TIFF: Seeing Toronto On-screen
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is hands-down one of my favourite yearly events in Toronto. Many people love how it brings the city to the international stage; however, I love how it empowers homegrown, Canadian filmmakers. While the works of Montreal-born prodigy, Xavier Dolan, are usually the most coveted amongst TIFF-goers (good luck getting tickets to any of the screenings), this year I had the pleasure of viewing an adaptation of Canadian author Joseph Boyden’s critically-acclaimed novel, Through Black Spruce.
All of Boyden’s novels cover the rise and fall of the Bird family from Canada’s colonial period into the present. 2008 winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Through Black Spruce follows protagonist Annie Bird in the search for her missing twin sister which takes her from Moosonee to Toronto—a testament to the ever-growing issue of the missing and murdered indigenous women throughout Canada.
Although the film adaptation features a predominately First Nations cast, it has, upon release, sparked a fair amount of controversy due to the fact that its director, Don McKellar, is not of indigenous descent. Ironically, the issue of cultural appropriation is no stranger to Boyden’s novels as he himself has been facing controversy surrounding the authenticity of his claims to indigenous ancestry for the past few years. Today, it is unbelievably important to have indigenous perspectives represented on-screen, but it is equally important to note who is presenting these stories to the public.
Controversy aside, TIFF audiences found the story captivating. I personally found it particularly powerful to watch a film—and one with such an important message, at that—set purposely in Toronto. While I’m sure we all know that many films are shot in Toronto all year long (recent films such as Suicide Squad, It, and The Shape of Water, among many others) they seldom ever feature Toronto as their actual setting.
While I usually take pleasure in calling out Toronto landmarks in the background of films, I had a particular thrill in exiting the theatre and walking right by the very film locations I had just seen on-screen. On the other hand, the film’s sombre message weighed particularly on me; I feel as though seeing the events in the story play out in my hometown truly reinforced the fears that indigenous communities all over Canada face every day and I hope that films such as Through Black Spruce, in spite of all its controversy, will bring awareness of indigenous issues to Canadians and start the important and necessary conversations in our country.