Toronto Calling: a chat with the programmers (and Rian Johnson!) about TIFF 2022’s hidden gems

Edward Norton as Miles Bron in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, from writer and director Rian Johnson. 
Edward Norton as Miles Bron in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, from writer and director Rian Johnson. 

As TIFF 2022 opens, our editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood gets the lowdown from Cameron Bailey and Robyn Citizen on this year’s gems and surprises—and Glass Onion filmmaker Rian Johnson phones in for a chat about his hero, Weird Al. 

I drove my parents nuts—I would listen to nothing but Weird Al. He was kind of like a hero.

—⁠Rian Johnson

There are perhaps no more complex feelings for a film lover than the stress, nerves and thrill of making a festival shortlist, then going into battle for limited tickets against other film lovers (and sometimes the ticketing system itself). 

It’s all in service of being able to go in with a clear mind, ahead of any buzz or influence. Being the first. Sometimes being the only audience to see a film in a theatrical setting before it is bought perhaps for streaming release. Being bathed in the shared reverence of a festival audience versus a potentially tired and distracted Friday night multiplex crowd. Being present with the filmmakers and cast, a physical part of their achievements—for a film is not truly finished until it meets its audience. 

The 47th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival kicked off today in the Ontario capital and online and the official Letterboxd list shows more than 200 films, at least 60 of those world premieres. There are familiar names and fresh voices in categories including galas, discovery, Midnight Madness, documentaries and more, along with tributes and awards, and repertory and free public screenings of old favorites. 

It is a huge selection, which our fall festival preview only lightly touched on. So for those still deciding on what to see at TIFF, or what of the festival’s fare to plan to catch at subsequent festivals, we went straight to the top for advice. 

Here are the edited highlights of our second-annual Twitter Spaces conversation with the festival’s senior team: CEO Cameron Bailey and Director of Festival Programming and Cinematheque, Robyn Citizen. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery writer and director Rian Johnson also popped by for a chat. 

Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in Emily, directed by Frances O’Connor. 
Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in Emily, directed by Frances O’Connor. 

Let’s start with the Platform section, which is very director-focused and has featured films like Sound of Metal, Moonlight and Jackie in recent years. Robyn, tell us about some of the Platform titles this year you’re most excited about. 
Robyn Citizen: Emily is our opening night Platform film, and it’s directed by an actress, Frances O’Connor, who many of us will remember from Mansfield Park. It stars Emma Mackey, and we’re really excited because there are a lot of young actors in this film that are really on the verge of breaking through. So we think this sets a really good tone for the rest of the Platform program.

Cameron, what films are you most passionate about or proud of landing for Platform 2022?
Cameron Bailey: There are two Canadian films in Platform this year, and one of them is called Riceboy Sleeps by Vancouver director Anthony Shim. We’ve made many films in Canada about the immigrant experience—there are obviously a lot of Canadians who come from other places—and this is one of the most rich, resonant and reflective films about becoming a Canadian that I have ever seen. It’s about a Korean boy who becomes a Korean-Canadian boy. It’s very complex, very nuanced and has a beautiful visual style as well.

Maïmouna Doucouré is a name some might know from her debut feature Cuties and in Platform this year I’m very much looking forward to her new film Hawa. Really proud of you for programming that, given that Cuties had a deeply unfair amount of attention on it for the delicate coming-of-age masterpiece that I found it to be. Hawa sounds absolutely amazing. A fifteen-year-old Parisian teen with a beautiful, blonde afro, coke-bottle glasses, an innate disregard for social niceties, and a plan to make Michelle Obama her adoptive mum. I mean, if that synopsis doesn’t tell us everything we need to know, tell me more!
RC: Yeah, this is a fun one. It’s very warm. It stars Sania Halifa, who has quite a large social media following, and it’s about a fifteen-year-old girl who’s a caretaker for her grandmother and she gets this idea that a solution to their problems is for Michelle Obama to adopt her. You know, should we all be so lucky. [Laughs]

I mean, why not?
RC: Yeah, exactly. So through her journey, she meets a number of interesting people that really make her realize her strength and her own ability to look after herself. But, at the same time, really form strong connections with people outside of her grandmother, which will serve her well. So it’s just a wonderful story and it’s told beautifully by Maïmouna Doucouré.

Sania Halifa as Parisian teenager Hawa, who wants to be adopted by Michelle Obama. 
Sania Halifa as Parisian teenager Hawa, who wants to be adopted by Michelle Obama. 

