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TIFF 2020 Virtual and (Sort Of) Canada-Only Schedule

Written by: Melanie Addington | September 10th, 2020

TIFF Bell Lightbox at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

The Toronto International Film Fest (TIFF) dropped its schedule with the much anticipated full lineup, slimmer than usual, and a new hybrid model that includes pandemic-safe programming with open-air and drive-in physical screenings and virtual screenings. It is impossible to talk lineup without discussing changes as the first major festival to attempt the hybrid model (lots of regional fests have succeeded this year already). Despite the pandemic, the lineup promises some radical new voices, some genuinely exciting looks at #BlackLivesMatter, and strong representation in female stories and directors. But before we get into the weeds on how to navigate the festival, let’s look at 2020 lineup highlights.

High-profile premieres, as well as Gala films, have built buzz in advance of the festival. Francis Lee’s Ammonite stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in a love story between a widow and a paleontologist set in 19th-century Dorset. The film comes to US screens on November 13, so audiences won’t have to wait long. The film plays September 11 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox before going virtual September 12. 

Film poster: “Falling”

Directing debuts kick off some of the biggest hyped films and include Halle Berry with Bruised (a work in progress screening) and Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Viggo Mortensen’s Falling and David Oyelowo‘s The Water Man, executive produced by Oprah Winfrey.  All four actors-turned-directors also have an acting role in their films. There is also work form more seasoned directors, including Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland and Spike Lee’s American Utopia, which round up the big premieres.  

Bruised stars Berry as a washed-up MMA fighter who wants custody of her son. The film remains a work in progress, so news on its future may come out of the festival. The film is virtual and at the drive-in on September 12. 

One Night in Miami is set on a fictional night in February, 1964, when real-life friends Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X gather to celebrate Clay’s win over Sonny Liston, which made him the heavyweight champion of the world. The film also screened at the Venice Film Festival this same week, and Amazon Studios has bought the rights. The film plays the drive-in on September 11 and then virtual September 13. 

Mortensen also wrote his feature debut, Falling, about a gay man who must care for his homophobic father. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is releasing in European theaters this winter. The film plays the Bell Lightbox September 11 and virtual September 17.

The Water Man is based on a script by Emma Needell featured on the 2015 Black List. It’s a childhood adventure film about a young boy who sets out on a quest to save his ill mother. The film plays the drive-in, Bell Lightbox, and virtual on the closing night, September 19. 

Frances McDormand in NOMADLAND ©Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland stars Frances McDormand and is adapted from a non-fiction book about a woman who travels the west in her RV, joining other seasonal workers in a houseless life. The film plays the drive-in September 11 and virtual September 12. The film comes to the US on December 4. 

American Utopia follows David Byrne’s Broadway show and opens the festival with a joyous remembrance of song, dance, joy, stages … things we all need right now. HBO is distributing, so it will likely be out soon for US audiences. The film opens the fest physically on September 10 at three locations before playing virtual on September 16. 

But digging into the “Discovery” category leads us to some inspiring new visionaries, including Tracey Deer’s premiere film Beans, an Indigenous coming-of-age story revolving around the 1990 Mohawk standoff with the Quebec government. The film plays Bell Lightbox on September 13 and virtual September 15. In World Cinema Jasmila Žbanic’s fifth feature, Quo Vadis, Aïda?, the director embraces actual life events of the Bosnian genocide as one translator tries to save her family. The gritty drama will not be easily digestible but a critical story to recognize the human spirit and courage in unthinkable times. The film plays the Bell Lightbox on September 13 and virtual on September 14.

The first film I picked out of the lineup was Violation, a Midnight madness highlight. Co-directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, who are shorts filmmakers making the transition to their first feature, follow a woman in an unhappy marriage who hopes to escape with a weekend getaway with her sister.  The film plays the Bell Lightbox September 14 and virtual September 17.

