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TIFF Day 2: Arrival, The Birth of a Nation, and the perfect film festival city

I think I may just move to Toronto

I tend to associate film festivals with crushing crowds, hours-long waits, and being stranded in beautiful places under the ugliest possible circumstances. All of which led me to go through my second day here at the Toronto International Film Festival with a sort of dumb wonder: how does this place have everything so together? Yes, this is my first trip to the festival, and there may be some general "gee-whiz, new and shiny!" factor, but I know terrible public transit and misguided ticketing workarounds when I see them, and as my day took me from screenings in the city’s entertainment district to interviews near the University of Toronto, TIFF continued to be the smoothest-running operation I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it was the plentiful food options. Perhaps it was the delightfully varied architecture. Perhaps it’s because walking around a city that’s played host to so many film shoots activates your movie memory sixth sense like you’re walking around a cinematic waking dream.

Or maybe it just didn’t seem as hot as it did on the first day.

Courtesy of TIFF Courtesy of TIFF

But before I even ventured outside, I started my day with a good old-fashioned screener for ARQ, the new science fiction film from writer-director Tony Elliott (formerly of Orphan Black, currently of 12 Monkeys). A low-budget feature debuting here at TIFF, it uses time travel to weave an increasingly dense web of revelations, double-crosses, and complications. Robbie Amell (The Flash) plays an engineer that’s developed a radical new energy source at the behest of his sketchy corporate employer. The device also has the side effect of creating a time loop, forcing Amell’s character and his wife (Jessica Jones’ Rachael Taylor) to relive the same few hours of the same day again and again. While being pursued by bad guys, of course.

'Groundhog Day' in a near-future dystopia

It’s an action-heavy Groundhog Day with near-future dystopia and a nefarious corporate overlord, and while the ripples start small, the twists and turns pile up as Amell’s character realizes that multiple forces are out to get him. It’s not exactly Primer, but the concept does let Elliott turn a single-location thriller into something much more complex. And despite the fact that ARQ will be debuting on Netflix next week, it’s also the first film I’ve seen here at Toronto that’s felt like an honest-to-God indie — something trying to use script and invention to reach beyond its budgetary limitations.

There’s no denying the fact that TIFF is much more in sync with studios and big Hollywood productions than festivals such as Sundance or SXSW. It caters to both ends of the spectrum — both Jay Duplass and Chris Pratt were on my flight here — but that also makes it a perfect opportunity to see the very best in studio filmmaking. Case in point: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The movie press was rabid to see the film at its first industry screening, with the line wrapping around the block for an hour before it was even set to begin. (Thirty minutes is the usual lead time recommended for such screenings; even though Arrival recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival, people weren’t taking any chances.)

The film itself is searing and soulful, a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking that is able to merge hard science fiction with complex thoughts on the essence of life, love, and the all-too-human human fears of loss and rejection — and the beauty in overcoming those fears. My full review is here, and it’s without question one of the biggest crimes of the festival that audiences here are able to see the film, but the rest of the world has to wait until November.

It ended up being an awards season kind of day, as I capped things off with the Toronto premiere of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The first of two premiere screenings were held at the Winter Garden Theater, which I’m comfortable saying is the most exotic, fantastical location I’ve ever had a chance to watch a film in. Imagine walking into a theater that’s actually a magical forest, with leaves literally covering the ceiling, and tree trunks and branches winding their way through the architecture, and you’ll get a small sense of the Winter Garden. Before the screening, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey announced that the location had once been home to vaudeville and minstrel shows — a far cry from celebrating a film about the life of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led in 1831.

The Birth of a Nation promotional still Fox Searchlight Pictures

The premiere — introduced by Parker and his entire cast — was packed, with lines running across the street and down side alleys. If anything, this was the first time that my TIFF experience veered toward the kind of Stand, Wait, And Listen To Inane Side Chatter experience I often associate with other festivals. (In this case, it was a man behind me telling a new friend she should pitch her boss on working longer hours during the winter so they can leave at 5 o’clock on Fridays in the warmer months. "Summer hours," he said, with such profundity I could hear the italics. Granted, he was probably a nice guy trying to help and I’m just a cynical line-stander, but still.)

Two words: summer hours

The Birth of a Nation itself was grueling and hard; a passion play of a movie that basically serves as a litmus test for your own humanity. There’s no way to watch the film and not feel shame and horror over the history of race in the United States (though if you didn’t already feel those things, you’re doing it wrong), and the audience’s response was electric. The film had once seemed like a sure-thing Oscar contender, before being derailed by revelations that writer-director-star Parker had been accused of and tried for rape while in college — with the victim in the case committing suicide years later. Parker’s initial tone-deaf reaction in interviews about the story only fanned the flames, but you wouldn’t have known it from the crowd at the Winter Garden. Parker and his cast earned a nearly two-and-a-half-minute standing ovation after the screening, with his cast going out of their way to praise him and the sensitivity he showed while shooting the film.

I don’t know what I was necessarily expecting from the crowd’s reaction. A film festival is a place to celebrate creative works, and while Birth of a Nation is by no means a perfect film, it is an undeniably powerful one (our own Tasha Robinson will have a full review coming this weekend). But there was something about the full-throated endorsement of Parker by both his cast and the festival crowd that felt willful; an intentional choice to reject the complexity that comes with enjoying a piece of art while also struggling with questions about the artist. The idea dominated conversation on my walk back to the hotel, and while the festival is going to be full of wash, rinse, repeat cycles of movies and writing and movies and writing, there’s some solace to be had in that tiny fact. After Birth of a Nation people were talking about these issues, as uncomfortable as they may be.

On the next TIFF report: Tasha tackles Ben Wheatley’s ‘70s gangster film Free Fire, and the latest from writer-director Paul Schrader, Dog Eat Dog.