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#TIFF2019: Once Upon a Festival…

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Covering the festival for a Midwestern alternative weekly, while also scouting films for a festival makes curating a screening schedule here at TIFF quite complicated. Have I caught all of the awards season fare? What about the more intriguing titles that might mesh with the thematic focus of the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival?

Early on, before I had multiple roles, I realized that there was no way to even remotely come close to seeing everything on my festival wish list. I’ve satisfied myself with the idea of making choices, getting in lines or ditching a selection based on some instinctual feeling, and moving on, one day at a time.

This entry marks my next-to-last day of screenings for 2019, and two things stand out as I take a quick look back at my slate. Sadly, I was unable to squeeze in a shorts block this year. Thanks to a savvy PR team, I did get a link for Anna, a finely understated short from Dekel Berenson about a Ukrainian single mother who attends a mixer in the hope of finding a foreign man to take her away from the daily grind of working in a meat-packing plant that I watched mid-week at my AirBnB. Berenson upends expectations with the narrative by giving viewers an exacting realist portrayal of what happens when you look too hard – you end up seeing more than you ever imagined.

The other rather startling realization is that I ended up with only one documentary making my final cut. But Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band rocked me like only great music can. It is the story of a group of musicians I’ve loved since I properly got into rock, told from the perspective of their non-lead singing leader who has gone on to remix his musical legacy by incorporating pieces from his Native American roots as well as electronica to create atmospheric soundscapes from the land of dreams and desires.

With three of the five founding members dead (Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko) and the other surviving member (Garth Hudson) unwilling to participate in the production, Once Were Brothers is, like most of the music from the group, told in Robertson’s voice, but the spirited harmonies from his long-gone bandmates loom over every frame. This is his story, but that story wouldn’t be possible without his brothers and Robertson’s obviously great affection for them enriches the telling.

Director David Roher’s film, which was produced by Martin Scorsese, Brian Glazer, and Ron Howard, unique counterpoint to the recent David Crosby documentary Remember My Name, because Robertson, while not in touch with his brothers after their final concert together (The Last Waltz, which was documented by Martin Scorsese), wasn’t quite the pariah that Crosby was. It is easy to see him as a calming presence, the first guy in the group to settle down and start a family, the one who took the reins to insure songs were written and albums produced. You hear similar reports from interviewees like Eric Clapton, who admits to wanting, at one point, to join the group, before instead becoming the drinking buddy of one of the guys.

It would have been easy to turn Once Were Brothers into a solemnly bitter dirge, zeroing in on drugs and jealousy, the battles over song rights and internecine feuds, but it is plain that Robertson wants to celebrate the improbable coming-together of these men, the amazing impact they had on one another and music, while signaling that The Band continues to drive and inspire him today.

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Part of my evolving festival experience involves stepping away from the screens, away even from the studio or sponsor parties, to enjoy the city of Toronto as it lives and breathes around TIFF. This is an even more important task now, since as a festival organizer, I want to find ways to have OTR (in downtown Cincinnati) embrace film and have festival goers give OTR a big squeeze too.

For the last four years, I’ve made an annual pilgrimage to Abbozzo Gallery – a short walk away from the festival hub at 401 Richmond Street West – to take a recharging break. I appreciate the stillness of the images and works contained in the space, but I also enjoy my conversations with Ineke Zigrossi, the gallery’s founder and director and her son Blake, gallery administrator and an avid TIFF attendee. Through them I have been exposed to intriguing Canadian artists and been able to share impressions about films that rarely find their way into either these daily blog posts or my CityBeat coverage.

This year, they invited me to a special event featuring Olexander Wlasenko, an artist whose current exhibition (Reel Life) opened the first day of TIFF (and runs through September 28th). Wlasenko’s work – charcoal pieces created by hand – are large-scale recreations of images from Italian Neo-realist and French New Wave films. He’s able to bring viewers closer to these frames, which to many might not be all that familiar.

His event (Overlooked: Canadian Art in the Movie ‘The Shining’) took place on Friday the 13th and presented me with an opportunity I simply couldn’t miss. The lecture served as an education on Canadian art (there are at least 33 documented works by Canadian fine artists featured in the film) and showcased Wlasenko’s fascinating obsession with tracking down these seemingly subliminal messages Stanley Kubrick left behind for viewers. What was Kubrick trying to save about Canada and these works, and what did any of this have to do with his overall message and themes in the film?

Wlasenko wasn’t exactly aiming to offer definitive answers to these questions, but he certainly knows how to celebrate film and Canada. And thanks to Wlasenko and Abbozzo Gallery, my 2019 festival experience is a bit more reel.