9/11 and the 2001 Toronto Film Festival

What happened on 9/11, as they say, affected everyone. My 9/11 happened far from the smoke and rubble in Manhattan. Instead, I was at the Toronto Film Festival. On a normal year, the place transforms into a concentrated version of Hollywood press machine, with all its hype, hubris, and self-regard. That day, though, the wheels came off. Movies suddenly didn’t seem all that important.

This was my third year at the fest as a journalist, and for a film geek like me, the place is heaven. My press pass got me into just about any screening and I watched seven or eight movies a day. Then I’d hit whatever party I could weasel my way into. I had a blast. I spent the evening of September 10 bar hopping in Toronto with the cast of a Japanese zombie flick.

I woke up the following morning with a scorching hang over. As I rushed to get showered and dressed, hoping to make a 9am screening, I had a fleeting thought to turn on the news but I decided against it, figuring there would just be more of the usual breathless bloviating on CNN about the Chandra Levy scandal.

Instead, I learned about the tragedy from a hotdog vendor who had a cheap transistor radio strapped to his cart. “The World Trade Center was gone. Just gone,” he said. It sounded so unbelievable that I figured that he was exaggerating. Ten minutes later, I got myself in front of a TV and realized that he wasn’t. It was the first time, though not the last, that I felt physically ill from the news.

That year, the nerve center of the fest was at the Four Seasons. Normally, the lobby would be buzzing with phalanxes of smartly dressed publicists talking into their Nokias, journalists rushing to the next press conference, and the odd celebrity being ushered from one event to the next.

That morning, it was eerily quiet. The press office had a TV playing the news, which at that point was a veritable film loop of the towers getting hit and then collapsing. Everyone just stood around, not really sure what to do. I tried to make polite conversation with the woman who organized one of the parties I went to the night before, but she just burst into tears. A bit later, I saw Salma Hayek cry.

At around noon, festival director Piers Handling announced that all screening would stop. A crowd in the press room gathered around a TV to watch the announcement. I looked to the left and saw Rex Reed, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gina Gershon. Behind me was Pauly Shore, of all people. The weird social pecking order of the fest that delineated critic, publicist, and celebrity seemed to temporarily dissolve. We were just a room full of very scared and freaked-out people.

My most immediate problem was that all air travel was grounded, and the border was sealed. I was locked out of my own country. A fair number of people, mostly ones based in New York, tried to rent cars or charter buses and try their luck at the Niagara or Detroit border crossings.

I didn’t get out for another five days. The owner of my bed and breakfast was gracious enough to let me stay for free. I was as jumpy and upset as everyone else, so these days in limbo seemed to last forever. I called just about anybody I could think of and managed to rack up a $600 cell phone bill that month. I found myself having a mini-meltdown while making small talk with actor/director Sarah Polley.

A few days before I managed to get to catch a flight back to Los Angeles (via Minneapolis, Denver, and Salt Lake City), the festival started showing movies again though without the usual red carpets and press conferences. I watched a few movies unenthusiastically. One was the Takashi Miike’s notorious horror flick, “Ichi the Killer.” It was probably the worst possible movie to see under the circumstance. Normally, I love Miike and am a fan of splatter flicks but that day I couldn’t stomach it. I walked out and tried to place another call home.

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September 2011

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