“Attention – due to the tragedies unfolding in the U.S.A. all press conferences for today are cancelled,” read the hand-written sign from Toronto International Film Festival organizers on September 11, 2001 as horrors hit New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania’s Stonycreek Township.
Despite having spent a significant amount of my life there, I was not in New York on that terrible day. Just weeks away from the debut of the Canadian primetime news magazine show that I was co-hosting, I was in Toronto just hours away from getting on a flight to Boston when the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center. I spent the day covering the local reaction in the Canadian metropolis to transpiring international events, which included downtown Toronto going into evacuation mode as the CN Tower was seen as a potential target for a while and what would be the fate of the film festival.
Just the night before I had been at a wonderful and glamorous soiree at the Royal Ontario Museum for the 26th annual TIFF, a party I now see as the fin de siècle of the 20th century. Now on Day 6 of the festival, one of the questions emerging in Toronto on September 11 was would organizers shut the whole thing down? Even though this was a lot less digital time than today, news spread fast that aircraft all over the continent were being grounded to help stop more devastation and carnage – which meant the no one was coming into or getting out of Toronto on a plane any time soon.
That night in a hotel bar, I listened to NYC filmmakers and producers still in town tell tales of not being able to reach colleagues and loved ones in Manhattan for hours as the horror of the day unfolded. The anxiety was shared as I too had several friends and family members I couldn’t reach until much later in the day by phone or email.
For the then Piers Handling run TIFF, decisions had to be made quickly as to what their reaction would be – would the festival down? As everyone watched the news on TV and organizers faced the media, the festival moved towards a middle way that did itself and the filmmakers, actors, distributors, studio brass, agents and producers it had attracted from all over the world justice. It was a decision that Handling himself told me later that he deeply pondered – but it was the right one.
First, as the sign at the Park Hyatt made clear, all press conferences were cancelled on September 11 as were screenings for films like that night’s gala of the Mira Nair directed Monsoon Wedding and all parties. While TIFF would continue on September 12, it would be very different than originally planned. As out-of-towners scrambled to get back home and locals put up festival visitors, the next step was to scale everything back to just the films. Screenings originally scheduled for the 11th were moved to a few days later as the last days of TIFF 2001 became gala-free with no traditional awards ceremony nor closing night party. It was a measured solution that paid respect to those killed and suffering by the terrorists and did not cower in fear – it was, I still think, the right way to handle things.
There was one bellicose producer who I remember hearing at a small private gathering telling his Canadian hosts that he was going to load up a limo with a couple of studio execs and go in search of the real America on the drive to L.A. Whether or not that Jack Kerouac fantasy ever came true, the fact is a phalanx of big black cars started making the trek out West or to NYC by September 13 as the airports stayed closed.
Regardless of the jockeying, the opportunism and the box office that fill the industry there is also still community of cinema, a gathering you often find still at big festivals like TIFF – and a community of cinema certainly came together during those shocking days in 2001.