Friday, 13 September 2013

TIFF film festival fever

I won't lie, getting back into the swing of things in the city took me a little while. I missed the quiet and the open space of the Bruce Peninsula a lot when I first got back, and even more so the people there, and for a while I started to wonder if another month in Toronto, as much as I love this city, was such a good idea. Those feelings passed though and now suddenly half of September has gone already! The last couple of weeks have been very film oriented. With the city in the grips of film fever ever since the start of TIFF a week ago it seemed only right to go and see what all the fuss is about.

At first I presumed that there was only one film festival but it turns out that Toronto is actually host to not one, but more than 70 different film festivals throughout the year. I'd already noticed that during the summer it was possible to see a free outdoor screening of a film nearly every night somewhere in the city, but I wasn't aware of just how important film was to the city.

Interested to see what all the fuss was about, when my friend Nadia said she wanted to try and get tickets for a TIFF red carpet premiere one evening, I agreed to give it a go. I had attempted to look through the list of films showing on the TIFF website when they were first announced but was overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, so I was happy to let her choose what we went to see. As it turned out she couldn't have picked better - Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut 'Don Jon' at the Princess of Wales Theatre right next to the TIFF Lightbox on King St, the epicentre of TIFF. As with most high profile films by the time single tickets were released, the premiere was of course sold out so we pitched up at 3pm and proceeded to wait in the rush line for the next few hours, all with no guarantee of a ticket. There were about 70 people ahead of us in the queue, the first of whom had arrived at midday. It wasn't long before the line grew to several hundred, stretching along the road further than I could see.

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It was an interesting place for people watching, overhearing conversations and generally watching the film world rush around us. Shiny black cars with heavily tinted windows passed by, red carpets were laid out and endless streams of security, police and TIFF volunteers passed us. Luckily we were in shady spot, given the 33 degree heat that day. Eventually 6.30 came around and the queue moved forward in anticipation. Slowly batches of tickets were released and 20 or 30 people at a time were given ticket tokens. We waited and we waited and eventually our patience paid off - we got tokens no 28 and 29 of a batch of 30 seats and we were in. Looking at the seats available when we got into the theatre we must have got two of the last 20 or so seats available, so luck was shining on us that day!

In short the film was very good (but then has JGL ever made a bad film?), the atmosphere was great and the Q&A after the film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson (sorry, not a fan) was the perfect end to the evening and a great insight into the world of TIFF.

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It's not TIFF that I have enjoyed most about Toronto's film offerings this month though. There has been another film festival running for the last week - the cleverly named TOIFF or Toronto Independent Film Festival. Discovered as the result of a misspelt google search, the TOIFF has been screening a series of low/no budget short films and features every night at the Carlton Cinema. For the very reasonable sum of $8 (less than £5) you can watch the daily block of shorts and a feature film followed by Q&A with the directors, so this is what I've done for several nights during the past week and I've seen some truly funny, imaginative and thought provoking cinema.

From the hilariously funny 'Break' directed by Mitch Boudreau, a three minute film about the passing of his best friend (who happens to be a goldfish) to the stunningly filmed and hard hitting 'Brightwood' directed by Lautaro Gabriel Gonda, if these films were any indication of the future of independent film making then we've got a lot to look forward to. Other highlights for me included 'Down and Out' directed by Adam Simopoulos (for its stunning cinematography), 'Today I Will Tell Her' by Jon Murray, 'Walk the Light' by Anthony Sabet (really nice guy who's working on a series of vignettes a la Paris Je T'aime), 'Strangers' by Kevin Hoffman and 'Bent' by Amy Jo Johnson. Some of these are available on YouTube and Vimeo so watch them if you can find them and you'll see what I mean.

On Wednesday night I stayed for the late feature too, a film looking at the demise of repertory cinema across North America. Using the Toronto Underground Cinema as its case study, 'The Rep' directed by Morgan White documents the attempts of three friends to try and re-open and run a rep cinema in Toronto over a couple of years, following the occasional ups and many downs of the project to its eventual and perhaps inevitable demise. I can't say it was something I have really thought about before, making me one of the people guilty of the complacency that's leading to the demise of these old single screen theatres I guess, but it was sad to think that one day soon the only place to see a film on the big screen will be in a soulless corporate multiplex.

The closing shots of the film were a sombre series of pictures of old theatres that have closed down and are now being used for everything from tanning studios to Tim Horton's coffee shops. Yet another indictment of how society and technology are changing. Sadly it seems that soon, watching films on 35mm reels will be a thing consigned to history. The score was worth a mention too, extremely well done and with The Barr Brothers 'Beggar in the Morning' accompanying the closing credits it suitably added to the wistful tone of the film.

