This year’s Toronto International Film Festival will mark a number of milestones: The first fest in almost three decades without the involvement of former chief executive officer Piers Handling. The first fest to play host to the TIFF Tribute Gala event, which organizers hope will become a major fundraising initiative going forward. The first fest for executive director and co-head Joana Vicente and several new players across the organization. But TIFF 2019 will also mark, in a quieter and more suitably challenging fashion, a turning point in festival programming: the fifth year for Platform.
The brainchild of artistic director and newly installed co-head Cameron Bailey, Platform was introduced in 2015 with the goal of trumpeting “artistically ambitious” films that might otherwise get lost in the TIFF shuffle. For each of the program’s first four years, a jury of internationally renowned filmmakers (including China’s Jia Zhangke, whose 2000 drama inspired the program’s name) awarded $25,000 to one of a dozen features. Only once, though, has the winner of Platform gone on to any arguable success outside TIFF’s environs: Pablo Larrain’s Natalie Portman-starring drama Jackie, which triumphed in 2016.
Otherwise, the lifespan of Platform winners – 2015′s Canadian documentary Hurt; 2017′s Australian drama Sweet Country; and 2018′s Taiwanese mind-bender Cities of Last Things – has been dispiriting. I only knew, for instance, that Cities of Last Things was currently streaming on Netflix because I was conducting research for this very column.
Bailey says he is aware of the difficulty Platform’s films have in the marketplace when the TIFF dust settles, but is also confident that the program’s sensibilities – world cinema that pushes narrative and form, and is typically celebrity-light – is just as important to highlight now as ever.
“We do try to keep track of the films that play in the section [throughout the year], but I think that we’ve done our job in Platform if the industry is paying attention, and if the media and audiences are understanding that these are films to get behind, that these are films that represent the very best in contemporary cinema,” says Bailey in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “I’m thinking of films for this year, like Proxima and Sound of Metal, which express who we are now and how we live now. It’s not just the forms of the films that are exemplary, but what they tell us about our world.”
To that end, this year’s Platform selections are as eclectic a bunch as ever. Alongside work that might hew closer to established genre, such as the aforementioned Proxima (Alice Winocour’s Eva Green-led drama about an astronaut mother who must choose between her mission and her daughter) and Sound of Metal (Darius Marder’s feature debut about a professional drummer, played by Riz Ahmed, who begins to lose his hearing), there is David Zonana’s “class-conscious” Mexican drama Workforce; Paula Hernandez’s tense family-reunion film The Sleepwalkers; and Rocks, Sarah Gavron’s partly improvised work about British schoolgirls, which will open the lineup.
While the films feel at home within the program, Platform is entering its fifth year with noticeable structural changes. There are only 10 films on this year’s slate, compared with the dozen films populating past iterations. The cash prize for best film is down to $20,000 from $25,000 (2018′s corporate sponsor, Air France, is not returning). And the three-person jury is no longer exclusively composed of filmmakers, with Carlo Chatrian, newly appointed artistic director of the Berlinale, and Variety film critic Jessica Kiang joining Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari on the 2019 panel.
"It's not because we're tired of filmmakers, but we wanted to expand the perspective to go beyond simply what a director's view is on other directors," says Bailey on the jury reboot. "I think the three of them will have sparks."
“And Athina is multipronged in a way,” adds Andréa Picard, curator of TIFF’s avant-garde Wavelengths program, who teamed up with Bailey for this year’s Platform. “She’s run a film festival, she’s a producer. She’s done all the jobs and is a serious cinephile.”
All eyes – or at least all eyes in a certain corner of Canada – will be on whether Tsangari and her peers will select the lone Canadian entry in this year’s program, Toronto filmmaker Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft. The experimental drama, which Radwanski shot over the course of two years in spurts and is described as “the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in the world,” is only the fourth Canadian film to ever play Platform. It also represents its own sort of milestone for a group of DIY-minded microbudget homegrown auteurs, with its cast populated by a number of the community’s most familiar faces, including lead performer Deragh Campbell (a TIFF Rising Star from 2015) and Matt Johnson (director of Operation Avalanche).
“These films are such a personal investment, and making it is the reward,” says Radwanski, who views Anne at 13,000 ft. as the cap to his thematic trilogy about outsiders (following 2012′s Tower and 2015′s How Heavy This Hammer). “We made exactly the film we wanted to make without compromise, so having it in a competition like Platform is really meaningful.”
Adds Bailey: “Kaz is one of Canada’s most talented filmmakers. Although his subjects are very local and he works with a team of Toronto filmmakers and actors, his films feel like they’re speaking to international cinema. This film shows him to be working on an even higher level than in the past and is a sign of even greater things to come.”
Ask Bailey and Picard for Platform’s biggest shock, though, and they both point to Julie Delpy’s My Zoe, which is a decisive shift from the French filmmaker’s lighter romantic comedies.
“It’s probably one of the most surprising films I’ve seen this year,” Picard says.
And surprise, even five years in, is what Platform is all about.
The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5 to 15.
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