Every year, three blocks are shut down in downtown Toronto. From Peter to University, King Street is barricaded. The westbound side is sectioned off, where picnic tables and umbrellas are erected. The eastbound side is cleared for foot traffic. This area, aptly called Festival Street, accommodates the nearly half-a-million people from around the world that attend the Toronto International Film Festival.
As a self-professed film geek, I was excited to attend the festival in any way. When I found out about their volunteer program spring this year, I set up three different Google Alerts.
Applications for volunteering open at the beginning of the summer. Come August, thousands of volunteers gather at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the organization’s flagship cinema and cultural centre in Toronto, to attend orientation. On Tuesday, our first day back at school, I took the shuttle downtown to pick up my conspicuously bright orange volunteer shirt and ID badge. The lobby was eerily quiet, a veritable calm before the storm.
As a first-time TIFF volunteer, I was more in awe of the dedicated staff and their support than the celebrities themselves. People donate their free time to help with the festival, and the enthusiasm definitely shows. Hectic queues line up smoothly, frantic ticket-holders find their seats with time to spare, and the fans themselves who wait outside to see their idols are respectful in a way only Canadians can be.
However, by my first shift on Saturday, the whole area had been transformed: Festival Street was bustling, TIFF posters and signs were everywhere, and hundreds of people were flooding King Street.
It was overwhelming, but once I got to my position at the front of the house at the Lightbox, I began to find my groove. Hundreds of eager cinephiles and casual movie-goers alike flocked to us orange-clad for answers, and each time we directed them inside to their cinema, their faces lit up in anticipation. Though on average, a volunteer shift lasts about six hours, the boisterous environment outside made the afternoon pass quickly.
While Saturday hosted smaller independent films, Sunday brought forth a couple higher profile films to the Lightbox. The mid-afternoon welcomed The Deuce, and on to the red carpet the main star, James Franco. In the lull of the in-between, hundreds came to take photos in front of the TIFF red carpet backdrop, where I assisted festival attendees in capturing themselves at the fest. Evening brought on the new Eric Clapton documentary and the legendary musician himself.
As for the movies, several are already gaining critical acclaim: Guillermo del Toro’s English-language fantasy The Shape of Water and David Gordon Green’s Stronger featuring Jake Gyllenhaal.
For international films, TIFF screened Happy End, Michael Haneke’s semi-sequel to his 2012 hit Amour, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Personally, some of the female-directed movies I hope to catch are Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, which won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes Film Festival, and legendary French auteur Agnes Varda’s collaboration with artist JR in Faces Places.
TIFF 2017 from a volunteer’s perspective was definitely a memorable experience.