Michael Moore never shies away from a fight.
It’s a safe bet that the documentary filmmaker will kick off this year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival with a few choice words aimed at the 45th president. “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Moore’s latest, examines the rise of President Donald Trump and represents a rallying cry for the resistance. The festival’s decision to give Moore one of its opening night slots is a clear indication that this will be one of the most politically charged TIFFs in recent memory.
There’s “The Front Runner,” Jason Reitman’s dissection of a pre-Stormy Daniels sex crisis that derailed the presidential campaign of Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman); “Boy Erased,” a drama about gay conversion that hits at a time when one of the controversial “therapies” boosters, Vice President Mike Pence, is within a heartbeat of the Oval Office; “The Hate U Give,” a searing look at racially charged police violence; and “American Dharma,” Errol Morris’ interrogation of Trump strategist Steve Bannon. In this divided moment, with the U.S. split into red and blue enclaves, even a film like “First Man,” an ode to Apollo 11 astronauts, has become embroiled in controversy because it does not show Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon. It does depict it standing on the lunar surface, but that’s unlikely to dissuade conservative commentators.
Despite the charged atmosphere, one potential headline-making moment will be avoided. Bannon will not be on hand in Toronto when the movie screens on Sunday, according to a source close to the film.
Trump may loom over TIFF and most Hollywood gatherings these days (no awards show is complete without some dis of the Donald, no premiere party complete without hand-wringing over the latest Tweet storm), but the movie industry isn’t just contending with a White House that’s far removed from its left-leaning politics. It’s also enduring a period of soul-searching about the ways that it has fallen short of its ideals. This TIFF is the first to unfold in the wake of Time’s Up. When studios and filmmakers last converged in Canada, Harvey Weinstein was still considered an indie mastermind. At one point, he was even supposed to help finance Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9.” After dozens of women came forward accusing him of harassment and assault, he’s a pariah.
In response, Toronto has created a hotline where attendees can report instances of harassment and will have signage around the festival stressing its “zero tolerance” for any kind of sexual abuse or misconduct. There will also be a women’s rally on Saturday in front of the TIFF headquarters in order to draw attention to gender inequality and sexual harassment in the film industry
“We will be addressing the current landscape in our industry programming and events,” said Cameron Bailey, artistic director of TIFF. “We plan to keep the conversation going and give people an opportunity to talk through what this all means.”
The festival is also championing films with strong female protagonists. “Widows,” with Viola Davis as the head of a band of unlikely robbers; “Destroyer,” with Nicole Kidman as a psychically damaged detective; and “A Star is Born,” with Lady Gaga as a singer on the verge of a breakthrough are just a few of the movies that rise or fall on the strength of their lead actresses. It’s a welcome change from the wives and girlfriend roles to which women, irrespective of their talent, are often delegated. Many, if not most, of these films were conceived before Weinstein’s fall triggered an industry-wide reckoning, but it’s impossible not to see them as something of a tonic.
“There are a variety of very complex women characters being portrayed on screen,” said Piers Handling, director and CEO of TIFF. “They’re not typical heroines. They’re conflicted. They’re fallible. They’re struggling to navigate the troubled waters of life.”
Some of the movies grappling with political themes will hit Toronto looking for distribution. “Tell It to the Bees,” “Vox Lux” and “Skin” dramatize everything from global terrorism to back alley abortions to neo-Nazis. They are clearly moments that reflect many of the great debates currently raging. Whether that topicality translates into big sales is another matter.
“We’re not out to get somebody elected, but we have to feed the hunger and interest for what’s happening in the world and the stories behind what’s going on,” said Paul Davidson, executive VP of film and TV at The Orchard. “It’s monopolizing a lot of time and mindshare right now.”
The TIFF Race to Oscar: