Toronto International Film Fest 2020 Highlights, Part 1: Lars Nilsen

AFS Lead Programmer Lars Nilsen shares his highlights from this year’s virtual Toronto International Film Festival. Stay tuned for Head of Film & Creative Media Holly Herrick’s picks coming soon.

The experience of film festivals for a professional programmer or buyer is usually a pretty intensive one – building a plan of must-see titles, a backup slate of might-sees, etc. Then there’s the matter of scheduling those all-important 5 or so screenings per day, getting from venue to venue, finding time for meals, sleep and meetings with people you might not get a chance to see at any other time during the year. The upside, for programmers at least, is that we get an opportunity to map out a decent portion of our upcoming first-run titles, and sometimes we can even – over a few beers, perhaps – get assurances from film distributors of advance bookings.

The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the best fests in the world, because it is international in scope and has a large number of intelligently-selected titles on offer – and thankfully most of the press and industry screenings are concentrated within a four block radius – no small consideration. Taking all of this into account, TIFF is really a model of the well-functioning international film festival.

Though TIFF was mounted as an in-person fest this year, it was done so on an extremely limited basis. Fortunately, a virtual version of the fest was offered. Obviously, this can’t compete with the experience of watching the films on a big screen, noting the audiences’ reactions, and discussing them afterwards with professional peers, but it’s better than no fest at all. So, with the aid of my laptop, my TV and a long HDMI cable, my living room became a TIFF venue this year.

Though there were fewer titles on offer this year, the accessibility was much more forgiving. Each movie is available to watch for a 48 hour window, which makes for much easier scheduling. I did find that I missed the spartan life of fest-going, but there’s no accounting for taste, I suppose.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the most interesting titles I caught during this year’s virtual TIFF. Hopefully these will all receive American theatrical distribution so we can bring them to the Cinema and/or our Virtual platform.


(2020, D. Philippe Lacôte)
From Côte d’Ivoire comes this film about a young man incarcerated in an unbelievably overcrowded, labyrinthine prison called La MACA. Almost as soon as he arrives, the dying cell block boss, the fearsome Blackbeard, names him the new “Roman” – the term in the prison for storyteller or griot. As it happens, the role is a very important one in the prison, as the vicarious stories, which blend myth and real life experiences, are an essential part of the lives of these hopeless men. There’s much more, but this is just the unique jumping-off point of this unusual and recommended film.


(2020, D. Chaitanya Tamhane)
This decades-spanning narrative follows a young man whose love of North Indian classical music, instilled by his father, leads him to devote his life to performing, teaching and preserving the art form, even as it becomes seemingly less and less culturally relevant and remunerative to practice this art form in its pure incarnation. This film is a true immersion in North Indian classical vocal music – we hear several long pieces uninterrupted and the philosophy behind the music is explored widely. Fundamentally, the themes apply to any art form, and in fact any discipline. This is a film that cuts deep and rewards a close viewing.


(2020, D. Ben Sharrock)
On a cold, relentlessly windy island in the Scottish Hebrides, a number of refugees from different regions are interned together while their fates are being decided by bureaucrats. In the face of the hostile climate conditions, the crushing boredom of the island, and the well-meaning but inept attempts at education by the local social work contingent, these men find common ground and find ways to cope with their individual traumas. A surprisingly funny movie, and one that does not spell everything out for the viewer but instead allows us to make our own discoveries about the characters.


(2020, D. Dieudo Hamadi)
A truly fascinating doc about a group of wounded and maimed war victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who, 20 years after suffering their injuries, band together to demand redress and compensation from the government. We see them make their plan for the long river journey to the capital Kinshasa, then we accompany them on the harrowing journey as they crowd the improvised flotilla from stem to stern. Throughout the journey, we learn more about some of the group, and their stories of enormous persistence in the face of poverty and adversity.


(2020, D. Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous)
This gripping, suspenseful doc takes us behind the quarantine barriers in Wuhan, China as the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic take hold of the region. The level of access to emergency rooms and intensive care facilities here is jaw-dropping. We watch the health-care workers cope heroically with heavily overcrowded facilities as they battle a disease that at the time was only dimly understood. There is tragedy, there is relief when patients begin to recover, and there are even some good laughs thanks to an incalcitrant old fisherman – whom everyone refers to as Grandpa – who resists every attempt to confine him in his room. Completely fascinating.


(2020 D. Nicolás Pereda)
I’m not sure how many other people will like this one, a narrative about a family reunion that takes place in a rundown motel in a mining town in Mexico, but I loved it. The film is divided into scenes in which Pereda’s corps of talented actors ratchet ordinary situations into paroxysms of awkwardness over such situations as a borrowed bath towel or the sale of a pack of cigarettes. It’s the kind of humor that you could never diagram. I don’t know why it works, and it certainly won’t work for everyone, but it sure works for me.

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