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Film critic calls TIFF a farce


Brad Pitt works the red carpet outside Roy Thomson Hall last night ahead of the screening for Burn After Reading at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Mark O'Neill, Sun Media)
Brad Pitt works the red carpet outside Roy Thomson Hall last night ahead of the screening for Burn After Reading at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Mark O'Neill, Sun Media)

TORONTO - The Toronto International Film Festival is no longer the people's film festival. Co-founder Dusty Cohl would be appalled. His widow, Joan Cohl, is certainly unhappy about this breach of trust.

Dusty, the gruff yet big-hearted conscience of the festival for its first 32 years, would have railed against turning it into an elitist corporate spectacle, as it has now become.

He would have hated the annoying new policy of increasing ticket prices and letting donors go to the head of the line, while heartland people -- cinephiles, working stiffs, the common folk who are the lifeblood of the event -- are treated as rudely as dozens were on opening night, and as thousands have been in the distribution of tickets for the entire festival.

But Dusty is not here to analyze, complain and set things right. He died Jan. 11. So we have to speak up for him.

Opening night was bittersweet. Before the usual speeches, before the shameless shill for more donors to fund the festival's risky new home at the "Bell Lightbox," before an eloquent Paul Gross introduced his stirring First World War epic Passchendaele, there was a filmed tribute to Dusty Cohl.

Oddly, no one introduced it to the capacity crowd at Roy Thomson Hall, an audience which included the Cohl clan. Barry Avrich's simple, yet eloquent and poignant testimonial just started playing as lights dimmed. In it, Dusty's "kids" paid homage to this unique man's enormous contribution to Toronto culture, including the founding of the filmfest in 1976 with William Marshall and Henk Van der Kolk. As Marshall says in the testimonial, "No Dusty, no film festival."

As soon as the film tribute ended, Piers Handling, the Toronto festival's CEO and co-director, cited Cohl for his "charismatic, life-affirming spirit" and announced the Joan and Dusty Cohl Fund, which the festival will administer. It will sponsor a young filmmaker at the fest's high-powered Talent Lab. That's great. Dusty always tried to help young filmmakers.

But, once the emotional stuff was out of the way, Handling and Michele Maheux, his COO and executive director, went to work shilling for more sponsors to pony up for Bell Lightbox. It is under construction as part of a larger commercial development at King and John Streets. The festival is $49 million short of its current $196-million budgetary goal.

It seemed crass, desperate. The festival has an edifice complex.

How else to explain why Toronto has lost its status as the most democratic major festival in the world?

Before the festival, cinephile friends told me how disgusted they were about the new policy of favouring donors -- who contribute at least $250 -- over regular ticket buyers. My friends happen to be donors but they do not want special treatment in the ticket lottery.

This policy upsets Joan Cohl, too. She was crucial in the early years of the festival in maintaining public access. And she knows it would upset Dusty. "Absolutely!" she said Thursday night.

Opening night, perhaps 200 of us were directed to a line at the white ticket tent beside Roy Thomson Hall. We were there to exchange passes for real tickets. The line did not move. Instead, volunteers shouted for donors to come forward. Even when none did, we were left standing -- such as the high school history teacher and his wife standing behind me in line. With no information. When we asked for guidance, we were dismissed rudely by TIFF staff.

Eventually, just before showtime, some were finally given tickets and rushed in just before the Cohl tribute rolled.

When I asked the TIFF ticket gal why we had to wait -- why other legit pass holders were turned away entirely -- she said, "I don't know!"

Bloody hell. I know. It's all about donors.

Inside, the night would have been ruined, if not for new co-director Cameron Bailey's rousing speech. Instead of droning on about the Lightbox, Bailey thanked the band of the Royal Regiment of Canada, which had just played The Vimy Ridge Fanfare and The Maple Leaf Forever.

He then urged out some passion: "We're not a people known for brash displays of patriotism," Bailey said. "Let's forget that for one evening!"

That perfectly set up the night for Gross to present Passchendaele, his epic about Canadian courage in the hellish trench warfare of WWI. The Canadian character, Gross said, "was actually forged in the slaughterhouses of Europe."

That helped make Canada a people's democracy -- a good lesson for a festival showcasing this film.

Give the Toronto film festival back to the people.