David Cronenberg is making his long-awaited return to the Toronto International Film Festival – just not behind the camera. The iconic Canadian filmmaker, who hasn’t directed a film since the dark 2014 drama Maps to the Stars, is one of the stars of Albert Shin’s new psychological thriller Clifton Hill, which will have its world premiere at the 44th edition of TIFF this September, organizers announced Wednesday.
“He has a fairly substantial role in this, which is Albert’s highly anticipated third feature film that explores the seedy structural underworkings of Niagara Falls,” says Ravi Srinivasan, who joined TIFF this year to help program the festival’s Canadian lineup alongside long-time programmer Steve Gravestock. “Cronenberg plays sort of a town historian-slash-podcaster. And local crank.”
Adds Shin, who says the film is inspired by his own family’s history with Niagara Falls: “As a young Canadian filmmaker, to direct David Cronenberg in my own dark, quirky mystery film, was as surreal as he was sublime.”
Clifton Hill will be one of 26 Canadian features to screen at this year’s festival. Aside from featuring the acting talents of Cronenberg, though, the film can also be seen as a symbolic changing of the guard for homegrown filmmakers, with this year’s TIFF featuring an almost-equal mix of work from emerging talent such as Shin and more established industry veterans.
On that latter front, this year’s festival includes new work from familiar TIFF faces Atom Egoyan (Guest of Honour, starring Luke Wilson and David Thewlis), François Girard (the Clive Owen-starring The Song of Names), Zacharias Kunuk (One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk), Ellen Page (stepping behind the camera for the first time with her “environmental racism” documentary There’s Something in the Water, co-directed by Ian Daniel) and established documentarians Alan Zweig (the police-focused Copper), Barry Avrich (David Foster: Off the Record) and Alanis Obomsawin (Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger).
“Alanis proves again that she’s a real force and, as you’d expect, this film has an emotional wallop,” Gravestock says of Obomsawin’s latest, which focuses on the political response in Canada to the 2005 death of five-year-old Indigenous child Jordan River Anderson. “But like her last film, [2017′s Our People Will Be Healed], this is also quite optimistic, while obviously dealing with a real Canadian tragedy.”
Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger marks Obomsawin’s 53rd feature. On the flip side of experience, this year’s TIFF will feature seven debut features and a handful of films from recently emerging, homegrown talent.
In addition to Shin, this year’s fresh-but-experienced Canadian contingent includes Joey Klein (whose second feature, Castle in the Ground, looks at the opioid crisis in Sudbury, Ont.), Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn (who unite to co-direct the Indigenous-focused drama The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which also stars Tailfeathers) and Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis (who are following up this year’s experimental comedy Spice It Up with White Lie).
“From a production standpoint, this was a major graduation for us, from shooting on 35mm to working with a professional cast and crew,” Thomas and Lewis say in a joint statement to The Globe and Mail about White Lie, which focuses on an undergrad student who fakes a cancer diagnosis. “Most of all, we’re excited by Kacey Rohl’s performance. We always thought this could be a special role for a talented actor, but what Kacey delivered went far beyond what we expected.”
Rookie films for 2019 include Aisling Chin-Yee’s family drama The Rest of Us starring Heather Graham, Harry Cepka’s Vancouver-set character study Raf, starring Grace Glowicki, and Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, a gonzo-looking biopic of former Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King that will play the festival’s extreme-cinema-friendly Midnight Madness program.
Notably, this year’s TIFF first-timer club features two films developed under Telefilm’s upstart Talent to Watch initiative, which was launched in 2018 with the goal of financing up to 50 microbudget features. Two of the filmmakers from that inaugural program’s slate, Heather Young (the documentary-esque character study Murmur) and Sanja Zivkovic (the family drama Easy Land), will see their films enjoy world premieres at this year’s festival.
“I went to the gym after work one day and, as always, kept my phone close by. [My producer, Julie Strifler,] called, and I could tell by her, ‘Hi, how are you?’ that she had something to tell me. It’s a tight, intimate space at the gym and talking is pretty disruptive. Bless the people that put up with me screaming in joy and crying while trying to carry on with their class,” recalls Zivkovic upon finding out that Easy Land was selected. “I ran out of the gym and spent the next hour trying to come to terms with the news.”
One highly anticipated Canadian film that wasn’t announced on Wednesday, though, was Matthias et Maxime, the eighth film by Xavier Dolan that premiered at Cannes this spring.
Last year, TIFF waited until its splashy Canadian programming news conference to reveal that it had secured the world premiere of Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan – a surprise to the assembled media, who were not informed of the move when presented with TIFF’s initial Canadian slate the day before. Gravestock, however, assures that there will be no such Dolan twist this year.
"I don't think there are going to be any surprises, not that I know of," he says. "There will be a whole slew of announcements over the next couple weeks, but no [on the Dolan]. There are lots of films that are not available to us, and that's just the way programming is."
The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5 to 15.