It wasn't until Lucius Dechausay walked onto the campus of the University of Western Ontario in London that warm, sunny morning of Sept. 11, 2001, that he learned something bad was going down in the United States. Really bad.
Twenty at the time, he'd only just moved to London from his home in Toronto – that Tuesday was his first day of classes as a third-year visual-arts and film student – and for the moment at least was without "access to the Internet, TV or phone or anything. …
"I remember [going]into the student centre," he recalled this week, "and seeing endless crowds of people staring at these tiny TV screens in shock and silence."
Of course, Dechausay quickly caught up with events – or events quickly caught up with him. Nous Sommes Tous Américains read the front-page headline of France's Le Monde newspaper on Sept. 12, and like billions of others, Dechausay found his gaze turned metaphorically to Manhattan, Washington and western Pennsylvania in an act of "collective grieving."
Now a freelance artist, filmmaker, editor and music-video director – he's currently a contract producer/editor with CBC-TV's The Hour – Dechausay had cause to revisit the events of 9/11 this summer as the producer of a special short film the Toronto International Film Festival commissioned to mark their 10th anniversary. The untitled featurette, running less than five minutes, will be shown before all public screenings at the festival this Sunday, and this Sunday only. (There have been no advance screenings.) TIFF director Piers Handling calls it "a small compendium of memories of that moment," employing stock footage, archival material from TIFF's film reference library and interviews Dechausay did with about 11 individuals who attended the festival a decade ago.
As TIFF followers well know, the attack on the World Trade Center and related happenings occurred virtually in the middle of TIFF's 26th annual instalment. Close to 90 U.S. films had been brought to the festival, luring literally hundreds of American publicists, stars, distributors, media representatives, directors and producers to the Ontario capital. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, droves of them began to check out of their hotels and drop interviews and meetings, propelled by just one thought: Get back home. In the meantime, Handling cancelled all screenings, media conferences and parties remaining on the schedule for the 11th. Grief counsellors were brought in. Later it was announced that while films would continue to be shown – the 28 public screenings and 13 industry showcases pre-empted on the 11th were moved to Sept. 16, the Sunday – there would be no closing party and red-carpet galas. Gone, too, was the awards brunch.
Since then TIFF has essentially tiptoed around the accident of history that has positioned what Handling today calls "a Canadian festival with, of course, heavy U.S. attendance" forever within the parameters of Sept. 11, 2001. One year later, some attendees left the festival early to attend memorial services in the United States. Also that year, Handling recalled recently, "no American studio … or pretty close to it … wanted to play its films on 9/11" even as TIFF agreed not to begin screenings that day until after 11 a.m.. By contrast, this Sunday, an estimated 15 U.S. productions or co-productions are set to unspool, among them Machine Gun Preacher, a gala at Roy Thomson Hall, featuring Gerard Butler as a biker-turned-missionary in Sudan "delivering humanitarian fire and brimstone from the barrel of an AK-47."
Over the years TIFF has shown features and documentaries about 9/11 and related events (most notably the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq), including Eleven Minutes, Nine Seconds, One Image; In the Valley of Elah; Redacted and, of course, The Hurt Locker, an Oscar winner in 2010 . There's even one this year – The Love We Make, a doc centred on Paul McCartney's efforts to organize the Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden in October, 2001.
Yet for all its impact in the real world, 9/11 (as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq incursions) hasn't really spawned that many films and what there is, Fahrenheit 9/11 excepted , hasn't enjoyed significant box office. Handling observed: "[9/11]seems to be something Americans have moved on from in some way." Indeed, with the opening this weekend of the 9/11 memorial at ground zero in Manhattan and next year's scheduled completion of One World Trade Center at the same site, he predicted 9/11 will become more of a New York phenomenon. As a commemorative occasion, he said, "this just may recede in a funny way." Certainly, Handling said, he can't see TIFF formally marking it 10 or even five years from now.
For this anniversary, though, Dechausay was impressed by how the interviewees for his short"really wanted to talk. When you're interviewing people, you never really know how much they're going to give up of themselves. But they really opened themselves up" – so much, in fact, that Dechausay says he easily could have prepared a strong full-length documentary. (TIFF, however, "wanted to keep it tight.") Among his talking heads are Handling, festival chief operating officer Michèle Maheux, Sony Pictures Classics co-founders Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, plus South Asian director Mira Nair whose Monsoon Wedding, winner just days before of the Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, had its gala North American premiere at TIFF nixed by the attacks.
TIFF's decision 10 years ago to continue to show films, albeit stripped of the glitz and glamour that usually attends the festival, sparked a measure of controversy when it was made. Some, thinking it disrespectful, wanted the festival cancelled outright. Others were miffed at seeing all their promotional efforts coming to naught. For his part, Dechausay thinks the decision was the right one. Making his short, he said, "what was most interesting to me was how all of these creative people [who stayed]at the festival used art as a medium to deal with their trauma. Almost everyone I interviewed continued seeing films … and many [indicated]they'd have been entirely lost if it weren't for the festival providing them with a space to begin in the healing process."
No wonder then that the working title for his 9/11 memorial was Solace in the Dark.