A lone man, naked and barefoot, runs for his life across Arctic ice floes. That image, from Zacharias Kunuk's 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is surely one of the most memorable of all Canadian cinema. Atanarjuat, an ancient Inuit story of revenge and the first feature film ever made entirely in the Inuktitut language, was feted at Cannes and celebrated at home. Last year, a Toronto International Film Festival poll of filmmakers, critics, scholars and programmers named it the best Canadian film of all time.
That's a tough act to follow – Kunuk's second film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, was politely but less rapturously received when it opened TIFF in 2006 and his production company went into receivership in 2011 – but the achievement and the promise of Atanarjuat was such that Kunuk's Maliglutit (Searchers) sits at the very top of my must-see list as the 2016 festival opens Thursday.
It's been a decade since Kunuk produced a feature; again, he finds an archetypal tale, yet this time it's not borrowed from Inuit legend, but from the 1956 John Ford movie The Searchers. In that classic western, John Wayne plays a returning Civil War vet rescuing his niece from the Comache in a film that both exposes and falls prey to the racism of its time. Interestingly, Kunuk has removed the story from that ugly cross-cultural context to place it exclusively in Inuit society.
Maliglutit is part of TIFF's new Platform series, a curated mini-festival of 12 films from which one will be selected as the jury's prize winner. Now in its second year, Platform also includes one other intriguing Canadian film: Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves. It is co-directed by two rising Quebec filmmakers, Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie, and mixes documentary footage with a fictional story about a group of students who gradually turn to terrorism in the aftermath of the 2012 demonstrations against tuition increases. In his previous feature, Corbo, which played the festival in 2014, Denis looked back at the FLQ; now, he and Lavoie connect the dots to the present.
The radicalization of youth is a recurring theme at this year's TIFF which also includes American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor's valiant attempt to adapt for the screen the Philip Roth novel of the same title. There, the revolutions and riots of the 1960s provide the backdrop for a story about a decent man trying to rescue his daughter from her violent politics. The Platform series also includes what may be the most direct and difficult approach to the subject: From the Dutch director Mijke de Jong, Layla M. is the story of a young Dutch woman of Moroccan extraction who, repulsed by the Islamophobia she sees in Europe, marries a jihadist and travels to the Middle East, only to discover other kinds of prejudice.
Another theme that seems to be emerging from the 2016 program is length. Before I've seen the film, perhaps the most remarkable thing I can tell you about Those Who Make Revolution… is that it's three hours long, a truly unusual feat in Canadian cinema. Will audiences embrace its discursiveness or chide the filmmakers for dragging an anchor?
Every year, one of the invigorating aspects of TIFF is watching as dedicated cinephiles celebrate or reject various offerings and approaches. I have already seen Toni Erdmann, the off-key German comedy about a humourless young businesswoman embarrassed by her father's practical jokes that was well received by critics at Cannes in May – despite, or perhaps because of, its two-hours-and-40-minutes running time, which effectively reproduces the daughter's squirmy feeling in its audience. What I am looking forward to now is seeing how this comedy of mortification plays with North Americans.
That's another, sometimes perverse, pleasure of TIFF: seeing what will prove controversial. Will Elle, Paul Verhoeven's film about a woman who enters into a sexual cat-and-mouse game with her rapist, offend Canadians as much as it delighted Europeans? And will Nate Parker's debut feature The Birth of a Nation prove so powerful that the writer-director will succeed in repositioning the klieg light of media attention, which has been shining on his acquittal on a sex assault charge in college, to refocus on his film about a slave rebellion?
Amidst all the drama, there will be lighter moments, too. From Saudi Arabia, I am looking forward to Barakah Meets Barakah, a first-ever rom com from a country that forbids dating, and to Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming), an animated feature from Canada's Ann Marie Fleming in which her signature Stick Girl travels to Iran for a poetry festival. Anger and anguish, delicacy and delight. TIFF 2016 promises to run the gamut.