There’s a lot of buzz already about Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, and I have Thunder on my watchlist, but let’s move on to hidden gems. What are the films that folks might overlook that you’d like us to know about?
CB: That’s a great question. In terms of hidden gems I would recommend, I would say the new Alice Diop film which is coming from Venice, Saint-Omer, is certainly one. If you’re looking for something that’s more of a family film, Blueback, from Australia, the Robert Connolly film is just lovely. Driving Madeleine, Christian Carion’s new film from France is just a beautiful film as well. This is maybe a little bit less of a hidden gem, but I just want to make sure people see The Banshees of Inisherin by Martin McDonagh, which is really just hilarious and surprisingly deep. You think it’s just a simple story of two friends who have a falling out, but it ends up being this very existential reflection as well.

RC: I want to point out Biosphere, because that was our secret-surprise screening addition. It is still a bit top secret, so I can’t give away too much of the plot—but it does have Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass and is about two men that are saving the world and finding interesting, innovative ways to do it. You will not see what’s coming in this film, I just strongly encourage people to seek it out.

The other two that are really close to my heart are Nanny, which was at Sundance this year—it’s by Nikyatu Jusu, who is a wonderful filmmaker. It’s about an immigrant nanny, Aisha, wonderfully played by Anna Diop, who is trying to achieve the American dream and wanting to bring her son to live with her and has a number of aquatic nightmares in doing so. And Baby Ruby, for the mothers out there. This really resonated with me. It’s about some of the extraordinary expectations of new mothers. It has Kit Harrington—Jon Snow!—and Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, another just fantastic performance.

I’m also going to hype a film I programmed called Susie Searches. It’s by Sophie Kargman, and has Kiersey Clemons and Alex Wolff. It’s about Susie, who’s in her early twenties. She’s a university student, she’s juggling a job, caretaking for a parent, volunteering for the police department and then has her own podcast called ‘Susie Searches’. She’s a true-crime aficionado and podcaster in her spare time. Alex Wolff plays a rather new-agey colleague and he goes missing and she uses this as an opportunity to boost the listeners to her own podcast and the predictable chaos ensues. But it’s just dark and funny and incredibly punchy, and the last scene is so strong. I don’t know if people have been clocking this film, but I highly, highly recommend it.

Manal Issa is Sarah Mardini, one of The Swimmers in Sally El Hosaini’s TIFF world premiere. 
Manal Issa is Sarah Mardini, one of The Swimmers in Sally El Hosaini’s TIFF world premiere. 

I know that the TIFF Tribute Awards are really important to you every year for what they do to highlight some of the more singular voices in film. I am all in for all 134 minutes of Welsh-Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers, which is both a Next Wave and a Gala Presentation. So, quick synopsis: real-life sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa, play real-life sisters Yusra and Sara in the dramatized story of champion-grade swimmers who have to make the perilous journey from Syria to Europe. You are honoring Sally with the TIFF Emerging Talent Award this year. Tell us why.
CB: I just think she’s a terrific filmmaker. The Swimmers is magnificently made. She’s got such a terrific handling of pacing, of scale. This is the story of two sisters. It begins in a very intimate world, they’re training to be competitive swimmers in Syria, but then it expands into this epic scale, setting out on this journey to safety in Europe. 

There’s an incredible sequence as they try to cross this stretch of the Mediterranean on a very shaky boat that may not make the crossing, and because they are competitive swimmers, they may just have a way to make it. And she handles this, honestly, like Spielberg handles the storming of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. I think she can do whatever she wants to do in future, in filmmaking. I think she’s told one of the most important stories of our day, which is the story of migration and refugees, and I think it’s a film everyone should see.

Also, fresh from very emotional appearances and a hugely warm reception at Venice, Brendan Fraser is an honoree for his work in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale.
CB: Brendan went to school in Toronto, he spent part of his youth here and so we do feel a special affinity for him. But I think anyone who’s seen him over his career from the ‘90s, playing in action movies and comedies, to what he’s doing in The Whale will just be so impressed with what he accomplishes. It’s a role that’s difficult to play, I can only imagine, but he does it with such sensitivity, such nuance, such heart and he said that he put everything he has into this film and you’ll see that in his performance. I think it will be widely recognized and we’re glad to welcome him back home and to present him with a Tribute Award.

Shantae Barnes-Cowan as Murra in Nyul Nyul/Yawuru filmmaker Jeb Clerc’s feature debut, Sweet As. 
Shantae Barnes-Cowan as Murra in Nyul Nyul/Yawuru filmmaker Jeb Clerc’s feature debut, Sweet As

When you were talking about the action sequences in The Swimmers, I was thinking about Tearepa Kahi’s Muru out of New Zealand, which stars Cliff Curtis, which has some fantastic action scenes (I caught the New Zealand premiere). You are particularly strong on Indigenous picks; you’ve got quite a few Canadian films in there, and Jub Clerc’s Sweet As from Australia, Rosie from Gail Maurice, Stellar, which has positively insane chemistry between Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Braeden Clarke.
RC: I know that [Indigenous Global Cinema programmer] Jason Ryle was talking a lot about Sweet As in particular and the fact that it is a coming-of-age story, but one that really centers a fifteen-year-old Indigenous girl, who in his words, was not something that he often has seen in his work as a programmer. And with the really gorgeous landscapes and then also this kind of tender story at its center, this was one that was very close to him and one that I’m looking forward to watching as well.

