on the movie, but already I've had meetings this morning, which will lead to other things," he said. "So the best thing, actually, is to have something that people can see and take note of and then say 'hey, I also have this other project.'

Festival official Bailey says the crowded theaters and backroom meetings are not his main measures of success for the film showcase.

"We do have quantitative measures we can look at: the number of pictures that are sold, the number of premieres that we have, the number of tickets sold, as well. But I think what I often do is I like to stand in the back of a theater with a filmmaker and just see how he or she reacts to the film. If they are watching the audience and the audience is into it and the filmmaker is pleased by that and this is an experience that they haven't had yet - this is the world premiere of their film and they're loving it and if they'll come back as a result with their next film, then that's success for me," he said.

Cameron Bailey is co-director of the 35th annual Toronto International Film Festival.

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