Toronto’s 10th annual ImagiNative Film & Media Arts Festival in 2009, had as its opening film, Reel Injun. Film festivals usually put up their guest filmmakers at fine hotels, get them rides to all the happenings, ply them with drinks all night long and make them feel like what Johnny Depp must feel everywhere he goes. And so it was for this author. But it does not take long for one to go from hero to zero in show business.
For this year’s ImagiNative, I barely managed to have an Inuit production company come up with several hundred dollars for the train ride to Toronto, a modest per diem from the magazine but no fancy hotel room and not even a cheap motel. I did, however, have a friendly date.
I arrive in Toronto fashionably late and drop off my bags at my friend Jack’s fancy hotel room, shower quickly and figure I’ll worry about a bed when the time comes and we walk the few blocks to the Bloor Cinema for the opening film, Boy.
Outside the theatre, a long line has formed. I scan the crowd for my date, the lovely Ilsa Schnarre, an heiress, or so she claims. I’ve seen and talked to her only a handful of times so the night has the potential of turning ugly or I might end up a hero after all. The minutes tick by and still no Ilsa. Perhaps she won’t show and she’s my one hope for a place to crash. I pass the time snapping pictures as the crowd begins to move into the theatre. There must be over 800 people here.
Finally across the way I see the flash of her golden hair and I dodge traffic crossing the street. “Ilsa!” She turns, smiles and we hug a tad unsurely. It is our first “date” after all.
We go for a quick wine in a dive bar where she sidles close to me and purrs, “So? Is it true that diamonds are a girl’s best friend?” I down my drink and suggest we hurry to the theatre before it fills up. We take our seats in the darkening theatre. She is quite lovely, and towers over me. I see people crane their heads, but it could be just my imagination running away with me. She leans into me and whispers, “Dark sex dork shuddering down the sidewalk…” I shudder. Later still, “I tangled in midair…” I shush her with a finger to her lips and we settle in to wait for the ceremony to begin.
Before the screening, the director shyly and hilariously introduces the film. He started out as a standup comic in his native New Zealand, or as the Maori call their paradise homeland Aotearoa. Boy is a feature comedy by Maori director, writer and star, Taika Waititi. Set during the mid 80s when Michael Jackson was the pop star every young Maori boy wanted to be. The film tells the story of a young boy who idolizes his deadbeat dad, played by Waititi, to the point of imagining him dancing and dressing like Michael Jackson. It’s hilarious, sad, brilliant and Ilsa is delighted.
The film ends to wild applause. The director ascends the stage to take questions. The usual questions are shouted out. “How did you get the idea?” “Where was the film shot?” After a brief pause in questions my arm shoots up. Waititi points to me. I ask him to tell us about the upcoming Green Lantern movie he’s featured in. He begins slow as if wanting to avoid the subject, “ The Green Lantern was a comic book super hero… ummmm… he… he had a ring…? He hesitates and says almost embarrassed, “I play an Inuit in it…” He explains that a friend in LA suggested he could pass for Inuk. He winces and people laugh with him. “From hero to zero.” He says shaking his head. I’m sitting two seats away from Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk and turn to gauge his reaction to a Maori portraying and Inuk. He is a Sphinx with a video camera, always a camera. I had no idea that the character Waititi is playing was Inuit and I feel like apologizing for his being embarrassed. A crowd has gathered around him as I approach so I turn and leave.
Outside a crowd has gathered and they’re raving about Boy. Kunuk says Waititi would never pass for Inuit. “Maybe a mixed blood Inuk.” I argue but Kunuk shakes his head, adamant. There is a party to be had at the Century Room on Queen Street. I gather a flock and we jump in a cab and head over. The music’s loud and the place is slowly filling up. We order drinks and watch the parade. I run into people I haven’t seen in a year. “Do you have a film playing this year?” they ask. “No. I’m writing about the seedy underbelly of the festival for the Nation.” I shoot back. They look puzzled. I must work so I leave Ilsa in capable hands and go to snap a few pictures and mingle. I find the man of the hour, Taika Waititi, huddled with a few people and I introduce myself and apologize for my faux pas. It happens that we have a mutual friend in Aotearoa. Waititi’s gracious and friendly. After a few words expressing my admiration of his work on The Flight of the Conchords and Boy, I walk off to find my date.
