TORONTO – Welcome to this special dispatch from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. I’m on a mission to capture experiences — frames of reference, if you will — from my extended journey in Toronto. TIFF is about the movies, the premieres and the galas, the red carpet photo opportunities and the first looks at the prestige films that will dominate the conversation for the next few months or more.
But I want jump off the beaten path, to seek out other moments, the ones in between the squats in darkened theaters, the ones where I find other funhouse reflections. Like Friday night, Sept. 7, when I happily skipped out of a screening of The Sapphires, an uplifting little gem of a story about an aboriginal female group back in the 1960s who started out singing Country music tunes, but switched to R&B and ended up touring Vietnam, playing for the troops. It’s loosely based on true events and feel goody-goody without completely going all Good Morning, Vietnam meets Dreamgirls.
I wasn’t quite skipping, but I had a little of that good soul backbeat in the blood in my ears, so I dropped into Chapters, the B&N-style bookstore on the corner near the main festival theater, to check messages and unwind before my next dark encounter. There were signs announcing upcoming readings and events, which I failed to pay close attention to beyond seeing the names. I recognized one and wished my timing could have been better because it would have been great catching so & so.
Escalator to escalator to the top floor and right there, standing in front of a screened backdrop was none other than Saul Williams, poet slamma jamma, holding court before a small but devoted crowd. The house lights were too bright and there wasn’t a true stage to frame his presence, but he made the space intimate and somehow found a way to dim the bright whites. I laugh thinking about it now because despite having seen him onscreen and determining that he’s not a huge physical presence, I still expect him to be larger than life in those kinda dimensions. I want him big and broad, a giant of a man — the lovechild of Robeson and Welles maybe with some of that mythic John Wayne thrown in for good measure.
Instead, he is thin, a thin black hole drawing us in, while also projecting a universe of words and ideas in each sentence. This might seem like I’m attempting to mimic him, his style, but no, I’m only struggling to fill in a few details of this overwhelming picture.
He didn’t recite verse, at least not by the time I arrived. He led us on a journey through his creative process, a brief history of everything. It had nothing to do with film and yet, everything. His background is in theater and every movement and word contains energy and a sense of anticipation, even one-on-one.
I went up to speak with him afterward, picking up a book I had no notion I wanted just a few minutes before, back when I was walking in, headed for the restroom across the way. We talked about using the arts — poetry and Hip Hop in his case, music video and film in mine, to tap kids into the world; how these old school approaches might foster new social networks. And we acknowledged how good it was to see another face of color on the road, spreading presence and the word. In that new book of his, Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, he wrote, “May these words bring worlds.”
That is what I expect from film, from those projected frames. I seek worlds, familiar and foreign. I want the stories up there to take me off the reservation.
Sunday morning, while not sitting in church, I found myself co-mingling with the spirit of it all. Greetings From Tim Buckley, starring Penn Badgely, bears witness to the behind the scenes preparations for a 1991 tribute concert to 1960s and ’70s psychedelic folk singer Tim Buckley in Brooklyn, N.Y., that served as a coming out party for his son Jeff, who, like his father, died tragically at a young age. Greetings, in its way, is as much from Jeff as it is Tim, but the story focuses on Jeff’s lurking acceptance of his father’s legacy, while forging his own path.
The music, snippets of Jeff working out melodies with his mentor and partner Gary Lucas along with the flashbacks of Tim as a young man, much younger it seems than Jeff at the time of the tribute, bring a world of discovery to those unfamiliar with either artist, but for those of us in the know — the spirit weeps.
CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]