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TIFF 2020: Drive-in screenings, online platform and more for hybrid film festival

Opening night film, David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’, directed by Spike Lee, is intended to dispel a pandemic-hit world’s despondent mood

The 45th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a pared-down version of North America’s biggest annual cinema showcase, kicks off on Thursday with in-person and drive-in screenings combined, for the first time in its history, with an online platform for the press and industry worldwide.

The hybrid festival’s opening night film, David Byrne’s “American Utopia”, directed by Spike Lee, is intended to dispel a pandemic-hit world’s despondent mood.

It brings to the screen Byrne’s Broadway show that played from October 2019 to February 2020. The concert had the former Talking Heads frontman perform his most popular songs with 11 musicians from around the world.

The focus of TIFF 2020, which runs from September 10 to 19, is clearly on transcending cultural and geographical barriers and seeking global common ground as critics and film professionals are compelled to access its fare remotely from locations around the world.

The festival’s official programme has two Indian entries — Chaitanya Tamhane’s “The Disciple” and Mira Nair’s “A Suitable Boy”, a lively six-part adaptation of Vikram Seth’s sprawling novel of the same name.

TIFF lead programmer Geoff Macnaughton, in his write-up in the festival’s digital catalogue, says of “A Suitable Boy”: Storytelling with a global reach has never been more important, and Mira Nair is an absolute master of it.

“A Suitable Boy” is a BBC Studios production that has completed its television run and is set to land on Netflix soon. The series plays in TIFF’s Primetime section devoted to television shows.

“What I have loved about directing ‘A Suitable Boy’,” Nair says in the show’s press kit, “is reaping the great joy of telling a fantastic story with the finest actors we have in our country.”

“The Disciple” is in TIFF 2020’s Special Presentations. Writing about the film, artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey says: Tamhane displays an adept commitment to his own craft with ‘The Disciple’ The fidelity of this portrait of an artist is sure to resonate with audiences

“The Disciple”, set in the world of Hindustani classical music, follows a young vocalist who struggles to reconcile the purity of his art with the demands of a fast-changing world.

The festival opener, David Byrne’s “American Utopia”, is expected to spread cheer in a time in which joy is in severe short supply. It is the second music documentary in two years to start off proceedings for TIFF.

Last year, the festival opened with “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band”, featuring interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton, among others.

This year’s line-up of TIFF documentaries includes “I Am Greta”, in which Swedish filmmaker Nathan Grossman follows teenage climate change activist through an eventful year that saw the shy 15-year-old schoolgirl with Asperger’s evolve from a puny protester in a sit-in outside her country’s Parliament to Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year.

Another documentary with a pronounced newsworthy slant that will screen as part of TIFF 2020 is “76 Days”, which is an account of the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals battling the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, ground zero for the outbreak.

The film takes its title from the number of days the Chinese city of 11 million was under a lockdown January 23 onwards.

The festival’s Masters section has “Notturno”, a film by Gianfranco Rosi, a documentarian who has won both the Berlin Golden Bear (for ‘Fire at Sea’ at 2016) and the Venice Golden Lion (for ‘Sacro GRA’ in 2013).

“Notturno”, filmed over a period of three years in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon, is about daily life in war-torn parts of the Middle East. It is about people going about their lives despite the violence around them.

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