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Snapshots from 45th TIFF


Victor Akande

THE popular Toronto International Film festival (TIFF) recorded its first hybrid experience in 45 years courtesy of the Covid-19 crisis that crippled businesses across the world, the film industry inclusive. Whereas many film events running annually between April and August were cancelled outright this year, TIFF was able to pull through as a September event, although more than 50 percent participation had to hold virtually. While there was also a significant reduction in the in-person theatre screenings due to the need for physical distancing, usual attendance was no doubt depleted owing to the travelling restrictions around the world.

For what could be termed a pandemic style edition, the absence of live red carpet session, paparazzi shows, bustling festival street attractions, glam and excitement are all responsible for the low enthusiasm. Hat said, the real business of film; some of which determine succeeding year’s box office and awards recognitions couldn’t have been affected.

Complimenting the lean cinema room screening attendance was drive-ins and open-air version at several locations around town; a new experience that comes with its own kind of excitement. These cinematic creations include venues like VISA Skyline Drive-In at CityView, RBC Lakeside Drive-In at Ontario Place, OLG Play Stage at Ontario Place, and West Island Open Air Cinema at Ontario Place.

TIFF acknowledged it was going to be a different festival, but assured fans they will get to see some of the top films of the year first before other audiences. In the words of the Artistic Director of TIFF, Cameron Bailey, “We are thrilled to offer a platform where we’ll be screening all of our films digitally and we’re also having and hosting conversations with actors and directors, we are hosting a conference, we also have a pro-platform for all of our industry delegates who cannot travel as well as press and we are hoping that we are also creating moments of surprise and delight.”

The festival had opened with Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia on September 10, closing with Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy. Enthusiasts had their fill with anticipated films like THE WATER MAN produced and directed by Nigerian-British actor David Oyelowo; CONCRETE COWBOY, a Black cowboys movie starring British actor of African descent Idris Elba; ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI by Regina King; PENGIUM BLOOM by Glendyn Ivin; and BRUISED, Halle Berry’s directorial debut among others.

Idris Elba relates CONCRETE COWBOY to BLM movement

FOR most of the Black writers and directors this year, the narratives appear to be a timely coincidence with the BLM theme, or rightly so, films that were inspired by recent accounts of systemic imbalance and racial discriminations, leading to fresh protests around the world.

Although the film, CONCRETE COWBOY, which necessitated the press conference at TIFF last Sunday, was shot 15 months ago, its theme of a troubled teen, stuck between a life of crime and his estranged father’s cowboy subculture resonates, albeit subtly with the BLM ideology. The fact is that, there is a culture of Black horsemen and women that is not often told, if ever told. One would have thought that cowboy culture is an exclusive reserve of a particular race. The film set to, not only promote, but reclaim and preserve this history.

Cast and crew of the movie, including Idris Elba, filmmaker Ricky Staub, producer Lee Daniels and others had an exciting time talking about the making of the film during the virtual press conference. And when it came to the question of how this resonated with the BLM movement, Elba noted that, as a father, the story is important to how children are raised in the community. Indeed, there are multiple claims of children in Black communities being mostly raised by single mothers due to the seemingly ‘hunting’ justice system that affects the male folks.

The actor hopes that after watching CONCRETE COWBOY, people will “look back at their communities and respect the role that communities play on young men’s lives, young people’s lives. Because often times it takes a village, you know, and sometimes we might stray outside of our village only to come back to the comfort of our village because that’s where we’re safe.”

Elba cannot wait for his kids to see the movie, saying: “Even where I’m from in England, where there’s a huge knife crime problem… we watch a movie like this and we remind ourselves… there are very important lessons to be learned from telling stories like this.”

The film; a screen adaptation of Greg Neri’s novel, has Elba, a Philadelphia cowboy whose 15-year-old son Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) arrives on his doorstep after he’s expelled from his Detroit school. The boy’s single mother is entirely fed up; she screams at him before sending him off to Philadelphia to spend the summer with his long-absent father.

Directed by Ricky Staub, the film is another directorial debut at the festival. Elba is glad that despite the pandemic, the film was able to make its way to the fore.

