It was Day 6 of the 26th Toronto International Film Festival, just past the halfway point, when the cataclysmic events of Sept. 11, 2001, suddenly and perhaps permanently changed the world within the space of a few hours. For the throngs of festival-goers staring glassy-eyed at the JumboTron on Bloor & Yonge, the sight of hijacked commercial airliners crashing into the World Trade Center towers seemed not only unfathomable, but unreal, difficult to separate from a five-day blur of provocative and sometimes shocking images. When reality finally detached itself from awful fantasy, the obscenity of this act of choreographed destruction felt especially ripe at a festival that provides a window into cultures from around the world and celebrates that shared humanity.
Shortly after the news broke, all screenings for the day were canceled, and the fate of the festival's remainder was unknown. In the meantime, pay phones were jammed with people checking on loved ones, and the long ticket lines at the Varsity Theater reformed at the adjacent blood bank. A few tears were shed, but the prevailing mood was eerily hollow and quiet, as the crowds that once buzzed with activity and excitement now grappled with a tragedy too abstract in scope to comprehend. On a clear, beautiful afternoon, the streets and businesses around Festival Central were alive with the usual foot traffic, but the atmosphere was heavy with chilling, unforgettable portent, as the face of the city turned ashen with disbelief.
At a press conference later that afternoon, festival director Piers Handling and managing director Michèle Maheux announced their decision to continue the festival as scheduled the next day, but without the red-carpet press lines or the official closing-night party and awards brunch. It was an unenviable decision to make, especially on a day when the prospect of going to the movies seemed incredibly frivolous, if not downright unseemly. But it was the right choice, a bold refusal to capitulate to the will of extremists whose vision of the world stands as the antithesis to the enlightening cultural exchange the festival sponsors every year.
Nevertheless, the tone shifted dramatically from the first half of the festival to the second, and often the show of resiliency felt like just that—a show. The attacks forced a cruel sense of perspective: Suddenly, the stories and ideas that once seemed vitally important, worthy of passion and intellectual energy, were rendered nearly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. This feeling was so pervasive that one New York-based critic confessed he no longer felt duty-bound to sit through mediocrities. To hell with professionalism: If a film didn't grab him within the first two reels, he was out the door. Life's too short.
After Tuesday, nearly every film was seen in a new light, or at least viewed with distraction, as it became impossible to escape entirely into fantasy. It didn't help that this year's slate seemed especially grim, with only Jean-Pierre Jeunet's sweet-natured fairy tale Amélie to break up the images of rape, torture, and genital mutilation in some of the festival's most notable offerings. Even the closing Midnight Madness feature—normally a cheerfully vulgar send-off along the lines of last year's riotous Japanese punk zombie movie Wild Zero—was curiously apropos under the circumstances: an exceptionally dreary and mirthless British horror film called The Bunker.
Just as the terrorist attack prompted Hollywood to indefinitely postpone a few upcoming releases (Big Trouble, Collateral Damage), remove all Spider-Man trailers (which prominently featured the World Trade Center), and delay Ed Burns' Sidewalks Of New York for its title alone, certain films at Toronto may be ill-suited to the newly sensitized climate. Rumors were spreading that festival-goers may have been the last to see David Mamet's Heist for a while, due to a key sequence in which thieves overwhelm airport security. Some even speculated that A.I.—which, near its end, shows the twin towers still standing after a few millennia—could be subjected to digital tinkering for video, though that seems a little overboard. But it remains to be seen just how far American studios are willing to go to erase history in order to spare audiences its painful truths.
(One of the probable side effects of the tragedy is that violence may not be treated so cavalierly now that real-life terror and destruction has hit home. Five years ago, packed houses cheered as the White House was blown to CGI bits in Independence Day. Will the same generation that made that film a blockbuster success ever watch it again without wincing?)
The shootings at Columbine delayed the release of Tim Blake Nelson's O for nearly three years, because the film's original distributor, Miramax, was skittish about the disturbing parallels in his contemporary version of Othello. While there's no such correlation to current events in The Grey Zone, Nelson's devastating look at the inner workings of a Nazi concentration camp, Zone may be another case of poor timing—though even in peacetime, it would be impossible to shake off the film's blunt, unsparing horrors. Based on the memoir of Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor at Auschwitz, The Grey Zone tells the story of the 12th Sonderkommando, a select squad of prisoners who aided the extermination of fellow Jews in exchange for special freedoms and luxuries, and for the tenuous promise that their lives would be spared. Stripping away the sentimentality and redemption at the soft heart of Schindler's List and other Holocaust dramas, Nelson emphasizes the banal labor of carrying out The Final Solution, as bodies are processed from flesh to ash with the cold, ruthless efficiency of an assembly line.
