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Kaleidoscopic vision

Behind the hype is a festival that showcases newer talent alongside already established names. V. RADHIKA samples the fare at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

A tragic love-story in "Shadows of Time".

IN a box-office-propelled movie world, film festivals are oases of hope. They offer a kaleidoscope of world visions that are not packaged in a fast-food format: to be devoured and forgotten. They showcase works that hold a mirror to the times we live in, often reflecting unflattering but thought-provoking images.

Well into its 29th year, the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the largest and only one of its kind in North America, has become a nucleus of global cinematic explorations. Come September and Toronto metamorphoses into North America's cine capital screening some of the best films from world over and hosting global film personalities including the Hollywood biggies who provide the festival's glamour quotient.

A series of high-profile evening "galas"(a special category of films whose screening is followed by parties graced by stars/directors), dominated by Hollywood would-be prestige product, uses the TIFF as a launch pad for Oscar campaigns. But behind this hyped-up world of media coverage, Hollywood star sightings and frenzied industry buyers are serious cinema lovers who build their own personal film festival. For them it is a pilgrimage of sorts. Discussions between complete strangers at the serpentine queues veer around the latest works of a director or a foreign language film they liked.

Florian Gallenberger.

Held from September 9 to 18, the festival screened 328 films including 253 features and 75 shorts. Of these, 99 were world premieres. One hundred and fifty-five were films in languages other than English from 55 countries. This selection was made out of a total of 2 , 686 films received by the TIFF. These cold statistics reflect the festival's growing impact and its status as a major resource for world cinema in the Americas. It has become a Mecca for independent and low-budget films and has also earned a reputation as a festival that showcases new emerging talent alongside the established names. The films span continents in origins and genres in orientation — from long and short to squarely conventional and radically avant-garde.

Many films pushed the boundaries of social acceptability with bold expressions of existential facets and evoking emotions from raw fear to acute discomfort. Fear springs at you in "Omagh", a dramatic chronicle of a 1998 IRA (Irish Republican Army) bombing in an Irish town killing 31 people. It snickers in "Old Boy", the story of a comfortably nondescript Korean businessman who is plucked from his life and dropped in a room where he is observed and tortured by no-one-knows-who. And it seeps through the other unsettling Korean film "Spider Forest" where a man becomes stuck in a nightmare loop. These fears are not hemmed by borders, observe no generic bounds and can spring at you anytime, anywhere.

The horrors of living (and dying) in geographically real war-zones creep through "Turtles Can Fly" that chronicles the lives of Kurdish children. And "Hotel Rwanda", which portrays a brave man's stand against genocide in Rwanda. The audience squirmed in their seats as they watched explicit sex scenes in a few films notably "Anatomy of Hell", "A Hole in my Heart", "Nine Songs" — which some critics described as the first porno-concert film. Festival co-director Noah Cowan's response to queries about such films was, "It's no coincidence that most of these films are coming from Europe. There's such courage in Europe. Many of these filmmakers are saying, `Let's talk about sex with all its humour, silliness and passion'." Not all agreed with his perception as these films sparked off the age-old debate about the line dividing art and pornography.

The most controversial work was Zav Asher's "Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat", which outraged many citizens just for describing what three individuals did to a stray cat. Animal activists picketed the film's public screening. There were several moments when audience averted their gaze from the screen, unable to watch what was unrolling before them. But then as a media critic said in the festival's defence, "a film festival should be dedicated to showing the world as it is, not as we think it should be." And in the world as it is, there is romance and comedy too. And some films reflected this facet, notably "Being Julia and A Good Woman". There was also the much-awaited animated underwater adventure "Shark Tale".


In this prism of world cinema the country that produces the largest number of films in the world, India had just two films: "Swapner Din", a Bengali film by Buddhadeb Dasgupta and the Hindi feature "Hari Om" by debutante Bharatbala.

Incidentally, the most-talked about "Indian" film was "Shadows of Time" made in Bengali by a German director Florian Gallenberger. A tragic love-story set in Calcutta, the film is Florian's debut feature and the inspiration came from a young girl who was rescued from bonded labour in a carpet factory. The 32-year-old director who won an Oscar in 2001 for his short film said he heard her ""fragile voice" over German radio and "found" himself writing a story set in India. The film is a testimony to artistic expressions transcending territorial boundaries.

Though non-competitive, TIFF does have a unique award: the People's choice award based on an audience vote, the only major festival to have one. This year's choice was "Hotel Rwanda".

Since the bell on the Oscar race officially runs mid-September, TIFF becomes the image-building ground. But apart from the high-profile films, the art house and low budget films can and do pitch themselves at this international stage where potential film distributors can find them. For example, Toronto-based filmmaker Michael McGowan managed to get his independent feature "Saint Ralph" sold around the world. And it is here that the festival proves its worth.

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