Due to the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF, September 10 to 19, 2020) transformed its 45th edition into a predominantly online event with a handful of drive-in and limited-capacity indoor screenings. The downsized event presented a slate of 50-some features instead of hundreds. Festival and industry/press screenings, alongside interviews and workshops were primarily conducted through TIFF Digital Cinema Pro, a web-browser based screening platform easily accessible through mobile/streaming devices. Most screenings were available for an extended time span of 48 hours or more, allowing festival attendees residing in various time zones the extra flexibility to fully explore the well-curated programme, virtually from anywhere in the world.
TIFF 2020's online NETPAC Jury was composed of Dr. Sharofat Arabova (Tajikistan), Dr. Latika Padgaonkar (India) and jury chairperson George Chun Han Wang (Hawaii). After reviewing the 6 nominated films from the festival's Discovery section and Contemporary World Cinema section, jury members deliberated through a ZOOM conference where they selected Palestinian filmmakers Tarzan Nasser and Arab Nasser’s sophomore feature Gaza mon amour as this year’s NETPAC Award winner, citing its heartwarming, thought-provoking and poetic tale of unspoken emotions portraying daily life in Gaza.
The story of Gaza mon amour arises out of the drab daily life in a difficult part of the world to become a statement of love in trying times. Conveyed with understatement and restraint, love is what wins the characters over at the end, and the viewer too. But there is, of course, more to this ‘love story’. The director brothers have played with humour and satire; casual, everyday corruption and cheating in society; a strained mother-daughter relationship; dreams of the young who wish to move to Europe; and then, in the background – and there it remains – the underlying political reality, the firing of Israeli rockets and questions on the future of Gaza.
An ordinary yet forceful tale of an unmarried fisherman (Issa), some sixty years old, and a widow (Siham) – a seamstress – with a grown-up daughter (commendable performances by two celebrated actors, Hiam Abbas and Salim Daw), are parallel stories of the hum-drum and the dour. But events take an unexpected turn when Issa hauls up in his net, not fish but an ancient, nude statue of the Greek god Apollo. Thereafter, the story develops a satirical and quirky perspective – the ‘fall’ of the statue as Issa shifts it into a cupboard in his home, the breaking of the penis, an art dealer in the bazaar who informs the police, corrupt policemen and an unbothered restorer of artworks.
Amidst these and other funny and tender happenings, unspoken love does step in – and triumph. Rare is the film, which ends in full-throated laughter (on a doorstep, on a landing, on the stairs) in a troubled land. The most beautiful stories are sometimes the simplest, and the dialogues, editing and cinematography (there is little music, it is heard an hour into Gaza mon amour) only enhance this simplicity.
Along with Gaza mon amour, the other 5 films nominated for the NETPAC Award collectively formed a thrilling viewing journey across countries from Japan through the Caucasus to the Middle East:
Bandar Band, the film by Manijeh Hekmat (Iran) is about the musical band, which travels from the countryside to Tehran to participate in a music competition. The competition coincides with a day when the band loses their homes, which are flooded by a natural disaster. Since ‘Bandar’ is ‘Harbor’ in Persian, the young protagonists become those, who lose their roots, get stuck in a flood and look for new banks to start anew. The character of the mother-to-be, the band’s singer, is directly related to the unsettled future and the dream for art practice, the protest against the socio-economic and political forces.
Another Iranian feature reviewed by the jury was 180° Rule by Farnoush Samadi, about a young mother who, along with her little daughter and secretly from her husband, travels to the relative’s wedding. The gas leaks at night and the daughter is accidentally poisoned. The mother, fearing the public accusation for disobeying her husband and judicial responsibility in Iranian society, decides to hide the true circumstances of her daughter's death. The film draws parallels between a few generations of mothers and daughters and questions the idea of giving and taking life.
The film Under the Open Sky by Miwa Nishikawa (Japan) explores the traumatic relationship of an abandoned child with a mother. The grown-up protagonist, an old yakuza, searches for his lost mother. The loss of this natural attachment, made him doom all his life to seek equality and respect for himself from others, that he used to find in an artificially created ‘family’, the Yakuza criminal clans.
The Best is Yet to Come by Jing Wang (China) is based on the memoirs of a famous journalist, the self-made man who, being from a province and lacking the high education, struggled to find a journalism job in Beijing due to high competition. The chance to write an assignment in the top-newspaper about the fake results of people who have had Hepatitis B, made him look at the situation from the viewpoint of people subjected to stigma.
The film Beginning by Dea Kulumbegashvili (Georgia/France) narrates about a woman caught in a transit situation on the verge of a new beginning. Her accumulated dissatisfaction with her marriage over the years, results in her developing the Stockholm Syndrome towards a police officer, who terrorizes her family. The frontal and decorative compositions of the long and predominantly static shots resemble the paintings of Niko Pirosmani, the Georgian primitivist painter, and mark the authentic voice rooted in the director’s culture. This female-directed debut feature received the FIPRESCI prize.
In fact, most of this year’s TIFF winners were directed by women. The TIFF 2020 People's Choice Award winner went to Chinese-born Chloé Zhao's Nomadland (Golden Lion winner at the 2020 Venice Film Festival), while Regina King's One Night in Miami was the first runner up, and Tracey Deer's Beans snapped the second runner up honor. The People’s Choice Documentary Award went to Inconvenient Indian, directed by Michelle Latimer (also winner of the TIFF Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film). The People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award was given to Shadow in the Cloud, by Chinese - New Zealand director Roseanne Liang.
In addition to Nasser brothers (Palestine) receiving the NETPAC Award, other Asian filmmakers honored at TIFF include Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane for The Disciple (Amplify Voices Award) and Tiffany Hsiung (Taiwan) for Sing Me a Lullaby (IMDbPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award).
On September 19, TIFF 2020 officially wrapped up with an in-person screening of Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy at the RBC Lakeside Drive - In at Ontario Place. In an unforgettable year where film festivals were cancelled and film productions were shutdown, TIFF programmers and staff successfully delivered a reimagined virtual festival experience, transporting its programme beyond borders into homes around the world. Inevitably, hybrid/virtual deliveries have become the new paradigms helping film festivals to persist while the world eagerly await for the post-pandemic future to arrive.
The NETPAC jury wish to acknowledge and thank TIFF Senior Coordinator Luisa Alvarez Restrepo and assistant Hanbin Kim for their coordination and guidance.
-- Report co-authored by George Chun Han Wang, Sharofat Arabova and Latika Padgaonkar