A different kind of mechanized violence, inwardly directed and carried out with chilling discretion, deteriorates the rigid façade of Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke's controversial The Piano Teacher, which surprised and enraged many when it picked up three major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. However, few could question the authenticity of Huppert's wrenching turn as a former piano prodigy, now a forbidding instructor at the Vienna Conservatory, who's approaching middle age and still lives with (and shares a bed with) her mother. Her repressed sexuality finds disturbing outlets, including the peep-show booths at a local porn shop, where she sniffs the soiled tissues discarded in the trash bin. The too-neat psychology behind her masochism—epitomized in a soon-to-be-infamous scene in which she slashes her genitals with a razor blade—deepens when she takes up with a student (Benoît Magimel) who turns the tables on her. Never one to shy away from the darkest corners of human imagination, Haneke (Funny Games) skirts charges of emotional pornography and sadism, but Huppert makes his farfetched scenario look terrifyingly real.
The other Cannes favorite, Nanni Moretti's Palme d'Or-winning The Son's Room, shows clear signs of a divided jury. In sharp contrast to the chilly brutality of The Piano Teacher, the film's delicate and openly sentimental treatment of an upper-middle-class family grappling with sudden loss is, in its own way, just as calculated as Haneke's steel trap of a movie. It probably helps to be attuned to writer-director-star Moretti's sensibility, which has been compared at times to Woody Allen's, but the freeform comic/intellectual observation of films such as 1998's Aprile and 1994's Caro Diario are arguably more personal. The Son's Room takes Moretti out of autobiographical mode, but his insights are diminished by flavorless, TV-movie staging and a shameless score that crudely pries away at the tear ducts.
Cannes is usually the most accurate bellwether for Toronto, and 2001 was an off year for both. Nothing at Toronto 2001 approached the emotional riches of Edward Yang's Yi Yi (the best film of 2000) or Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love (the best film released in the U.S. so far this year). No 2001 discovery was as revelatory as last year's Memento, and even 2000's list of also-rans—including George Washington, Eureka, The House Of Mirth, You Can Count On Me, Songs From The Second Floor, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—could fill out a Top 10 list for any year. Nevertheless, there were plenty of solid Cannes leftovers, among them nonagenarian Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home, a pitch-perfect meditation on death and the creative process, and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, a seductive and often brilliant attempt to salvage a semi-coherent feature from the rubble of a rejected TV pilot.
Though they could hardly be more different in approach, the two most accomplished films at the festival, Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There? and Laurent Cantet's L'Emploi Du Temps (Time Out), center on men who have lost their place in society. Urban alienation and anomie are common themes in Tsai's work, including 1994's Vive L'Amour and 1997's The River, but here he runs them through the sort of whimsical premise usually associated with Wong Kar-Wai. Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng stars as a watch dealer on the streets of Taipei who sells his own wristwatch to a beautiful young woman just before she departs for Paris. His intense feelings for her and the timepiece, tied strongly to the recent death of his father, are quietly channeled into a quest to set all the clocks in Taipei to Paris time. Shooting in long, beautifully timed takes—it's clear that a master is at work when a giant whitefish hits its cue—Tsai makes his melancholy palpable, but not without welcome doses of offhand humor, highlighted by an inspired shot straight out of a Harold Lloyd movie.
A loner of a different sort, the white-collar hero of Time Out recalls William H. Macy's character in Fargo: an ordinary businessman (newcomer Aurélien Recoing) who attempts an impossible scheme and scrambles desperately to keep it afloat. Fired from his job and overwhelmed with shame, Recoing—who looks uncannily like middle-management material—refuses to tell his family and lives off investment money he bilks from former colleagues, all the while sleeping in his car. In every way a major advance on Cantet's fine but unmemorable previous feature, Human Resources, Time Out slowly and masterfully ratchets the tension as it goes along, riding on the spiraling shame of a foolish man who believes work is everything.
Just as American life may be partitioned into "before" and "after" Sept. 11, 2001, memories of this year's Toronto Film Festival suffer the same divide. Before Sept. 11, the anti-American sentiments in Jean-Luc Godard's wildly overrated Éloge De L'Amour might have seemed less petty and facile. Screened the day after, his semantics lesson on the word "America" and his cheap shots at directors like Steven Spielberg—accused here of exploiting history, he's apparently responsible for Oskar Schindler's widow living in poverty in Argentina—could hardly be less welcome.
The before-and-after effect reflected most profoundly on Iranian master Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Sun Behind The Moon (originally titled Kandahar, after the Afghan city), which looked like a minor work at the beginning of the festival, and a vitally important one at the end. As the film opens, Niloufar Pazira, a journalist who was born in Afghanistan and raised in Canada, responds to a letter from her sister, who was left behind by their family when she was maimed by a landmine. Unable to bear the brutality of life under the Taliban regime, she plans to commit suicide on the last eclipse of the new millennium. After bribing a helicopter pilot to smuggle her over the border, Pazira has three days to get to Kandahar, a mission made considerably more difficult by the Taliban's harsh restrictions on women.
Beginning with the absurd yet haunting image of artificial legs descending by parachute to meet the demands of the many limbless Afghanis, The Sun Behind The Moon pictures the war-torn country as one of unceasing poverty, famine, and oppression. Under the Taliban's watch, medical woes are the least of its people's problems: "They don't need a doctor," notes a black American posing as a physician. "They need a baker." At a time when movie-going seems frivolous and irrelevant, Makhmalbaf's compassion shines through the propaganda. A war with Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden may be imminent, but Americans needn't confuse the Afghan people with the enemy.