A 2013 study conducted by Cormex Research determined that nearly one in three mentions of our city in the international press directly relates to the Toronto International Film Festival. (Shockingly, in this same year, Rob Ford ranked ninth, somewhere between the Ikea Monkey and the stage collapsing before a Radiohead concert at Downsview Park.) Even more pertinently, unlike global Toronto-centric topics like a crack-smoking mayor or a tragically faulty concert stage, most international TIFF coverage tends to be positive.
So, like it or lump it, TIFF is how Toronto presents itself to the world at large.
Is it any wonder that for two weeks every September, for the last 40 years, Hogtown wiggles into its shiniest rental tuxedo, slicks back its hair, and flashes its toothiest George Clooney grin for the rest of the world?
In the oral history of TIFF by Barry Hertz that kicked off The Globe's festival coverage this year, co-founder Henk Van der Kolk sums up TIFF's original mission statement, back when it was known as the Festival of Festivals. "We thought that by starting a film festival, we would get the world to recognize us," he recounts. "To say, we're here!" Mr. Van der Kolk was talking about his own film and TV production company and the way the festival could function as a platform for screening and publicizing his homegrown productions. But the sentiment stands for Toronto itself. In a city that often struggles to distinguish itself, TIFF has become our thing. (Well, okay, that and the Blue Jays, of late.)
Of course, it's easy to hate on TIFF. To my mind, one of the more admirable assets that most Torontonians seem to share is our cynical humility. We tend to roll our eyes at things – TIFF, our transit system, our sports clubs, our elected officials, our rap superstars – precisely because they're ours. And TIFF can carry a lot of that scorn. The red carpets. The celebrity gawking. The Grolsch ads upholstering the city. It's so embarrassing. So undignified. So anti-art.
Sure, that all may well be true. But if there's another thing that's become apparent reading the multiple oral histories of the festival published this year in anticipation of the 40th edition, it's that it has always been this way. It's not like TIFF was minted as a way of showcasing Canadian social realist films or the most daring offerings in international cinema. It was always about the glitz and glamour, the stars and celebs, the cacophony of clucking laughter over the clink of martini glasses. As veteran Toronto film critic Brian D. Johnson put it in The Globe's piece, the festival "was cooked up by people on the terrace of the Carlton in Cannes! If ever there was an unholy alliance between high-pedigree art-house cinema and glitz, it's Cannes. They wanted to produce that in Toronto."
If anything, the anxiety around TIFF getting ever more glitzy and prestigious – the fear that it's increasingly serving as a launchpad for the year's boring Oscar bait – is tempered by a corresponding escalation in its art-house bonafides. The Wavelengths section is one of the most admired experimental film programmes in the world (and the single reason a lot of critics and fans make the annual trek to Toronto), and the festival has long served as the first chance for local audiences to encounter world cinema offerings that have been previously ballyhooed at European fests like Berlin or Cannes.
For the cynics, haters and grumps (and I count myself among them, for sure), TIFF offers the best of both worlds: big-ticket gala premieres to mock, and the space for exciting, inventive, affecting cinema. Even for those of us not prone to those flashbulb-friendly, Hollywood-handsome grins, TIFF's an annual opportunity to announce, however begrudgingly, mumbled through gritted teeth, "We're here."