Canuck event, celebrating 30 years, lays out promising smorgasbord of global fare

Never trust anyone over 30?

That romantic notion will be challenged once again, as the reliably rewarding Toronto Film Festival turns the Big Three-O this year. The sprawling 10-day affair, arguably the key North American event on the industry calendar, marks the milestone with modest alterations and early signs of a future tectonic shift in festival operations.

The fest, unspooling Sept. 8-17, will challenge bleary-eyed visitors to choose from some 250 features (and several dozen shorts), while featuring some minor reshuffling of sections and activities around the sales and industry salons.

Still, continuity prevails, and that’s just how festival organizers want it. They are determined to deliver the goods to a loyal public audience; the press throngs; and teams of buyers, sellers and industry folks by means of what one staffer calls a well-oiled machine.

As a measure of the fine-tuning, when longtime fest head Piers Handling transferred much of the handling of day-to-day operation last year to co-director Noah Cowan, nobody could tell the difference.

“It went just about as we hoped,” says Handling, whose duties — when he isn’t doing his main job raising funds and backing for a downtown-based festival center to open in late 2008 — include programming and serving in an advisory role for Cowan and his team.

Organizers have retired the Planet Africa label, responding to many complaints from African and black filmmakers that the section was effectively ghettoizing their work. Cowan notes that “Planet Africa had done a good job as far as attracting an audience to African diaspora cinema, but not a good job for the filmmakers.

“We’ve gone through this before with Asian Horizons, Latin American Panorama and Perspective Canada, all of which built audiences but then become obsolete,” Cowan says.

African diaspora pics this year are sprinkled throughout the fest, from Khalo Matabane’s South African “Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon” to Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s “Les Saignantes” from Cameroon.

On the market front, rooms that once served industry guests and sales reps in the always hectic Sutton Place Hotel are now set up exclusively for sellers and buyers. The goal is to create a setting more conducive for dealmaking. (Industry mailboxes and tickets will remain at the hotel.)

Meanwhile, a gathering spot for industry mavens has been created a block north of the hotel at Sage and an adjacent space, the Match Club. The hub will be a focal point of the fest’s Industry Initiative project, designed to connect Canuck cineastes with reps of the international film business. The shift reflects an increasing importance of the pact-making side of the festival, which has long prided itself on not having a dedicated market component.

Until now, the fest’s Mavericks series of talks with world cinema figures has been a strictly in-crowd affair. But in another aud-friendly move, the series (set this year to include, among others, doc giant Albert Maysles, and performance artist and now filmmaker Laurie Anderson) is relocating to the Isabel Bader Theater to accommodate public auds as well as industryites.

A move of a different kind is happening in incremental steps: The festival’s center of gravity is dividing in two, with its traditional heartbeat in the trendy Yorkville area and in the city’s downtown. “Downtown is where the theaters are, to be honest,” says Handling, citing that added screens at the Paramount will make the site a new public face for the festival.

Add in the Ryerson and Elgin (as well as the Roy Thomsen Hall for galas and the Cinematheque Ontario for the experimental Wavelengths sidebar), and “people will start getting used to going a bit further south than they’re used to right now,” says Cowan. “By the time the festival center is operating its first full year in 2009, being downtown will be second nature to festivalgoers.”

Meanwhile, Yorkville –Toronto’s equivalent of L.A.’s Westwood — is now “underscreened,” in Handling’s term, though it will remain the center of press screenings.

Programmers are bubbling with enthusiasm about this year’s selection, with programmer Jane Schoettle declaring, “I honestly didn’t think that last year’s artistic and commercial success could be topped, but this year is going to be better in terms of artistry and what’s available to buyers. I’m quite knocked out by it.”

A more subdued analysis comes from Sony Pictures Classics co-head Michael Barker, who avows he’s “not sure if it’s a good year to buy. It’s hard to say what’s good out there, because there are so many unknown films, so you don’t know until you see them. But based on the announced films, Toronto remains what it used to be known as — the festival of festivals. It’s one of the few great diversified festivals, and with the most appreciative audience anywhere.”

South Korea looks to have a strong presence — as it has had generally across the film festival world — with entries including Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy wrap-up, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” and brawny “Nowhere to Hide” helmer Lee Myung-se’s “The Duelist.”

U.S. indies enter the fest with strong promise. Titles include Jamie (“But I’m a Cheerleader”) Babbitt’s “The Quiet”; Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s book on a tobacco lobbyist, “Thank You for Smoking”; Jeff Stanzler’s complex post-9/11 drama “Sorry Haters,” with Robin Wright Penn; political drama “The War Within”; and doc “AKA Tommy Chong,” which looks at the comic’s arrest for pot possession.

The word of mouth extends to many other nonfiction films including “John and Jane,” about Indian phone operators servicing U.S. customers; “Heart of the Game,” a six-years-in-the-making look at a Seattle high school girls’ basketball program; “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” Sydney Pollack’s intimate portrait of the architect; Kristian Petri’s essaylike “The Well,” studying Orson Welles’ colorful years in Spain; epic Swiss doc “The Giant Buddhas,” set in a Buddhist monastery; and Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Bob Dylan study, “No Direction Home.”

In what is becoming an early autumn tradition, Toronto and Venice — and to a lesser extent San Sebastian — jointly showcase much of the new work from major auteurs, and this year’s selection looks to be notably global. Cinephiles can expect to globetrot with, among others, Laurent Cantet (“Vers le sud”), Michael Winterbottom (“Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story”), Abel Ferrara (“Mary”), Majid Majidi (“The Willow Tree”), Zhang Yang (“Sunflower”), Steven Soderbergh (“Bubble”), Andrucha Waddington (“House of Sand”), Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”), Neil Jordan (“Breakfast on Pluto”), Stephen Frears (“Mrs. Henderson”), Danis Tanovic (“L’enfer”), Buddhadev Dasgupta (“Kaalpurush”) and Terry Gilliam (“Tideland”).

Toronto also is poised to revive another trend that has lain dormant for awhile: films directed by actors such as Richard E. Grant’s African memoir “Wah-Wah,” and two crossing over from Venice, John Turturro’s “Romance and Cigarettes” and Liev Schreiber’s “Everything Is Illuminated.”

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