CB: And we have the Buffy Sainte-Marie documentary [Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On], which I found just so illuminating. Directed by Madison Thomas, a full portrait of this remarkable career as a musician and an activist over so many decades. A lot of things I thought I knew about Buffy Sainte-Marie, a lot of things in the film were entirely new to me, and it’s just a remarkable life she’s leading.

Please, can you confirm that the Big Bird moment is in the film? [Laughs]
CB: Yeah, yeah. You never know where Buffy Sainte-Marie will turn up. It’s like she’s Forrest Gump or something. She’s remarkable. She’s been part of so many key moments in pop culture over decades.

Academy Award–winner Laura Poitras chronicles Nan Goldin’s art and activism in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. 
Academy Award–winner Laura Poitras chronicles Nan Goldin’s art and activism in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Are there any films you’d both like to highlight from the TIFF Docs section this year? I’m really curious about the Laura Poitras film about Nan Goldin [All the Beauty and the Bloodshed].
CB: Laura Poitras, of course, is a legendary doc filmmaker and her approach to Nan Goldin is maybe different from what people may be familiar with, even knowing Goldin’s work. 

I have to say, I’m excited to present the premiere of the new Sidney Poitier documentary [Sidney] that Reginald Hudlin has directed. It is comprehensive, it is thorough, it has everybody in it talking about how this icon changed American cinema and through doing that changed America. TIFF Cinematheque is planning to do a tribute to Sidney Poitier later on and we hope this will get people primed. It’s really an incredible life that he led.

RC:  I’ve been looking forward to Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s The Grab. This was pretty highly anticipated, our TIFF docs programmer, Tom Powers, has been talking about it quite a bit and some of you might recognize her earlier film Blackfish. The quality of investigation that she does is just always top-tier. This one is about the increasing amount of food and water shortages and the ways that governments and other sometimes private entities around the world are making grabs for those food resources outside of their own countries and national boundaries in ways that aren’t always the most ethical. The deep dive that is done here is incredible and as there are more climate change events and as there are more food shortages, I think knowing all you can about something like this is really important and she has done a really rigorous job.

Director Rian Johnson and Janelle Monáe as Cassandra Brand on set for Glass Onion. 
Director Rian Johnson and Janelle Monáe as Cassandra Brand on set for Glass Onion

We’ve actually got a caller on the line with a question for you, his name is Rian… Rian… wait is this the Rian Johnson? 
Rian Johnson: It’s pronounced just the way it sounds. [Laughs]

This is crazy that you’re here, because just a few minutes ago the teaser for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery dropped.
RJ: It’s dropped! It’s dropped! Very excited. So yeah, very, very soon now, we’re going to be in Toronto premiering Glass Onion. It’s a follow up to Knives Out and it’s another mystery with Benoit Blanc, with Daniel Craig as the detective. It’s got a whole new cast, it’s a whole new mystery, it’s a whole new plot. It’s the same way Agatha Christie just did totally different things each time with her books, this is kind of like that but we got an amazing cast—again! Somehow… [Laughs]

CB: You sure do. Rian, we just loved watching this movie earlier this summer. We have a little screening room in TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and we were just on this ride with your movie—the twists, the turns, the “oh my god, that person’s in the movie and that person?” It was just one little morsel of pleasure after another watching it. We were so thrilled to premiere the first Knives Out in 2019. I remember that night in the Princess of Wales Theatre so well, and we can’t wait to bring you back to the same theater to launch the next one. Long may the Knives Out World, the Knives Out Universe, live!

RJ: Well, thanks. Toronto feels kind of like home. I’m so happy that we’re premiering there. Besides Knives Out, we had an incredible screening of my third film Looper. I just feel like a kid waiting for Christmas. I can’t wait to be in that theater in Toronto and with that crowd. There’s nothing like a Toronto crowd. So yeah, I’m excited.

I’ve gotta say, I was at that 2019 festival as a press member, and I remember standing in the queue for the Press & Industry screening of one film, and then you just hear a whisper start, and this whisper network grows and grows and you hear it coming up the line, and it’s people going “Knives Out, Knives Out, oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.” So then there’s the race to squeeze into one of the last press screenings, and then the relief when you realize everyone was right.
RJ: [Laughs] That’s so cool to hear. I’m on the other side of the curtain, but that makes me so happy to hear that. That’s the experience I have when I’ve just been at festivals as a viewer. What’s so wonderful about the festival experience, especially the in-person festival experience, is just waiting in lines, being in bars and overhearing conversations, and just hearing, “What are you watching? What have you liked?” That organic, in-person social nature of it. 

