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The Martian is clearly the biggest film at TIFF – but it’ll be in theatres in a matter of weeks.

I found myself pedalling furiously downtown one morning this week, determined not to miss a screening of short films at the Toronto International Film Festival. I had picked one of 11 programs of shorts playing at TIFF based solely on a time slot that fit my crammed viewing schedule.

Cultural festivals in general, and TIFF in particular, can create a remarkable excitement, verging on panic, about experiencing programming that most of us never bother with the rest of the year. I am a very occasional viewer of short films, mainly on the easily accessible and always available website of the National Film Board, and here I was running stop signs so as not to miss seven films of five to 15 minutes in length about which I knew precisely nothing.

When did you last see a film of which you had no prior knowledge or expectations? Movie trailers, now ubiquitous on YouTube and IMDb, seem to play the role that music videos once did as cultural signposts: "… No, but I've seen the trailer" seems like a sufficient answer these days.

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After viewing The Danish Girl at TIFF, I took a look at the trailer for that film about a 1920s Copenhagen artist who was the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The trailer summarizes the entire first act, hits the high points of the second and third and, if it doesn't actually tell you the ending, it does include two important clues, including an image from the film's final scene. Watching loud, overwrought trailers in the cinema, I often murmur a sarcastic aside to the producers: "Thanks, now I don't need to see the movie."

Come festival time, we are supposed to escape all this, to experience serendipity and discovery, but instead we often seem to spend our days chasing Susan Sarandon or Ellen Page from movie to movie. The 1,200 accredited journalists covering TIFF have an incredibly privileged perch; for films that already have North American or Canadian distribution, journalists may be offered advance screenings or links to private screeners posted on Vimeo weeks before the festival starts. And once TIFF does get rolling, we waltz by those lineups and walk calmly into press and industry screenings that rarely require queuing for more than a few minutes.

And yet, for all that access, we spend a lot of time chasing the same movies, many of them big-budget affairs with stars attached, that are guaranteed to open in most North American cities soon after the festival closes. When I bumped into a friend who said he was having his best festival ever – he recommends The Wait, a taut debut from Italian director Piero Messina starring Juliette Binoche as a Sicilian matriarch who receives an unexpected visit from her absent son's girlfriend – he confirmed my suspicion that the cinephiles are actually the luckier crew.

That was why I spent my last days at TIFF trying the random approach, hoping for my share of serendipity. I saw The Hard Stop, a worthy and very timely but rather sad British documentary about the black community behind Mark Duggan, the man whose 2011 shooting by police sparked the Tottenham riots. I saw Hong Kong Trilogy, a surreal drama with documentary dialogue in which the Hong Kongese cinematographer-turned-director Christopher Doyle pays tribute to the people of his city. And I saw those shorts, which included both the infuriating and the lovely.

That program ended with Clara Roquet's El Adios, a film in which an underappreciated Bolivian servant in a wealthy Spanish household is excluded from the funeral of her beloved mistress. The shorts are often first films from promising young directors and this one felt like an audition for what are now the classic films of Europe's various new waves. It was a powerful little thing, and as the camera followed the maid walking away from the house carrying her bags, I saw her departure as a hopeful beginning for both the character and the film's director.

But it's hard to explain, let alone recommend, a small experience like that when people keep asking, "So, what's the big film at TIFF?" The answer is clearly The Martian: The image of Matt Damon in an astronaut's helmet that has loomed over King Street all week is the largest representation of a human head I've ever seen. I didn't catch The Martian at TIFF, but that doesn't matter because it will open in cinemas across North America in a matter of weeks. And besides, I've already seen the trailer several times.

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