TORONTO — After two years of pandemic-disrupted events the Toronto International Film Festival kicked off Thursday evening promising a return to form, although the death of the Queen cast a pall over the celebrations, which included a concert in the heart of the city.
Rapper Kardinal Offishall hosted the official opening of Festival Street on King Street West, with Indigenous rock icon Buffy Sainte-Marie and Mohawk singer-songwriter Logan Staats performing.
“It would be inappropriate if I didn’t just acknowledge the beginning of what is a celebratory occasion during the opening of TIFF, the passing of her majesty the Queen,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory, who was among the dignitaries at the event.
“I think this is a big and sad day in history.”
Two festival venues — the Royal Alexandra Theatre and the Princess of Wales Theatre — dimmed their marquee lights as a way to pay tribute.
TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey said in a series of tweets that many festival attendees and film partners will be “deeply affected” by the death of the Queen.
In his opening remarks, he focused on the festival’s big return.
“We’re grateful for this exceptional support that we’ve been given by the government of Canada this year and our supporters,” said Bailey, referring to a $10-million investment from the federal government to support the return of in-person events.
“Thanks to that, we were able to recover. Without them we wouldn’t be able to put on an event of this scale.”
Sainte-Marie, whose documentary “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On” is screening at the festival, used the opportunity to spotlight serious issues affecting Canada’s Indigenous communities.
“I’m so pained for children these days, especially Indigenous children but all children, because they’re facing such hard news. I’m always looking for ways to counterbalance that,” she said.
“It ain’t money that makes the world go round that’s only temporary confusion. It ain’t governments make the people strong it’s the opposite illusion,” she added, quoting from her song “Look at the Facts.”
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Aideen Carroll, 40, who has been attending TIFF for 15 years, was looking forward to being back at the festival.
She didn’t think the Queen’s death would necessarily impact TIFF’s big return, though she noted she has a lot of respect for the late monarch’s dedication to her years of service.
“Based on everything I’ve read about the Queen, she has a great sense of humour. She would have loved TIFF and she would have loved that life goes on,” said Carroll.
Nearby, fans gathered on the red carpet for the opening night film, Netflix’s “The Swimmers” which is based on the true story of two sisters’ flight from war-torn Syria, directed by Sally El Hosaini.
The Welsh-Egyptian director has been selected for the TIFF Emerging Talent Award, one of the pre-announced prizes handed out at the festival.
Also receiving Tribute Awards on Sunday are Brendan Fraser, the Canadian-American lead actor in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” and the ensemble cast of “My Policeman,” which includes pop star Harry Styles. Both films are screening at the festival.
Among the celebrities scheduled to attend this year are Oprah Winfrey — who produced “Sidney,” the documentary about Sidney Poitier — and Taylor Swift, who’s presenting a screening of her short film “All Too Well.”
Daniel Craig will be joined by his co-stars in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” including Kate Hudson and Janelle Monae.
Al Yankovic, the parody musician, and Daniel Radcliffe, the actor portraying him in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” are both on deck, as is Jennifer Lawrence, who plays a soldier sent home from the Afghanistan war in “Causeway.”
Meanwhile, the legendary director Steven Spielberg is set to make his TIFF debut this year with the premiere of “The Fabelmans,” a semi-autobiographical film about a teen who learns of a shattering family secret just as he discovers the power of cinema.
The star-studded schedule marks a shift from last year’s festival, which featured roughly half as many films and operated with a hybrid model.
Crowds weren’t allowed to gather around the red carpets, screenings were held outdoors and at drive-ins, and many films were available to stream online across Canada.
This year, indoor theatres are back at full capacity and only a couple dozen films are available virtually.
But reminders of COVID-19 won’t be entirely absent from the festival, with Toronto Public Health holding vaccination clinics at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Vaccines will be offered at the theatre between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. until Sept. 13, and between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. from Sept. 14 to 18.
Meanwhile, TIFF said it expects attendance to be back up to pre-pandemic levels, with about 1,400 media members and 3,500 industry participants registered for the event that runs until Sept. 18.
But those who can’t attend in person will be able to follow some of the festivities online, said Shay Thiyagarajah, partnerships manager with Twitter Canada.
Red carpets at Roy Thomson Hall will be livestreamed on the platform, as will the “In Conversation With…” series and the industry panels.
“Our role is all about driving conversation on the festival, allowing Canadians to engage beyond what they’re seeing on Festival Street,” she said.
— With files from Nicole Thompson