For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering at the Toronto International Film Festival. While the role of a volunteer isn’t as glamorous as that of the stars who fill the festival, it’s opportunity for any regular Joe Blow to be swept up in the world of Hollywood, if only for 11 days.
In 2012, I chose to send in my volunteer application, my reasons for doing so predictably being my love of movies. Lacking the confidence that my application would be accepted, I waited for a while before hearing back. TIFF requires its volunteer applicants to shed light on their reasons for volunteering, their interest in cinema, and finally their favourite movie—the toughest part of the application, in my opinion. Less than two weeks after I sent in my application, I got an email saying that I would be a volunteer.
My first festival was slightly less exciting than my next two, but the experience of being part of this event was something special. The experience allowed me to interact with fellow volunteers and the public, spending time gushing about our love of film and how it had brought us to the festival. What surprised me most was the number of people working in the film industry in Canada and the U.S. who chose to experience the festival through the eyes of a volunteer. From the conversations I had with directors and screenwriters, it became apparent that they found that being part of the festival in any way possible was a source of fulfillment that helped them rekindle the passion for their craft all over again. The first year also helped me gain some insight into the role of the volunteer. As I discovered, my role fluctuated depending on the venue I was placed in. Smaller venues like the TIFF Bell Lightbox had me inside the theatre as the usher, which provided me with the added bonus of watching a film for free. In larger venues like Princess of Wales or Roy Thomson Hall, I stood on the street helping people with questions, ticket-tearing, or holding ballot boxes outside theatre doors and encouraging moviegoers to vote for the TIFF People’s Choice Award.
In my second year, I planned for the festival ahead of time. I awaited its arrival and picked my volunteer shifts around the big premieres to give me a chance to watch the movies that critics and fans were buzzing about. Thankfully, my scheduling allowed me to watch a number of wonderful—and some not-so-wonderful—films by spending hours holding a position in the rush line for a premiere. The reaction from most members of the public is that the rush-liners are lunatics who have far too much time on their hands. That’s a fair assumption, since these patrons aren’t guaranteed a spot in the theatre for movies that have been sold out days in advance. But since hundreds of tickets are given out to employees of production companies, these eager rush-line moviegoers have a glimmer of hope. This hope is what got me into the premieres of 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, August: Osage County, and Labor Day. The chance to see the director and actors, watch the film, and then stick around after the credits for a question-and-answer period is, in my opinion, the ideal theatre experience. This experience in my second year was what made me feel more a part of the festival than anything before and left me with fond memories I continue to look back on.
This year’s festival was another unique experience. I was out of the country for the first weekend, when all the major movie premieres were held, and was forced to schedule my shifts back to back, leaving me without the time to see everything on my list. Despite my poor planning, I was fortunate enough to catch a few movies I wanted to see. Pawn Sacrifice was the first screening I attended this year, which focuses on the true story of the greatest chess match of all time between Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). I was delighted at how entertaining it was and how brilliantly the acting ensemble, including the supporting cast, delved into these characters. Director Edward Zwick was able to focus on each player’s environment during the matches and the toll that a game of such mental acuity takes on world-renowned chess players like Fischer and Spassky. Pawn Sacrifice is currently without a release date.
The Imitation Game was another film I sat in on during my shorter festival this year. As a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, I was excited to see him take on such a titanic role as that of Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi code and helped end the Second World War. In all honesty, I enjoyed the film, but I didn’t think it deserved to win TIFF’s People’s Choice this year. The film wasn’t as engaging and the performances weren’t as inspired as I had expected them to be. Nonetheless, Cumberbatch was able to carry the movie from its mediocre state to something slightly more appealling. The Imitation Game will be in theatres on November 21.
Finally, my favourite movie of the 2014 fest, anchored by a haunting performance by its lead that was as chilling as it was hilarious: Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal. For starters, this movie is not about the famous X-Men superhero; it’s a gritty film noir with a generous sprinkling of comedy, and it takes place on the streets of Los Angeles at night. The movie fan inside me does not want to divulge any more than that. The film is set to hit theatres October 31.
The festival had its fair share of critical hits and complete busts this year, but with the majority of the films being released over the next three months, movie-lovers should be excited for what they have to look forward to. I plan on returning next year as a volunteer to be swept up in the world of film once again. My expectations for my fourth year as a TIFF volunteer are similar to the expectations I have when I watch a film: I hope it’s like nothing I’ve experienced before.