TIFF rejects glamour with Fugitive Pieces opener

Don't tell Noah Cowan and Piers Handling that the Toronto International Film Festival has gone Hollywood.

Don’t tell Noah Cowan and Piers Handling that the Toronto International Film Festival has gone Hollywood.

In choosing the star-less Fugitive Pieces by Jeremy Podeswa to open this year’s 32nd edition, the TIFF co-directors ruled against offering up Keira Knightley from Francois Girard’s Silk and Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen from David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as red meat to the shouting paparazzi and star-gazers massed outside Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 6.

TIFF is too big, too glitzy?

Bah, humbug.

Instead, cue the balalaika for Stephen Dillane, Rosamund Pike, Rade Serbedzija and the rest of the cast of the Canada/Greece copro when they chat with the ET Canadas and the Hello!s while strolling up the red carpet.

‘It is an incredible honor,’ says Podeswa. ‘I am so grateful to the festival and its programmers and organizers who have supported my work from the very start.’

Just to clear up any confusion: this is Toronto. We don’t look up at the leader board. We leave the Hollywood leading men with the gunslinger eyes and the pouting and disrobing starlets to Cannes and Venice, thank you very much.

Perhaps, too, conditions favored Podeswa to snag the opening-night slot. His third movie – after years helming acclaimed U.S. series such as Nip/Tuck and Rome – is serious, art-house fare. Based on the best seller by Canadian poet Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces tells the story of Jakob, a Jewish-Polish boy rescued from Nazi Germany by a Greek archaeologist who raises him as his son in Greece.

Just what the gold patrons yearn for on opening night at Roy Thomson, as they imagine the canapés and champagne to follow – another Holocaust film.

Ah, but partly set in Toronto, no less, because our haunted young one and his Greek protector eventually move to Canada, where Jakob’s broken heart is predictably healed by a caring woman’s love.

Not for TIFF the warm Mediterranean sun that inspires rival fests Cannes and Venice to open with the latest star-driven Hollywood studio release.

A people that doesn’t let subzero temperatures stop them from enjoying life can easily unlace their skates once a year to applaud a high-minded film like Fugitive Pieces, which took seven years of tough sledding to develop before shooting in Toronto and Greece last year at a cost of $9.5 million.

And Podeswa is no stranger to TIFF, having seen his first two movies, Eclipse and The Five Senses, screen there. And neither are the film’s producers. Robert Lantos has had nine of his previous titles open Toronto, and Sandra Cunningham is a former TIFF programmer.

And noting that Astral Media, the traditional sponsor of TIFF’s opening-night film, has equity in Fugitive Pieces, you can’t help but conclude that a fire-breathing dragon of a festival will be transformed into a cozy family gathering on opening night.

Now, with their choice made, Cowan and Handling must decide how to program the best of perhaps the strongest field of Canadian features in years.

There may be another two or three gala slots at Roy Thomson for Canuck movies, with the rest likely to be taken up with star-laden Hollywood releases, or high-profile European or Asian pictures.

Denys Arcand’s L’Âge des ténèbres is set to close Cannes’ official program, and producer Denise Robert has made no secret she’d appreciate a Toronto slot to tout the eventual English-Canadian theatrical release for the director’s highly anticipated follow-up to Oscar-winner The Barbarian Invasions.

The period drama Silk is thought to be bound first for Venice before Toronto, a path taken by the 1998 Oscar-winner The Red Violin, also from Rhombus Media.

And David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is another Roy Thomson contender, not least because Lantos is shepherding this picture as well amid the fierce lobbying that precedes Cowan and Handling locking down their festival lineup.

That’s after Cronenberg’s U.K./Canada thriller about Russian mob intrigue in London looks to snag a Venice berth. Apparently its makers always sought a first-weekend slot in Toronto, rather than be submitted to the first-night magnifying glass that is Podeswa’s fate.

All of which leaves a host of other high-profile Canadian movies to fend at TIFF as Special Presentations or in other sidebars.

These include Paolo Barzman’s Emotional Arithmetic, a drama starring Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne and Roy Dupuis, about three people separated by the Nazis who reunite 35 years later on a bucolic Quebec farm.

Also lining up for TIFF slots are Roger Spottiswoode’s Shake Hands with the Devil (Barna-Alper Productions/Halifax Film/Seville), which features Roy Dupuis as Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda at the time of the 1994 genocide, and The Stone Angel (Buffalo Gal Pictures/Skogland Productions/Odeon Films), an adaptation of the classic Margaret Laurence novel, with Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn in the starring role.

There’s also Clement Virgo’s Poor Boy’s Game and Bruce McDonald’s Tracey Fragments, both looking to come in from the cold after bowing in Berlin.

And Arcand isn’t alone among Quebec directors vying for a Toronto berth this year. There’s Bernard Émond’s Contre toute espérance, the second in a trilogy that began with his 2005 drama La neuvaine.

You’ll recall that Telefilm Canada generously backed the Arcand and Émond projects with precious subsidies, to the frustration of fellow Quebec filmmakers who complained to Ottawa that they were shut out of public grant money for their own projects.

Keep an eye out as well for the latest Carole Laure starrer, Karim Hussain’s La belle bête, which could go to Locarno, Denis Côté’s Nos vies privées and François Delisle’s Toi.

Toronto needs to book smartly this year, and, especially, this has to be proven in the selection of Podeswa’s film as the leadoff. It certainly stands to provide a huge boost to the director’s career. Choosing Deepa Mehta’s Water to open in 2005 underlined the fest’s ability to effectively launch a Canadian film and filmmaker into critical and box-office orbit.

It seemed the ultimate seal of approval when, at a pre-TIFF press conference, Handling announced Water as the opener and said the film represented a significant step forward in Mehta’s career.

And after it secured the spot, it wasn’t long before the film was picked up by Fox Searchlight. It went on to earn US$5.5 million at the North American box office, screen around the world, and snag an Academy Award nomination.

‘You’re looking for that type of film to put in front of your opening-night audience, to send the festival off on that kind of note,’ Handling said at the time.

Hopefully, last year’s opener, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, which flopped with TIFF’s suited-and-booted first-night audience, was just a misstep.

TIFF made the extraordinary move of firming up the film for opening night back in March 2006, presumably to scoop Cannes, where the filmmakers had scored a Camera d’Or earlier with Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

Give TIFF political points for having shone the spotlight on the slow, arty tale of how the arrival of Christianity impacted Inuit culture in the 1920s.

But this year the industry consensus is that TIFF could use a crowd-pleaser that plays to cinephiles as well as the bankers and politicians perennially on hand for the invite-only opening-night gala.

Whether that comes from Fugitive Pieces remains to be seen.