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So it's been an interesting couple of weeks and taking the time to just stop and sit and watch so many films has been great, but last night though it was back to music, this time at the Holy Oak cafe. I went to see my friend's band, Specialhyde, play for the first time in a long while after a bit of a hiatus and with a new bass player. I've been looking forward to seeing them play for weeks and they didn't disappoint. It was a nice little venue and they played a great set, a real shame it wasn't longer, but I'm looking forward to hearing more from them soon. Sadly it wasn't on the setlist last night, but Singing Swan is really beautiful so have a listen. Couple of songs below, but check out his website for more www.specialhyde.com

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Summer at Keppel Croft

It’s been a fair while since I wrote anything – partly due to a lack of time and energy for writing and partly because I’ve been debating where to start! I spent the whole of August at Keppel Croft Gardens in Big Bay on the southern shore of Georgian Bay. The garden’s owners, Bill & Dawn Loney, are two of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. A Canadian and a Kiwi respectively, they met while teaching in the Arctic and over the past 40 or so years they have turned the acres of what was a rocky extension of the lakeshore covered with a couple of inches of soil surrounding their house into some of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. With a dry river bed, rock gardens, lawns, ponds, a henge, human sundial and a veggie garden, not to mention a large traditional barn full of sheep, chickens, guinea hens, turkeys, ducks and geese there’s plenty of work to do...and that’s precisely why I went there.

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As part of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), it’s permissible to spend up to a month at a time doing voluntary work in Canada whilst on a visitor visa providing it isn’t the main purpose of your trip. In return for 4-6 hours of work a day you get bed and board and in this case, the opportunity to experience a unique slice of rural life in Ontario. So much so in fact that I hardly stopped the entire time I was there! 

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So for the most part we spent our time cutting and weeding and chopping and raking and spreading woodchips and concreting designs into new paths and digging holes for plants - well, if you can call excavating a square foot of stones with a small pick-like hand tool over the course of an hour ‘digging’ - and eating (a lot) and generally enjoying life. ‘We’ started off as me and a German wwoofer, Isabel, who was there when I arrived and since included various wwoofers who have come and gone. Life is never dull at Keppel Croft, it’s always busy. On Wednesday mornings we were joined by up to 20 local community volunteers who come to weed and water the veggie garden, which they have a vested interest in as all the produce from it is split equally between them, as well as work on other garden projects.

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It wasn’t all work though, in fact far from it. I’ve done more in the last month than I ever thought possible. We went to local fairs, auctions and markets, to beaches and for dinner and drinks with countless friends and neighbours. The community spirit there is incredible, as is the hospitality from everyone I met. We also visited caves and went hiking on the Bruce Trail that runs along the Niagara escarpment from Tobermory to Niagara. At Tobermory we took a jet boat out to Flowerpot Island (taking only a few minutes to cross the 6km of water at 40knots!) via the sunken shipwrecks in Big Tub harbour. The weather was amazing, for the most part blazing sunshine that makes the water shine a crystal blue-green against the white rocks, perfect for afternoon (and sometimes lunchtime) swimming in the lake.


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A couple of weeks ago (or maybe it was even the week before that...I have no grasp of time anymore!) Isabel, Bill and I went to Halfway Log Dump along the road to Tobermory. We’d actually planned to go to Cyprus Lake but upon arriving we discovered that the beautiful weather had drawn the visitors out and the parking lot was full so we were turned away. Instead we went to an area of shore known as Halfway Log Dump and it was quite possibly the most beautiful lakeshore I’ve ever seen. Brilliant blue water along a beach of white pebbles dotted with boulders, it reminded me very much of the Croatian coast. Rather than hiking along the trail we opted to walk along the beach, but this involved scrambling over rocks, climbing up and sliding down boulders, paddling through water where it was shallow enough and squeezing through cracks between rocks to get by. We laughed a lot, scratched out heads a lot trying to work out ways through and finally when we’d got as far as we were going to go we just sat on the rocks eating dried cranberries, almonds and chocolate chips watching the sun start to sink over the water. It really was a perfect day.

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As we made our way back to the parking lot we were lucky enough (or unlucky enough depending on who you ask) to come face to face with a black bear standing not 50 feet away from us between the trees. Being Europeans unused to the dangers of large wild animals I think Bill was somewhat bemused that our first reaction was to try and take a photo rather than escape the potential danger. Sadly neither of us managed to take a photo that even remotely resembled a bear but it was the perfect ending to a really lovely day. 

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These last few weeks have also been a place of many firsts for me...sea kayaking in Georgian Bay, a Pow-wow at Cape Croker Park Reserve and going to a Rodeo being just some of those things, alongside little things like finding snakes in the pantry and hearing the high pitched buzz of hummingbirds darting around outside as I sat and ate my breakfast on the porch. Far too many things to write about but have a look at the photos I’m starting to upload to Flickr now I’m back in the city and have a bit more time. Trying to pick a highlight of my month at Keppel Croft is impossible, there were too many to choose from. The only downside? The biting insects - mosquitos and deer flies ate me alive!

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Sadly my time there came to an end (a week later than planned!) and now I’m back in Toronto. In a way I was looking forward to being back in the hustle and bustle of the city but Keppel Croft and all the wonderful people I met there left a lasting impression on me and my time there is something I won’t forget. The hospitality, warmth and community spirit I found there are inspirational and I hope that one day soon I can return and see many of those people again. In particular I’d like to say a huge thank you to Bill and Dawn for opening their home to me this past month and for being such warm and interesting hosts. I’ve enjoyed my time with you immensely and can’t even begin to thank you for all the opportunities you provided during my stay at your beautiful home. I hope I’ll soon have the chance to come back and visit you again. 

For more information on Keppel Croft Gardens visit their website and to see more photos of the beautiful gardens and all the other places I visited while I was there check out my photos on flickr 

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