Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Toronto Film Festival Diaries
Happy Anniversary Toronto

by Kathleen Carroll

Aug. 31, 1995

The Toronto International Film Festival, which officially tees off on Thursday, Sept. 7, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Since I can't find the right Hallmark card for the occasion I thought I would extend my congratulations to the festival's soft-spoken highly respected director Piers Handling with this personal note.

First of all I have to confess to a conflict of interest as a critic covering this particular festival. You see some of my best friends are Canadians and I can assure they are not at all like the beer-crazed hockey fanatics puck-ishly lampooned in director Michael Moore's upcoming political spoof "Canadian Bacon." In fact my Canadian friends would, frankly, prefer to sip vodka by the seashore and their favorite spectator sport consists of simply watching while their American chums scramble to make deals and catch screenings at major film festivals.

In fact that's exactly what three longtime Canadian friends were doing when I first met them - scouting the Cannes Film Festival for future contacts. I'm talking here about the three founding fathers of the Toronto festival, namely Dusty Cohl, a brilliant behind-the-scenes operator who refuses to remove his trademark black cowboy hat even for black-tie festival openings; William Marshall, an irresistible Scottish-born rogue who has James Carville's brazen wit and political savvy; and Henk van der Kolk, a kindly film producer who's blessed with a sensational-looking wife.

You see I was there on that fateful day in 1975 when these fearless Torontonians, while basking by the pool of an elegant Riviera resort, blithely announced their intention of putting on a film festival in their home town. "We're going to call it the Festival of Festivals because we're going to invite the best films from all the major festivals," Marshall informed his skeptical audience.

In Cannes people are always announcing projects that never happen and this one sounded about as naively ambitious as the kind of amateur shows Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were forever putting on in their movies. I'd almost forgotten about the possibility of a Toronto festival when Cohl suddenly called and asked in his usual friendly hands-across-the border fashion "Hiya Kathleen when are you coming ?" I promptly found myself agreeing to attend the Festival of Festivals which, because of the warmth and hospitality of the Canadian hosts, became a virtual lovefest for everyone who was lucky enough to be there. Why even the then mayor of Toronto, David Crombie, who was known affectionately as "the tiny perfect mayor," invited me to dinner.

The festival featured 100 films and introduced the work of the such independent filmmakers as Martha Coolidge, Barbara Kopple and Paul Bartel. Screenings of such popular selections as "Cousin Cousine" were topped off with lavish parties or galas. The local movers and shakers, who financed the festival, had somehow acquired that American can-do spirit. Brimming with vitality and charm they were determined to transform their provincial town into a sophisticated boom city with a world class festival.

The only sour note was struck by the Canadian press. Where, they demanded, was Jack Nicholson whose presence had been announced? The local newspaper reporters whined so much about the lack of American movie stars that I ended up angrily trying to defend the efforts of my new friends at a press conference.

Despite a personal plea from his psychotherapist Nicholson had to refuse his invitation. The newspaper reporter, who complained the loudest about the festival, happily abandoned the movie beat to become a yachting columnist. In the meantime Toronto, under the leadership of such popular and visionary directors as Wayne Clarkson and Helga Stephenson, has evolved into such an important mecca for the movie industry it was recently described by no less than a New York Times reporter as "the North American Cannes." Indeed that is exactly what this festival has become. Ironically enough the only negative comments you hear about Toronto are that it now attracts so many Hollywood stars and just plain movie fans that getting into a screening is as challenging as it is in Cannes.

The 20th annual Toronto festival will offer champagne toasts along with 298 movies from 50 countries. Beginning next week I shall be one of your official Film Scouts' guides bringing you an obviously biased report on my favorite film festival.

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