Moviegoing to Great Lengths: Cinetourists Take Toronto

The annual event provides its usual preview of potentially Oscar-worthy films and, of course, some Hollywood glamour.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

TORONTO -- You can spot them at every screening. Bleary-eyed but buzzed, bolstered by passion, curiosity and adventurous spirits. Call them Xtreme Cinetourists: At the Toronto International Film Festival, which ends tomorrow, they burrow their way past tens of thousands of reporters, paparazzi, studio suits and assorted showbiz apparatchiks with exuberant nonchalance.

They're happier than Harvey Weinstein on a buying spree, more caffeinated than the stars -- from Brad Pitt to Jack White -- here to flog their movies. And they're surely less nervous than the filmmakers awaiting public baptism of their latest cinematic offspring.

At an event often dominated by klieg lights, red carpets and bar-napkin deals, the cinetourists are here to do the unthinkable: see movies. These are the "civilians," who come to Toronto, either on their own or by way of an organized tour, to endure marathon screenings of five or six films a day, for the sheer love of cinema. The point isn't to wheel and deal or to gawk at celebs, but to immerse themselves in films they might never see otherwise, whether in their local theaters or even the rich pastures of Netflix.

On a recent Friday, subscribers to Smithsonian Journeys, which has organized group trips to the Toronto film festival for nine years, gathered in a hotel conference room at 7:30 a.m., helping themselves to a buffet breakfast and chattering about the movies they'd seen the previous day. "I saw 'Liverpool,' which was horrible;'Cloud 9,' which was interesting but a little long; and I walked out of 'Two-Legged Horse,' " said Dick Hollands, a retired television broadcaster from McLean who came on the festival tour for the first time this year. "I would doubt seriously that I'll come back," he said cheerfully. "It's been a great experience but I don't need to be on the cutting edge."

The Smithsonian package (not including the flight) costs up to $3,500 and includes a five-day stay at a Marriott hotel, breakfasts featuring guest speakers (usually critics, and mid-level producers and directors) and tickets to one gala premiere, which this year was "Rachel Getting Married," starring Anne Hathaway. Perhaps best of all, the Smithsonian subscribers receive coveted industry passes, allowing them to bypass serpentine lines at public screenings and sashay into screenings, at the nearby Varsity multiplex, that are reserved for critics and executives.

The Smithsonian cinetourists, who number 30 in all, also avail themselves of the expertise of their guides, Ottawa film curator Tom McSorley and Marc Glassman, editor of the Canadian film magazine POV. McSorley and Glassman start every day with their list of picks, usually films they've seen at festivals or ones that have good buzz. Today's hottest ticket: "Waltz With Bashir," an animated documentary from Israel about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. "I think it's the best film at this festival," Glassman assured his audience, who dutifully pulled out highlighters and dog-eared the pages of their pocket festival guides.

"These guys always coach us not to see big studio films because we'll have a chance to see those later," said high-tech executive Dave Rossetti, who with his wife, Jan Avent, has been coming to Toronto for the past several years. "So we do a mix of those dark films you associate with festivals and, since you can do only so much rape-incest-murder, some of the lighter stuff." The German romantic drama "Cloud 9," about an elderly woman's decision to leave her husband, had emerged as an early favorite (no doubt partly because of its frank depiction of senior-citizen sex). But Avent admitted that the one she liked best so far didn't hew to the edgy festival aesthetic. "I'm a little embarrassed to say it, but I liked 'Ghost Town,' " she said of the big-studio romantic comedy due in theaters next week.

Later that weekend, Selwyn "Sel" Freed, 91, a retired urologist from Larchmont, N.Y., and his wife, Iris, 88 sprinted through the Varsity at breakneck speed, trying to make a 9:15 a.m. screening of the Dutch drama "Katia's Sister." The Freeds, who have been coming to Toronto "for about seven or eight years," had spent the night before perusing the festival's 450-page program guide, which contains stills and synopses of the more than 300 films being shown. Sel was in charge of selecting the couple's cinematic itinerary. (The Freeds also have access to press and industry screenings due to their role as unofficial advisers to a friend who's in the entertainment business.)

From "Katia's Sister" -- which turned out to be a grim portrait of a single mother and her daughters in Amsterdam -- the couple dashed into "Citizen Juling," a 3-hour 42-minute digital video documentary about politics in Thailand. "What a bore!" Iris exclaimed upon emerging from the auditorium. "It was almost unpleasant," Sel admitted. "Oh, honey, please," Iris said. "I hope your next choices will be better than these."

As filmgoers milled about the crowded lobby, buying snacks and checking their iPhones, the Freeds consulted their pocket guide. "May I make a suggestion?" offered Iris. "The next movie is at noon and it's now 10 minutes after 11. Let's go downstairs and watch tennis. The guys are on. The girls don't play till later." Sel nodded his head. "I accept your suggestion."

In the restaurant below, the television was tuned to the U.S. Open. "Honey, I'm retiring you," Iris told Sel. "Can I take over?" Perusing the schedule, she spied "Last Stop 174," Bruno Barreto's fictional account of a real-life hijacking of a Rio de Janeiro bus in 1974. It was starting in just a few minutes; they decided to take a chance. One hundred and 10 minutes later, after a harrowing depiction of poverty, violence, drug addiction and despair, the Freeds emerged even more dejected than when they started. "All the brutality," Iris said with a sigh. "And it starts with the children." Sel shook his head. "I try to identify with them," he murmured. "They were abandoned by their mothers."

The discussion continued as the Freeds jumped into a cab (some press screenings are held at another neighborhood theater), and after a quick ride through a driving drizzle, they arrived just in time for "Sugar," about a Dominican baseball player who comes to America to realize his own version of the American dream by way of minor league baseball.

Finally, a winner: " I liked that movie!" a beaming Iris proclaimed as she walked out. By this time the sun had come out, so the couple opted for a brisk walk back to the Varsity, where they arrived a half-hour late to Washington filmmaker Haile Gerima's "Teza," another epic-length movie (140 minutes), this time about Ethiopian history.

"Very good, very sophisticated," Sel said as he emerged. "I don't think it's for everybody, but it's great history." Iris caught up with him. "What a film!" she exclaimed. "Oh my God, what a film! I'm so happy I saw that! What are we going to next?" They peered at their crumpled pocket guide. "Tulpan," a movie from Kazakhstan, started 30 minutes ago. "Oh, let's go in," Iris urged, tugging at Sel's arm. "It's only a half-hour, we'll catch up." With the schedule safely stashed in Iris's backpack, the Freeds disappeared into the crowd and headed toward the next darkened room.

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