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Actor award recipient Jessica Chastain takes a selfie with a fan after a news conference for the 2021 TIFF Tribute Awards in Toronto on Sept. 11, 2021.

MARK BLINCH/Reuters

The star power ramped up on day three of the Toronto International Film Festival as Tribute Award honourees gathered in person, marvelling on the return to cinemas and red carpets after a year and a half of pandemic shutdowns.

Actors Jessica Chastain and Benedict Cumberbatch, singer Dionne Warwick, and filmmakers Denis Villeneuve, Alanis Obomsawin and Danis Goulet spoke at a press conference at Roy Thomson Hall.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner appeared virtually at the event, which saw the novelty of celebrities coming together in person at TIFF again after last year’s largely digital festival.

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The group will be honoured at the TIFF Tribute Awards, airing Sept. 18 on CTV in Canada and streaming to a global audience by Variety.

The pandemic-tailored festival runs through Sept. 18 with online and in-person events but more indoor screenings than last year and a return to red carpets.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch poses for photographers on the red carpet of the film 'The Power Of The Dog' at the Venice Film Festival in Italy on Sep, 2, 2021.

Domenico Stinellis/The Associated Press

Cumberbatch said it felt like a partial resurrection of TIFF’s reputation as an audience-driven event helping film talent connect with each other and fans.

“It’s that feeling, that kind of flush of connection on the roads outside, that we’re missing a little bit this year,” said the English star of two TIFF films: The Power of the Dog and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

“But it feels like it’s coming back and it’s just great to be here in person because of that, to connect to the audience and to thank them and give something back and celebrate film all together.”

Quebec-raised Villeneuve, who is at the festival with his sprawling sci-fi adaptation Dune, said he’s optimistic about the industry despite present-day “difficult times for theatres.”

“I’m deeply, profoundly, totally convinced that the future of cinema is on the big screen, because it’s part of the language,” he said on stage at Saturday’s press conference, before the world-exclusive IMAX special screening of Dune that evening.

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“Frankly, I think we need it as human beings, to have a communal experience. But I think the theatre owners and filmmakers, we have a responsibility to make sure that we bring the best cinema and the best theatrical experience to the screen.”

Chastain is also at TIFF with two films: The Forgiven and The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

The Hollywood star said she produced and developed The Eyes of Tammy Faye over a decade and was thrilled to appear in person for the drama, in which she and Andrew Garfield play televangelists Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker.

“To be back right now with a film that has been a huge passion project for me – and to see the festival in this way – is very exciting.”

Saskatchewan-born Goulet, who is at TIFF with her dystopian thriller Night Raiders, echoed Villeneuve’s thoughts on the joy of the big-screen experience.

“Wow, to be back in a cinema with people last night was such a gift. It was so beautiful,” said the Cree-Métis writer-director.

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Goulet said she grew up in a small town in northern Saskatchewan that was surrounded by three reserves and had one theatre.

“It smelled like fried chicken, because it was next to the Chicken Delight, and the projector would break down and everyone would stomp their feet until it got going again,” she recalled.

“And I remember sitting in my circle in kindergarten class and my teacher said, ‘Who saw the movie last night?’ and it was the premiere of E.T. I don’t know if I would have experienced that magic any other way, and now those theatres are disappearing.”

Launched in 2019, the Tribute Awards honour the film industry’s “outstanding contributors” and raise funds for TIFF’s year-round programs.

TIFF declared Saturday a day of recollection marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, which occurred during the festival and prompted organizers to pause events and help people get home to their families.

Premiering was Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, in which hundreds of eyewitnesses of the attacks tell their stories from a plywood video booth.

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Saturday also featured a virtual press conference for writer-director Justine Bateman’s feature debut, Violet.

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