A SUITABLE BOY title card ©Netflix

An “Episodic” (or television programming) highlight is Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy, her new six-part series on arranged marriage, something she embraced in her previous film hit Monsoon Wedding. Nair is a favorite at TIFF with this, her seventh project selected, with which the physical fest closes on September 19. The six-hour series will have two 20-minute intermissions, and will be on Netflix soon.

The “Short Cuts” category showcases five curated blocks of shorts from around the world. In Block 1, the highlight is Sudden Darkness, by Tayler Montague, a film critic turned filmmaker observing a Black family in the Bronx when the power goes out in the summer of 2003. In Block 2, Black Bodies, by Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, is a Canadian film about what it means to be Black in 2020. In Block 3, Sër Bi: Les Tissus Blancs, by Senegalese director Moly Kane, focuses on a young woman preparing for her marriage, who desperately and courageously journeys to erase her past.  In Block 4, Drought, by Lebanese filmmaker Remi Itani, is an erotic thriller about a real estate agent who balances her private and public life. Block 5hosts one of my favorite shorts filmmakers, Sasha Leigh Henry, with Sinking Ship, about a mature couple’s power dynamics, with a double scotch on the rocks. The shorts play at various times throughout the festival.

Film poster: “MLK/FBI”

In the TIFF Docs category, some of the strongest contenders include Inconvenient Indian, by Michelle Latimer, which borrows from the 2012 book by Thomas King in looking at the indigenous people’s ongoing colonization in North America. The film plays the Bell Lightbox on September 12 and virtual September 13. MLK/FBI by Sam Pollard, looks at newly declassified files on the FBI’s ongoing harassment and profiling of the Civil Rights leader. Pollard is a longtime editor for Spike Lee, and this is his latest as a director with recent strong films Two Trains Runnin’ and Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Got to Be Me. Also in the documentary category and TIFF’s “Next Wave” category is Mayye Zayed’s Lift Like A Girl. The observational documentary follows along with Egyptian Captain Ramadan and new hopeful athlete Zebiba as she works to become an Olympic hopeful. 

While virtual public screenings are geo-blocked (limiting virtual access outside the country) to Canada, the festival approved 500 press (they usually allow up to 1600) and approved industry globally to virtually attend this year. Physical screenings will also occur at the Bell Lightbox and drive-in locations and other outdoor venues this year. While the festival is focused on hybrid, navigating this year is a bit tricky. The Canadian-US border remains closed until at least September 21, blocking any Americans planning to visit TIFF from taking part. The geo-block further eliminates the chance of US public viewing any of the films outside of the industry.

Industry outside of Canada has only 48 hours to access a film throughout the 10-day schedule, with other live events such as “Conversations With” and masterclasses live only at the set time. At the physical festival, public tickets are only individual, and no packages will be sold. This year’s online or phone-ticketing process may take a bit of getting used to those who usually walk up to buy. Prices range from $12 in the theater to $49 for a drive-in experience, and lawn pods for two people are also available in the open air. Lots of instructions and how to follow along can be found in the FAQ section of the festival website. True to their accessibility goals, TIFF lobby passes will still be available and digital for those who cannot stand in line for long periods.

Roy Thomson Hall at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

September 15 will be the awards ceremony, and Variety will be streaming it live for global audiences. With the limited press and virtual public geo-blocks, it will be interesting to view what emerges as fan favorites this year as the audience will look different than in previous years. The hope is that some new filmmakers make enough of a splash to carry through the new hybrid festival’s tricky navigation.


Melanie Addington is the Executive Director of Tallgrass Film Association as of 2021. She has worked in the film festival world since 2006, first as a volunteer, and then eventually becoming the Oxford Film Festival Executive Director in August 2015. She used to be a reporter for the Oxford Eagle (a community newspaper) and then Pizza Magazine Quarterly (a global trade magazine). She still loves pizza. And she still writes for Hammer to Nail and Film Festival Today about her other great love: movies. She is from Southern California originally but has lived in the South for 20 years. She has family in Wichita, Kansas, and considers it a great new home. She also writes, directs, and produces films. She is married and has one son.

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