September 5, 2011 12:31 am

Events of Sept. 11 forever linked to Toronto film festival for many


TORONTO – For many in the movie business, the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001 will forever be linked with the 26th Toronto International Film Festival.

It was 10 years ago that stunned filmmakers, celebrities and movie fans at the festival shifted their gaze from the big screen to TV sets positioned in the city’s toniest hotel bars and lobbies, watching in horror as the U.S. terror attacks unfolded.

A dark pall immediately fell over what had been “a near perfect festival,” director Piers Handling would later say, sending distraught visitors including Glenn Close, David Lynch, Mark Wahlberg, Benjamin Bratt, Gina Gershon and Juliette Lewis scrambling to find ways to return home to loved ones while bringing the movie marathon to a sudden halt.

“It was chaos,” recalls Canadian director Carl Bessai, who was at the festival with his sophomore film “Lola.”

“In every hotel, every public gathering space there was a TV and people were by the TV watching CNN or whatever news feed.”

“A lot of lobbies had pulled TVs out on rolling stands and would kind of set them in an open area and people would sort of congregate … Everyone was morose. It was really quiet and crippled.”

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The devastating events shook scores of festival-goers, many of them U.S. filmmakers who lived in or had close ties to New York City, where 2,700 people died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Compounding their emotional turmoil was the fact air travel was grounded indefinitely. Finding a rental car that could take them across the border proved near impossible for many.

“Glenn Close, I think, was here and I ran into her and she was on her way to a car rental place,” recalls festival director Piers Handling.

“David Lynch was trapped, trying to get back to Los Angeles and he was trapped for days. I think at the end of it they rented a bus and a whole group of them actually bussed across America to go home.”

Producer Robert Lantos opened his home to displaced colleagues from Los Angeles, New York and Europe.

“My house became a kind of refuge because they were all stranded,” Lantos recalled. “I had dinners at my house and they were homeless so I took care of them.”

The night before the attacks, Lantos had been out partying to celebrate the world premiere of his film “Picture Claire,” starring Gershon and Lewis. He awoke the morning of Sept. 11 expecting to attend a press conference to promote his film.

“We were seriously pre-empted,” Lantos says.

The 36th Toronto International Film Festival, which runs Thursday through Sept. 18, will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks with a four-minute film that will precede every public screening on Sunday, Sept. 11.

Handling says the short is meant to evoke the memories of festival-goers and includes the first-person accounts of directors Mira Nair and Paul Lynch, actress Ingrid Veninger, and Sony Pictures Classics co-founders Michael Barker and Tom Bernard.

“What a day,” Handling says of the confusion, fear and sorrow he encountered.

He notes that the city’s downtown festival hotels became hubs for distraught filmmakers, journalists and visitors to share information and seek solace. Festival organizers brought in counsellors to help staff and guests who struggled with the tragedy.

Handling had spent the early morning of Sept. 11 trying to call Italian director Nanni Moretti in a bid to convince the recent Palm D’Or winner to visit Toronto. That was interrupted by the incomprehensible footage of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

The moment he saw the skyscrapers fall, Handling says he switched off the television and went into “crisis mode.”

He and then-managing director Michele Maheux called a noon press conference to announce that about 30 public screenings would be cancelled that day, including the gala North American premiere of Nair’s Venice Film Festival Gold Lion winner “Monsoon Wedding.”

“We were just kind of feeling our way through the decision-making,” he recalls. “We were grappling with ‘Should we cancel the entire festival?’ Because we were being asked that question.”

In the end, he and Maheux decided on something in between – to continue the festival but to remove the red carpets, the sponsor acknowledgments and to cancel the parties.

“We basically took all the glitz and glamour out of the festival and just concentrated on running the films,” he says.

“And I think that was absolutely the right decision to have made. But we really didn’t know on the day itself if we were making the right decisions or not. It was one of the most challenging days of my professional career.”

The closing press conference, typically marked by a celebratory brunch, was held without the food, honouring “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” and the French audience favourite “Amelie.”

Veninger says she was impressed with how the festival handled the delicate circumstances, recalling the conflicted emotions she felt while waiting to learn whether her film “On Their Knees” would screen as scheduled Sept. 11.

“They were so amazing,” says Veninger, whose more recent visits to the fest have been as a director.

“I remember just … not knowing what to do – wanting to show the film but not knowing if it was right and just wanting someone to tell us what was going to happen and when it was going to happen.”

While acknowledging the enormous tragedy of that day, Lantos also laments “the really bad piece of bad luck” of debuting a film the night before the attacks. He notes that the world premiere of his thriller “Picture Claire” came and went “without it being noticed in the media.”

He also questioned the value of commemorating the impact of the attacks with Sunday’s four-minute film. Although insisting he was “neither against it nor for it,” Lantos notes he was asked to be involved with the short but said he was unavailable.

“It wasn’t something I was particularly keen to be part of,” he says.

“I didn’t make it a point to be around for it because I’m not sure that it really calls for that kind of (gesture),” he adds. “It sounds a little too celebratory for me. There’s nothing to celebrate.”

Ten years ago, the festival’s decision to scale back on events was also met with friction from some movie-makers.

Handling says he understands why.

“For some of the filmmakers who were here it was their world premiere, their North American premiere of their movies. They were really upset,” he recalls.

“They weren’t upset with the festival, they were just upset at the events that were going on that day. I think it was kind of natural, they’d built themselves up for weeks, (and) it’s a machine. Every film arrives at this festival with a machine behind them – you’ve worked out your game strategy, your festival strategy, and then suddenly that’s completely taken away from you. I think there’s that kind of natural reaction of anger and frustration, emotions right across the board.”

Bessai recalled feeling some measure of guilt when screenings resumed later in the week. He wondered whether it was appropriate to be at a theatre given the horrific casualties and mounting fear that was gripping the continent.

“That was just a crazy horrible experience and you felt almost terrible showing your movie,” says Bessai, whose film “Lola” earned a berth just a day or two after the attacks.

“I remember Sabrina Grdevich, who was my lead actor, and I were standing up there and we just felt really awkward talking about our film. But in a way … there was something really beautiful about people being able to find some kind of connection in the movie-watching, the movie-going and the connecting to the creators.”

Veninger’s film “On Their Knees” had been scheduled to screen on the 11th but was postponed two days. When the premiere finally took place, it sold out and offered the filmmakers a welcomed night of community.

“It brought us all together and we sort of needed the distraction of being together,” she recalls.

Veninger says she found solace in the company of other film lovers that week, and lauded festival organizers for offering an escape from horrors that were all too real.

“It was handled with such compassion but also such a strong sense for the people that were staying (that) films were important and films were necessary and films were going to bring us together and offer some comfort. And a place to be…. It gave us a place to be.”


– with files from Canadian Press reporter Andrea Baillie in Toronto

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