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The serious side of TIFF: global conflicts, individual mortality

A scene from the film A Late Quartet.

North America's largest film festival opens Thursday in Toronto with a wide-ranging trove of movies and a spotlight on global conflicts and baby boomers' mortality.

"It's our most diverse slate ever, with 72 countries represented," said Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Many filmmakers this year have focused their lenses on recent unrest in Sri Lanka, the Middle East and elsewhere, Bailey noted. For the first time, the festival has scheduled talks after each screening with experts, such as political scientist Janice Stein and former Canadian opposition leader Michael Ignatieff.

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"We've seen these kinds of subjects treated in films before, but we're hoping to go beyond the initial description of a conflict and offer deeper insights into what is going on," Bailey said.

He pointed to the portrait of a man who escapes a North Korean labor camp in the documentary Camp 14 – Total Control Zone; the quest for UN recognition of Palestine in State 194; and candid interviews with former heads of Israel's intelligence and security agency Shin Bet in The Gatekeepers.

There is also an increasing number of films about death and aging on an individual scale, largely attributable to baby boomers growing older and "facing their own mortality," Bailey said.

In this category, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken star in A Late Quartet, about a string quartet's future hanging in the balance after a member is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

Closing night film Song For Marion also touches on the end of life, casting Vanessa Redgrave in the role of a curmudgeonly retiree's beloved wife who falls ill.

If all that seems a bit too much to handle while munching popcorn, try a lighter form of documentary. The smash success of music docs – following last year's focus on U2, Pearl Jam and Neil Young – has spawned a similar series this year.

Artifact follows Jared Leto and his band Thirty Seconds to Mars as they battle their record label.

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Reincarnated follows rapper Snoop Dogg – now known as Snoop Lion – as he comes to embrace reggae, while Bad 25, a new Spike Lee film, looks at the making of Michael Jackson's Bad album 25 years on.

The festival opens Thursday evening with the futuristic time-bending action thriller Looper, starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, and runs through September 16, showcasing 289 feature films and 83 shorts.

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