It makes me so happy to hear that was your experience with the first film. That’s one of my favorite things, when you feel the wind of something good, you know, everyone’s ears perking up a little. That’s very, very cool. And there were some great movies there that year in 2019.

Daniel Radcliffe as “Weird Al” Yankovic in Eric Appel’s biopic of the entertainer. 
Daniel Radcliffe as “Weird Al” Yankovic in Eric Appel’s biopic of the entertainer

This is your chance to start the buzz for another TIFF 2022 film. What are you looking forward to this year?
RJ: I’m so very, very excited about Spielberg’s movie [The Fabelmans]. That’s incredible that you guys are showing it. I’m so excited to see it. And also, I know it’s a hot ticket right now, but you know I’m one of the biggest Weird Al fans in the world, so…

CB: I did not know that. [Laughs]

RJ: Weird Al was like my favorite band when I was in Junior High and I would listen to—I drove my parents nuts—I would listen to nothing but Weird Al. He was kind of like a hero. I’m going to miss the screening [of WEIRD: The Al Yankovic Story], but the fact that you guys are doing a screening there, I just can’t wait to hear reports come back from that. Give me some more recs. What else?

CB: Okay, I’m trying to think of things you would like... You know, there’s a great Canadian film called Brother directed by Clement Virgo who’s been making films and also doing series in the States for years. Set in a suburb of Toronto, has a very cool lyrical vibe to it. I think you would just love the mood and the way he directs his actors. That’s one I’d recommend for sure.

I really like Other People’s Children. This is Rebecca Zlotowski’s movie that is coming to us from Venice and it’s just a terrific love story, but very grown-up. It’s about a woman, played by Virginie Efira from Benedetta, and she falls in love with a man, played by Roschdy Zem, who has a four-year-old daughter. And it’s about falling in love with a man and not being quite sure where you sit with his four-year-old who might actually determine everything.

Rian, I know you’ve actually got a festival to go to, so just before you go, if anyone is still on the fence about attending TIFF (and please wear a mask if you need to), what do you have to say about TIFF and the importance of it to the city and indeed to film itself?
RJ: I’ve had some of the best experiences I’ve ever had in the theater in Toronto—and not at my movies. [Laughs] It’s a festival that truly lives in the city. It’s not some kind of exclusive thing. It genuinely feels like the whole city comes out to watch movies together and to talk about them, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful experience. 

And of course, I know everybody needs to take their own comfort level into account, but if it feels like something that fits in for you, absolutely, if you’ve never done it, it’s an experience not to be missed. And the lineup this year—the only problem with going to Toronto with a movie is that you don’t have time to see other movies. [Laughs] So I’m just taking furious notes. I’m jealous of everyone who is going just as viewers because the lineup this year looks fantastic.

Well, we’d better let you go, you do actually have a festival to somehow get to. Safe travels to Toronto and give our regards to Benoit Blanc.
RJ: If I see him, I’ll say hello, absolutely.

French Burkinabé actor Cédric Ido brings his second feature as director, The Gravity, to TIFF. 
French Burkinabé actor Cédric Ido brings his second feature as director, The Gravity, to TIFF. 

As we wrap up, Cameron and Robyn, were there any other films you wanted to quickly mention? I actually did want to ask if you had any more skinny on Tyler Perry’s first screenplay, A Jazzman’s Blues? It sounds so intriguing. 
CB: Yes, it is both entirely a Tyler Perry film and not the Tyler Perry film you were expecting, which is what I love about it. When he wrote this very first screenplay, when he was just starting out, he would have gone in a different direction. 

Of course, we know him from the big, broad Madea comedies. This is not that. This is a drama, this is a period piece, it’s rich with the history of the African American culture from the South to the North, that great migration and the music that went with it. And it’s beautiful because it comes from the mind of this artist that we think we know so well, but there’s another dimension you’ve not seen before from Tyler Perry.

Wonderful. And Robyn, do you have one last goodie for us?
RC: I do! The Gravity, by Cédric Ido, who’s French and Burkina Faso. You think it’s going to be a regular crime film or a thriller about two competing gangs who sell drugs in this suburban apartment building in France, and then there’s a cosmic event that happens. One of the drug crews call themselves Ronin and they’re full of ominous younger kids that claim to run the neighborhood and nothing that you think is going to happen, happens. It’s super innovative and unexpected and I think this is a very exciting new talent.

Our thanks to Cameron Bailey, Robyn Citizen, and TIFF’s Senior Manager of Digital Engagement, Jason Carlos. Additional editing by Mitchell Beaupre and Sophie Shin

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