Throughout its 40 years, the Toronto Intl. Film Festival has billed itself as a non-competitive, audience-skewing festival — and been championed as such by filmmakers and industryites — with its People’s Choice award the marquee prize.
But on Thursday at the Elgin Theatre, festival CEO and director Piers Handling and artistic director Cameron Bailey introduced a brand new concept: Platform, a competitive program of 12 international films by emerging or mid-career directors. Handling also introduced the inaugural international jury of filmmakers that will award the Platform Prize of CAN$25,000 ($18,000) on Sept 20.
Acclaimed filmmakers Jia Zhang-ke, Claire Denis, and Agnieszka Holland, who comprise this year’s jury, are old friends of the festival, which has screened most, if not all, of their feature pics over the years.
On Thursday, after a red-carpet walk and onstage intro, they watched the world preem of Platform opener “Land of Mine” (Martin Zandvliet’s fact-based story about teenage German soliders sent to remove German landmines from the Danish west coast after WWII) with the audience and left at the start of an extended standing ovation.
As jury discussion heats up — Diasteme’s “French Blood” and Eva Husson’s “Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)” screened Friday, Joachim Lafosse’s “White Knights” Saturday afternoon — the audience experience may at least inform the jury’s debates. (Each Platform film has its first screening for public, press, and industry at the Elgin.)
“When I sit in the audience I feel what the audience is feeling,” said Denis at an intimate media conference on Friday morning. “The audience may not reflect what I am feeling at that moment, but I think it is very important.
“We all make films, so we have judgments about our own work,” continued Denis, currently co-writing her next film, an English-language science-fiction feature, with novelist Zadie Smith. “But as an audience member, I want to be surprised, and to be taken to a part of my emotions that I didn’t expect.”
“I always hope that a film will bring a closer understanding of the world around us and society,” said Jia, whose “Mountains May Depart” is screening in Special Presentations. “Another wish is for the film to offer the possibility of a new film language, and for new cinema to emerge.
“At the same time, this process is like dating,” he joked. “You see all 12 and then you know which one you fall in love with … of course, I will be in trouble if I fall in love with six!”
While many similar competitions offer one or more runner-up prizes, the Platform jury has a singular vision. “There is one prize only, we’ve been told,” said Holland. “This gives us a special responsibility, and we will respect that. And it also makes this award very special, as well.
“Every jury is different, and so the important thing is to be in the moment,” she added, noting that, as the inaugural jury, the process will evolve as they see more films and establish rapport.
“This is not a party,” said Denis of the jury process, although she and the others did say they expect some discussion will no doubt happen over drinks. “This festival is about being part of the world—and films, I think, are the best way to feel part of the world.”
Jia commented that Toronto is a city filled with immigrants: “You see the reflection of the world in this city, and also the reflection of cinema today at the festival. In 10 days I will see 12 films and I can’t wait to start.”