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Urban Cinefile contributing critic David Edwards was at the Toronto Film Festival when tragedy struck America and the world, on September 11. His report on the festival has become an obituary. But as he points out, movies that tap into a shared humanity are valuable and important.

It was the day the movies died.

On September 11 2001, I woke to the sound of the hotel alarm clock at 7.00 a.m. The Toronto morning had dawned clear and cool. I planned to attend an 8.30 a.m. screening at the Varsity Cinemas on Bay Street. A late screening the previous evening, an even later dinner of disagreeable pub food and the thought of having to catch a crowded subway train, however, combined to render that idea decidedly unpalatable. Instead, I flicked off the alarm and decided to catch another film later that morning.

At that instant, the world changed

At about 8.30 a.m. I slumped from the covers and showered before facing the rigours of the day in a still largely unfamiliar city. At about 9.00 a.m. I turned on the television and started flicking through the 50-odd channels. After a couple of kids’ and early morning chat shows, I happened upon an image from the Canadian Broadcasting Commission, taking a live feed from New York, showing one tower of the World Trade Center on fire. Smoke billowed from the top of the building and an announcer was saying that an aircraft had collided with it. Details were sketchy. Then, from the right of the screen, another plane streaked into view and collided with the other tower creating a massive fireball.

At that instant, the world changed.

Thoughts of any movies that day were quashed. I was transfixed to the screen, gazing at the atrocity being perpetrated. When, about an hour later, the twin towers collapsed in a horrifying cloud of smoke and dust, I was slack-jawed, appalled and on the verge of being physically ill.

The course of events then cascaded. From the ripple of television newscasts to the tidal wave of brutal reality, the city virtually shut down. Everyone was watching their TVs, waiting for news, worrying about what would happen. The giant Eaton Centre shopping mall in downtown Toronto was virtually deserted. City office workers were sent home; the subway was packed by noon. People walked about silent, downcast. If they were talking, they were talking about only one thing.

At TIFF, the organisers cancelled screenings and press conferences for the day. No one knew what was happening, or what would transpire. Events tumbled upon each other – attacks on Washington, buildings evacuated, another plane crashing in rural Pennsylvania; the US President flying to a secure location in Nebraska. News of rocket blasts in Kabul caused new consternation; as did reports of a possibly hijacked Korean aircraft.

Parties ... were cancelled; as were all Gala red-carpet events

The next day, TIFF announced the festival would go ahead, albeit with a modified schedule. The mood however had changed irrevocably. With US and Canadian airspace locked down, no guests who hadn’t already arrived could come in for their films; while those already there could not leave. Parties, including one to be given by the Australian High Commission, were cancelled; as were all Gala red-carpet events.

At a time when thousands were still missing in New York and Washington, going to the movies became an extremely low priority. Most people just wanted to go home. CNN gave a list of passengers on the hijacked aircraft. They included one of the creators of Frasier; a scouting director for the Los Angeles Kings ice hockey team; and a girl aged 4.

In this atmosphere, TIFF really had no chance. The organisers and their supporters tried to put a brave face on it, but the enormity of the events in the US overwhelmed everyone and everything. There was only one place most wanted to be – and that was home. Achieving that was, to use a movie metaphor, not just mission difficult; it was mission impossible. Flights were scheduled then cancelled. The US allowed certain flights but then required individual airlines to get separate approval, which was often not forthcoming. People booked every possible flight in the hope of getting out. There were delays of up to 12 hours at US border crossings from Canada. Getting out of Canada was hard enough – getting to Australia was just about out of the question.

Eventually however things did work out and a flight back home became available. On the long flight over the Pacific, I woke from a fitful sleep at an indeterminate hour to see a movie was showing on the aircraft’s screens. It was that box office smash, Shrek. Although I’d seen it once before, I decided to watch it again.

"ability to tap into our shared humanity is one of the things that make the movies great"

As the credits rolled 90 minutes or so later, something struck me. This unashamedly Hollywood movie was all about the things that we have in common, though we may look and think and feel very differently. And that ability to tap into our shared humanity is one of the things that make the movies great. So long as filmmakers continue to search for the simple truths of the human condition, there has to be hope that the hardest of hearts – the kind that can smash an airliner full of people into a building full of people – can be changed.


Statement by Piers Handling, Festival Director and Michèle Maheux, Managing Director:

"When we launched the Festival, we all looked forward to welcoming the Canadian and international film community to Toronto to celebrate cinema from around the world. As the incomprehensible events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, we came together globally to grieve for and comfort our neighbours, friends, colleagues, and their families in America and around the world who were touched by the devastation. We found solace in each other, occasionally losing ourselves in film. Together, we have continued to hope and yet grieve with the rest of the world."

Volkswagen Discovery Award:
Chicken Rice War - CheeK, Singapore
(Voted by the accredited Press Corps)

Inch'allah Dimanche - Yamina Benguigui, France
For its sensitivity and fresh humour in dealing with the conditions of Third World women, daily racism, and clashes between cultures.

Special Mention:
Be My Star by Valeska Grisebach (Austria/Germany), because of the justness of its documentary-like style in observing bittersweet teenage love.

Special Mention:
Khaled by Asghar Massombagi (Canada) because of its skill in turning a small-scale mother and son story into a poignant human drama.

This year's FIPRESCI Jury members were:
Atilla Dorsay, Sabah, Turkey - Jury President; Eduardo Antin, el Amante Cine/Tres Puntos, Argentina; Jan Aghed, Sydsvenska Dagbladet, Sweden; and Réal La Rochelle, 24 Images, Canada.

NFB - John Spotton Award For Best Canadian Short Film:
Film(Dzama) - Deco Dawson, Canada. For its unique artistic vision that pays homage to a
contemporary artist using the vocabulary of early filmmakers.

CityTV Award For Best Canadian First Feature Film:
Inertia - Sean Garrity, Canada. For its visual flair and comic sensibility which heralds the
arrival of a filmmaker of great promise.

Toronto - City Award For Best Canadian Feature Film:

Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) - Zacharias Kunuk, Canada. For its sophisticated telling of a mythic tale that reflects the complexities of the human spirit.

AGF People's Choice Award:
Le Fabuleux Destin D'amélie Poulain - Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France
Runners Up:
Maya - Digvijay Singh, USA
Monsoon Wedding - Mira Nair, India

Published 27/9/2001

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Closing night award announcements

People's Choice Winner:

Le Fabuleux Destin D'amélie Poulain
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France

Runners Up:

Maya - Digvijay Singh, USA

Monsoon Wedding - Mira Nair, India

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