Lights, Camera, Action | Toronto International Film Festival 2023

The Toronto International Film Festival shines a well-deserved spotlight on Hollywood North.

As the last embers of summer slowly cool, the city of Toronto comes to life. In a glittering array of lights and cameras, King Street West transforms for the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF as it’s lovingly abbreviated. Gone is the everyday hustle, replaced with red carpets, and a sprinkling of movie magic. Walking down festival street – the vibe is different. The mood is light, the excitement palpable. Everyone is there to share their love of filmmaking and storytelling. Whether you’re looking for a gutsy slasher flick ala Finn Wolfhard and Billy Byrk’s Hell of a Summer or a thoughtful biopic about the life and times of American author Flannery O’Connor (Ethan Hawke’s Wildcat), there’s a film for all. With an eclectic choice of movies for every palate, it’s hard to know where to start.

Established in 1976, The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the most prestigious in the world. Alongside Sundance and Cannes, Toronto holds its own, helping put Canada on the map. Movie stars, directors, and film professionals from every corner come to Hollywood North to showcase their finest work.

As a budding journalist, going to their first festival as press, I was admittedly overwhelmed. When I applied earlier in the year, I didn’t think I had any chance of making the cut. Who was I, after all? But with encouragement from my editors, I took a shot in the dark. When I received the e-mail months later, with my media accreditation – I couldn’t believe my luck. I took a minute to read through the next steps. September couldn’t come around fast enough.

Flash forward to the week of the festival. Once I’d grabbed my official credentials (name badge and all) from the King Street Marriot, I was filled with nerves. ‘What was I doing here?’ ‘Did I even belong?’ ‘What could I possibly bring to the table?’ With all these thoughts in mind and sucking up the anxiety, I made my way to the Bisha Hotel for the introductory press and industry breakfast. It was a chance for industry professionals to sit down with the press and pitch their films – I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only first-timer. Grabbing a plate of food and a glass of champagne (was it too early to start drinking? Maybe.), I made my way to the fireplace where I saw another journalist sitting on their own. I took a stab at introducing myself and we got to talking. The irony of bringing together writers and having them socialize is not lost on me, but we chatted about the films we were most excited for. Rustin, Zone of Interest, Dicks: The Musical, Hell of a Summer, North Star, Sisterhood, Wicked Little Letters, and so many more. I couldn’t comprehend how I’d be able to watch so many movies within a short period, but I’d worry about that later. As we were chatting and the conversation naturally dissolved to polite chatter, a few TIFF board members wandered over to us, including the CEO, Cameron Bailey himself. It occurred to me, that this breakfast was very much a pitch; they want us to see their movies almost as much as we want to see them. It’s the perfect trade-off.

Because I had to work my day job in between, the first few days of the festival were a wash. However, that made me more determined to take advantage of the days I was there. I realized, that even though I would have to make a lot of sacrifices with the films I wanted to see, it would leave me open to some hidden gems. 

The first night I was able to fully attend was Saturday. I took in all of Festival Street at its peak busyness. The atmosphere was incredible – live music, food vendors, and all types of businesses lining the street. It was sensory overload in the best way. Movies were premering left and right; Wicked Little Letters starring Olivia Colman at the Princess of Wales theatre boasted a ridiculous rush line of people trying to snag tickets to the coveted event. Across the street, Lil Nas X’s documentary Long Live Montero – my first film of the festival – was showcased at Roy Thompson Hall with the man himself walking the red carpet.

I took Sunday to prepare my film schedule for the week. I was very indecisive and there was chatter among my peers about their personal favorites. A lot of what I wanted to see clashed with each other; I learned quickly that sacrifices would have to be made. The Holdovers vs Quiz Lady or Hell of a Summer vs Zone of Interest. I tried to fit in as much as I could. I wanted to experience it all, but I think I was over-ambitious. Scotiabank Theatre became my HQ for the week I was there. It was interesting to see Press and Industry screeners for films before the general public did, but I still felt like a fish out of water. Luckily, other journalists were incredibly gracious. Every screening, I was able to strike up a conversation – what we thought of the film, the outlet that we write for, and how long they’d been coming to TIFF, I met so many people across television, radio, and print, talking to them about their experiences. Many had been to TIFF multiple times; what I learned was that there was seeing films for work and seeing them for pleasure. It doesn’t have to be all business. 

The Wednesday, I was riding solo at the theatre. I took up residence at the Scotiabank longue. From 8 am to 5 pm, I watched three movies: Wildcat, North Star, and Sisterhood. Having read a brief synopsis of each, I went in with a relatively blank slate and left, completely floored. On the way home that evening, I reflected on the fact that each was centred on feminine power and different types of female relationships. Without realizing it, the lineup of movies I had selected for the day shared a common thread. In Wildcat, we see Flannery O’Connor take control of her diagnosis and vehemently fight to finish her novel while repairing a strained relationship with her mother, in North Star, we watch three sisters come back together for their mother’s wedding having lived vastly different lives, and in Sisterhood we see three girlfriends battle with what it is to become a woman and how their socio-economic standings could break them apart.

After a day of recovery, I returned to TIFF on Friday, my last day. I decided to take it easy and breathe it all in. I only had one film on the docket, but I headed downtown early to take one last look at Festival Street in all its glory. While things were still lively, they were beginning to wind down. I made my way into the media center at the King Steet Marriot and looked over the notes. I weighed my options, the last movie I had selected started at 9 pm and I had to work the next day. Did I really want to stay downtown that late? I reasoned that this may be the first (and last) time I get the opportunity to do something like this – and I’m glad I did. Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex truly blew me away. This was the second showing of the movie at TIFF and it looked as though word had spread. I walked into a packed theatre and was only able to snag a seat in the second row. From the moment the movie started rolling you were wrapped in the world of three British teens who spend their summer smoking, drinking, clubbing, and of course – having sex. We watch through Tara’s (Mia McKenna Bruce) eyes as a light-hearted weekend away from home turns into something darker. Raw, powerful, and heart-wrenching, How to Have Sex was met with applause.

As my Uber sped further away from the downtown core, I thought about how grateful I was to be given this opportunity. Whether you’re a seasoned film critic or a casual lover of movies, the Toronto International Film Festival continues to be a highlight of the city, drawing in press, fans, critics, and movie lovers from across the globe. Every September, the Canadian Film Industry puts on a show for the world that is so unique and diverse, that it continues to draw in crowds even after 46 years. And, even though this was my first year covering a major event (and my first year at the festival ever) I can see myself coming back for years to come. 

Learn more about the Toronto International Film Festival at

Words Dana Reboe

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