There she is, in the outdoor lounge where I left her. She’s chatting and towering over my friend Ari. I’m tongue-tied. She has to work the following morning and says she has to go. I offer to escort her out and she says something I can’t make out. Does she not want to be seen with me walking her out? I walk her out anyway, extremely unsure of myself. Outside, we stand for a while in the drizzle smoking. Me: “I had fun.” She: “Me too.” Me, for the tenth time: “Boy was awesome!” She, tolerantly: “It was!” Am I imagining an uncomfortable silence here? Finally, “So? Friday maybe?” She says, “Yeah…” and turns and walks off into the night. I turn and enter the bar, still a zero without a place to rest.
The place is hopping, drinks are flowing, music’s pounding. Everyone’s there. Paul Rickard, Tracey Deere, Steve Bonspiel, Ernie Webb, Catherine Bainbridge, Zacharias Kunuk, and many more. At this point things start to get fuzzy. Fast forward a few minutes and I am walking through a hotel lobby looking for an after party. I knock on a door and it swings open. It’s Taika looking like he’s having a great time. We enter and the drinks flow. Extremely fragmented images follow. Someone leaning out a taxi window while I snap photos. A woman dangled upside down on the sidewalk. I wake up on someone’s couch and there is a note beside me; “Gone to the festival.” I walk for almost an hour back to the festival.
Straight away, I see people from the night before looking, thankfully, as haggard as I do. “Did you here what happened last night?” They ask. “Taika got arrested.” I reply, “He’s awesome! What did he do?” But no one seems to know the details. Rumours fly that a platoon of cops were called to his room and he was dragged off somewhere. My lie of writing about the festival’s seedy underbelly appears unavoidable. I ask Sara whose couch I crashed on. The cops were called she tells me. “I dragged you out just before they arrived and I don’t know what happened after that.” In the end we agree that Taika was in fact not arrested but was merely barred from going back into his room and no one knows to this day what actually happened. Or at least, those in the know aren’t saying.
There is a filmmakers reception later that afternoon. Veteran actress Michelle St John is there. Cree stand up comic Dawn Dumont is too. North of 60’s star turned politician,Tina Keeper shows up. The group splits up and spread out to various functions throughout the city. ImagiNative is the largest native festival on the planet and it is impossible to attend the many films, performances and exhibits on offer. The rest of the night’s a blur and I find myself again on some strange couch.
Friday finally arrives and I meet Ilsa at her place. It turns out that, for an heiress, she prefers very humble digs. She serves wine, we talk and head out to meet the crowd at a bar somewhere. Everyone’s tired, especially me so we stumble into a cab and I finally find a welcoming bed. I feel less than a zero.
The next evening Zacharias Kunuk’s new documentary, Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change has its premiere. Preceding it is a strikingly beautiful short film, Inuit High Kick by Alethea Aarnaquq-Baril of Nunavut. I’m very impressed. Kunuk hasn’t stopped doing interviews since the start of the festival and the show is sold out. The film avoids scientist talking heads and is entirely in Inutittut. A long discussion follows the film and Ilsa and I slip out for a quiet bite of sushi and wine on Bloor. The closing party is just down the street at Lee’s Palace. Ilsa slips away again to meet friends and I enter the party alone. On stage is Inez. She’s wearing tight hot pants and she seems to want to channel Shakira and Britney to little success, yet a crowd dances joyfully below her. Martha Redbone comes on with a drum and a bluesy band. I’ve never heard of either of them.
Closing time looms and my friend Jack pulls me aside saying they’re going out to eat. I refuse but he insists. I relent and go to say my goodbyes. When I’m done, Jack and the others are gone. I walk out alone into light rain. I hail a cab to go in search of Ilsa. We can be heroes.