A sense of seriousness restored at Toronto International Film Festival

September 11, 2013

TORONTO — On the 12th anniversary of 9/11 and in a year in which many American filmgoers were nervously checking their Twitter feeds to find out if we had launched missiles in Syria, the real world has intruded with a vengeance at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. On Tuesday, Canadian filmmakers Sarah Polley and Atom Egoyan – joined by the novelist Michael Ondaatje and American documentarian Alex Gibney – convened a press conference to call for the immediate release of Canadian director John Greyson from an Egyptian prison.

Greyson was in Egypt making a documentary about physician Tarek Loubani when, on Aug. 16, the two men were taken to a Cairo jail without being charged. A petition calling for the men’s release has reportedly already been signed by around 100,000 people, and filmmakers have signed an open letter on Greyson’s behalf. (A relative unknown to mainstream American audiences, he’s a prominent figure in the fine arts and film festival world.)

The press conference restored a sense of seriousness to the festival, which routinely calls attention to international issues. Two years ago public attention was called to the plight of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been barred by the Iranian government from making films and traveling; undeterred, he’s continued to smuggle work out of Iran, the latest being “Closed Curtain,” which was one of the festival’s opening night films last Thursday. In 2009, Greyson was one of several filmmakers who withdrew his film from TIFF to protest the festival’s program that year highlighting films from Tel Aviv.

But just hours before the Greyson press conference, festival chatter wasn’t centered around the world at large as much as the bubble attendees have been living in over the past week: At a press screening on Monday, Alex Billington, who writes for the Web site FirstShowing.net, angrily called 911 after he caught a colleague texting throughout a screening of Ti West’s “The Sacrament.” Debate immediately ensued as to whether Billington engaged in a righteous form of cinematic disobedience or had endangered Toronto citizens by diverting emergency services (or had even committed a crime).

Billington later issued an apology via Twitter: “My mistake is my own lesson to learn. I contacted staff first for piracy, they did nothing. Attention should be on the policy, bigger issue,” he said. “Ya, I overreacted made heat of moment gaffe … Mea culpa. Full respect for responders.”

Today, presumably, TIFF-goers will go back to business as usual: complaining about lines, complaining about WiFi, complaining about the sudden heat wave — and, oh yes, seeing the strongest slate of movies in recent memory.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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Ron Charles · September 11, 2013