The first film I can ever remember seeing was projected on to an outdoor screen in a dusty village in Pakistan. It was a Charlie Chaplin film where he ate his boot and was pursued by a bear in a frosty Yukon setting. Ever since then the movies have always been associated in my mind with the theatres in which I saw them. I have forgotten most of their names, but my brother and I laughed loudly and conspiratorially at the Jerry Lewis and Norman Wisdom films we saw as children in Ottawa at the old Capitol Theatre. I can also vividly remember the two of us seeing "The Longest Day" in a plush west end London cinema with my mother in the early sixties. At a boarding school in Germany that we both attended, Saturdays meant a film in the evening in the school's main auditorium where we escaped our homesickness through the escapist fantasies of a James Bond.
The Toronto Film Festival is also full of these specific, indelible memories. How can I forget the 1990 festival when I sat with a bunch of hardy cinephiles and literally camped out at the Bloor Cinema for ten days. We saw five films or so a day, often ate lunch in our seats, wallowing in the amazing Jean-Luc Godard retrospective.
But, my festival memories are inevitably tied to those cinemas that have disappeared over the years - the Towne, the Uptowns, the Backstages. One of my most unforgettable festival memories is tied to the Showcase, a lovely theatre tucked into Yonge Street, once called the New Yorker and used by the festival from its earliest days. I saw many films in this theatre - Jonathan Rosenbaum's unforgettable "Buried Treasures" series in 198?, my first John Jost film, John Sayles's "Return of the Secaucus Seven" . But, forever in my mind the Showcase is associated with 1989 and the retrospective I curated of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.
In 1989, no one knew the name of this obscure filmmaker. His reputation had yet to be secured. He was our "Spotlight" director that year, a new idea that I had brought to the table a couple of years before, which had already resulted the first North American exposure of Pedro Almodovar and Aki Kaurismaki.
Kieslowski had just finished his monumental 10 part "Decalogue" and we were lucky enough to have secured the North American premiere of the entire series. While Kieslowski was known in festival circles in Europe, he was completely unknown in North America. When we announced his name as our "Spotlight" director, it drew puzzled looks. A Polish director - how important - or good - could he be. Being in ten parts, we decided to programme one episode a day throughout the ten days of the festival - in the Showcase. The cinema held about 500 people, large-ish, especially for an unknown director. Attendance on the first day was spotty, about 100 people. By the second day, it had grown. In those days, we did not have a single ticketing system so everyone lined up for the films they wanted to see, which meant word-of-mouth was important. By the third day the place was almost full. After that sell-outs were the order of the day.
Kieslowski came to the festival for his retrospective and over the week I got to know him. He was due to fly back to Warsaw on the last day of the festival but he had time to walk over to the Showcase and introduce one of the greatest of the ten episodes: "A Short Film About Killing" prior to his flight. When we got to the theatre, pandemonium reigned. There was still a large crowd milling around, trying to get in. Inside, there was not a seat to be had. As soon as I entered the theatre with Kieslowski, the audience spontaneously rose to their feet and broke into tumultuous applause. It was like the crowning of a king. The memory still sends shivers down my spine. Krzsyztof said a few words, about how he was returning to a dark and grubby Warsaw, got into a waiting car and was gone from the festival.
Years later, I can still never walk by that theatre without that memory in my head. The Showcase has gone, as have so many other theatres that contain my festival memories. And, sadly, tragically, Krzysztof has also gone, far too young, victim of an operating procedure that went drastically wrong. Ghosts - and memories - swirl around so much of the city that contains my film festival