David Oyelowo: ‘Why I cried over role in “The Water Man”

WITH a vision akin to the stories of emancipation, THE WATER MAN, a directorial debut by David Oyelowo encourages young Africans through the eyes of his kids — to be strong and to find exceptional ways to confront life’s situations.

His lead role in Mira Nair’s 2016 movie, QUEEN OF KATWE reflects his strong support for kids, especially the girl child. This year, at TIFF, we saw another family-oriented picture with a strong male child character he fathers.

‘QUEEN OF KATWE is for his daughter, just as THE WATER MAN is for his sons,’ he revealed during a press conference on September 12 at TIFF.

“I was so nervous to show it to them because I made it for them,” he said.

“I know what it is to have a loving relationship with your children, but also to have these periods where you’re trying to navigate as they are growing and as you are trying to guide them, and sometimes getting it wrong, you know, which is something that plays out in this film.”

Oyelowo was a fan of movies like E.T. and The Goonies growing up. So, his attraction to a family-inclined script like THE WATER MAN was not surprising.

“I have four kids. I love watching movies with them,” he said. “And I love watching movies, the likes of which I grew up enjoying. Those films had adventure. They had escapism, but they also had a sort of a depth and a meaning to them… I’d been looking for something like this primarily as a producer. It was just the kind of thing I wanted to see in the world.”

Directing the movie came as a sweet coincidence after being asked, firstly, to develop and act in the lead. The initial director stepped aside in the 12th hour, and the team saw Oyelowo carrying on with the vision of the project, also as director. His initial inclusion was with the help of Oprah Winfrey who signed on as a producer, while screenwriter Emma Needell initiated what has now given him his first credit as a film director.

The vote of confidence touched his emotion, and that made him cry. “I cried on the phone because I know how much this story meant to Emma. It’s based partly on her childhood and her family and her growing up in Montana. And it was something that she had lovingly and beautifully written. That vote of confidence was just huge for me.”

But the new call was also a chance to represent his daughter in the film, he said. He had changed the character played by Amiah Miller from boy to girl.

THE WATERMAN follows a sensitive young boy as he embarks on a mission to help his gravely ill mother by locating the mythic Water Man, who may carry the secret to everlasting life. The film stars Lonnie Chavis (Gunner) who seeks out the legendary death-cheating figure in order to help his mother (Rosario Dawson). After Gunner disappears, his father Amos (Oyelowo) searches for him, and the two characters learn more about each other as a result.

 Still on Philadelphia: 40 YEARS A PRISONER

A story of racial tension and police brutality, 40 YEARS A PRISONER is one of the thought-provoking films in official selection at the Toronto film festival. A true-life event, the documentary follows Mike Africa Jr., son of two MOVE members who were imprisoned for the death of a police officer during a police raid and bombing in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985.

The docu features eyewitness accounts and archival footage of the tension that resulted in the controversial confrontation between police and the back-to-nature group, and a son’s years of agitation to free his parents.

Described by pundits as very timely, 40 YEARS A PRISONER raises concerns about why MOVE’s form of radical action was perceived as a threat.

“I spent three years of my life making a film about the indomitable will of a son to free his parents who were fighting against police brutality, systemic racism, and wrongful incarceration in the 1970s,” says Tommy Oliver, Director, and producer of the film.

“Three years of work that I would have happily tossed away if our country was in a responsible place where things like police shootings of unarmed Black people weren’t daily occurrences and where phrases like ‘I can’t breathe’ weren’t treated as memes…but that’s not the world we live in and as long as it’s not, it’s the role of the artist to shine as bright of a light as possible on those things. 40 YEARS A PRISONER is my light.”

The film explores how, under the circumstances, nine MOVE members – all Blacks – received maximum sentences of between 30 and 100 years in prison. Young married couple Debbie Africa and Mike Africa, expecting a child at the time were among the nine convicted. Debbie gave birth to Mike Africa Jr. inside prison, only to spend the next 40 years fighting for the release of his parents and the other MOVE members.a

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