Toronto gives moment to reflect on tragedy

The fifth anniversary of 9/11 will be marked simply by a moment of silence at the Toronto Film Festival.

Piers Handling, the fest’s director, feels it’s the best way to commemorate an event that he still recalls as “a day of incredible confusion and emotion.”

When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on that Tuesday morning, hundreds of journalists were already in early-morning screenings or waiting to start their first interviews of the day.

The lobbies of the various hotels used by the festival were packed with stars and their handlers when suddenly all eyes went to the television screens at 9:02 a.m. as United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower.

Professional business immediately ceased, and everyone waited silently, awkwardly for news. As the extent of the terrorist attacks gradually became known, people found their voice.

“My God, it’s the end of the world as we know it,” said the late Richard Harris. “We’ll all be dead before the day is through.”

Some people didn’t discover what happened until they emerged from those early screenings. One of those was critic Roger Ebert, who immediately checked on his family’s safety and then went back to his room to record his thoughts.

“We are stunned,” he wrote. “We are in grief, and in the dark places of our hearts we fear a time of anarchy and violence — an apocalypse on Earth — unless men learn to live together on a planet that has grown too small.”

While trying to absorb the extent of the greater world tragedy, another kind of burden fell on the people running the Toronto festival: How should they react to the events of the day?

“There was a great deal of pressure,” Handling recalls. “Some thought we should cancel the entire festival. Others thought we should continue in some fashion. We formed an emergency team of key people immediately and worked out what we were going to do. The pressure was amazing, and we had to react so quickly.”

Feelings ran high and were sharply divided. “How can we even think about movies at a time like this?” asked an angry Mark Wahlberg, while Pauly Shore incurred the wrath of many by insisting, “We’ve got to keep moving, man. Keep marching — a lot of work went into these movies, a lot of time, a lot of money.”

Handling was obliged to act. Rapidly. And he did: “We canceled all the remaining events of the day. Then we decided that we would continue the festival the following day. We canceled all the parties, red carpet, sponsorship acknowledgements, anything that was celebratory — and just ran the films. Many had asked us if we would continue, some expected that we would just shut down. It was the hardest decision I have ever made in my life.”

At the time, most festgoers agreed that Handling acted wisely. His actions sent out the message that terrorism could not destroy the spirit that creative artists stood for.

Meanwhile, people had to get home. For the Euro contingency, it was no problem since their plans never involved travel over the U.S. New Yorkers rented cars, took the train. But for Los Angelenos, it meant at least a four-day delay. Celebs had it a bit easier than journos, who had no access to the corporate jet.

Danny DeVito, who was in Toronto promoting “Heist,” took the opportunity to make an unplanned car trip to visit his daughter at Brown U. in Providence, R.I. When air-travel resumed on Saturday, the WB airplane simply made a detour to Rhode Island to pick him up.

Shore continued to provoke comments when he rented a bus and offered to export stranded Los Angelenos back to the West Coast. Despite the WTC tragedy, several wags took time to pass on the question, “Who ever would spend 68 straight hours with Pauly Shore?”

For her part, Jeanne Moreau stayed until the end of the fest, and eloquently addressed the WTC tragedy at a press conference. “Though for some people cinema means something superficial and just glamorous,” the actress declared, “it is something else. Orson Welles used to call it a ribbon of dreams, but I think it is the mirror of the world.”

Come this Sept. 11th in Toronto, a moment of silence might say more than any number of speeches ever could.

Robert Hofler contributed to this report.

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