TIFF 2018: Identity, Dialogue, Division

Abby Olcese

In James, the author reminds his readers of the potential for words to both create and destroy—the destruction, more often than not, coming from unchecked, uncontrolled language. “With the tongue, we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness,” James writes. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

The stories we tell each other, about each other, color our understanding of the world, for better and for worse. Whose stories are told (and not told), the way they’re told, and by whom, inform our prejudices and our sense of entitlement. But they can also open our minds to different, more compassionate, and analytical ways of thinking. Too often, James tells us, we lean toward selfish, fear-based, hateful speech. But with discipline, empathy, and intention, we can change the narrative toward inclusion.

Those same themes were present at the Toronto International Film Festival, held earlier this month. Considered by many to be the unofficial kickoff of awards season, TIFF features world premieres of major films and indie hopefuls, as well as movies that have successfully played at other festivals earlier in the year. Taken together, the programming provided a sample of artistic responses to questions and ideas that have been bouncing around our collective heads. This year, many of the films covered the search for understanding in divisive political and cultural times.

Some of those movies seek to explain how we’ve gotten to where we are, or to create dialogue with people whose behavior or worldview we struggle to understand. Jason Reitman’s election drama The Front Runner and Errol Morris’ Steve Bannon documentary American Dharma examine our political conscience, and how it’s brought us to this current season. Dramas like The Public, Ben is Back, Beautiful Boy, and Her Smell address mental illness and addiction. Monsters and Men and The Hate U Give discuss the post-Black Lives Matter relationship between law enforcement and people of color, using a variety of perspectives that invite deeper conversation.

Other films from the festival use diverse explorations of identity to encourage connection through the idea of the imago dei. Barry Jenkins’ gorgeously heartfelt James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk feels revolutionary by simply letting the black family at its center be a family, defined by love and support. Joel Edgerton’s drama Boy Erased explores the developing identity of a young gay man, and the impact of that identity on his relationship with his devout parents.

With discipline, empathy, and intention, we can change the narrative toward inclusion.

Throughout the festival, there was a sense that members of the filmmaking community are recognizing the industry’s past practices of cursing those made in God’s likeness both on and offscreen, and want to turn that behavior around. This was the case not just in the screening rooms of TIFF, but also on stages, and in the streets. Among the festival’s big public events was the Share Her Journey rally to support women in film, where speakers such as Annenberg Inclusion Initiative founder Dr. Stacy L. Smith reflected on inclusion successes and noted the distance still to travel. Smith’s words at that rally helped encapsulate the growing ethos of under-represented groups in the industry: “Our north star is not diversity. It is not inclusion,” she told the crowd. “But it is belonging. We must all feel as if our voices and stories matter.”

Those words don’t only apply in an equity sense—the idea that all people have a seat at the table—but also in a deeper, faith-based sense. Christianity looks at belonging from the gospel perspective that we are all worthy of love, and receive it, unconditionally, from God. In our interactions with others, being part of God’s kingdom means setting aside differences, and letting love define our actions.

This idea was present at the festival, too. One line from If Beale Street Could Talk, spoken by a mother to her daughter (and quoted by Barry Jenkins in his introduction before the screening), addressed the power of compassion as a guiding principle: “Love is what brought you here, and if you trusted it this far, trust it all the way.” This year’s TIFF reminded audiences that stories which reinforce our fears and selfish actions are what created our divided culture. Radical love, true dialogue, and the recognition of each other’s divine image is what will bring us together.

Topics: Movies