After hearing about all the hoopla downtown surrounding the Toronto International Film Festival, I made it out on the second to last night to see my first film. I dallied around Roy Thompson Hall where Jennifer Aniston was about to appear on the red carpet. I may have seen the top of her head through my camera viewfinder. I may have missed it entirely.
Nevertheless, the encounter with the crowds made me even more excited as I made my way to the TIFF Bell Lightbox, cinema 4 for the final festival showing of a Toronto-made film, The Animal Project. As life would have it, the film would be centered around a theatre troupe, sites in Toronto I’ve already begun to recognize, and filmmaker Ingrid Veninger with connections to York who is unafraid to reach out, stretch the boundaries, and most importantly, follow her dreams.
“Do you think it’s worth it to make a film out of a dream?
This was the film’s “tagline” of sorts, the biggest take-away from both the narrative embedded within it and the story of the film’s creation. The Animal Project starts with a father-son relationship: a single dad and theatre maker Leo (Aaron Poole) begins to realize that he’s losing a connection with his teenage son Sam (Jacob Switzer, Veninger’s real-life son) and that the theatre troupe he leads at Studio 102 is losing its potency, too. In a dream, inspiration strikes: he pictures six people dressed in animal costumes (furries, like suits sports mascots wear) in a field of snow. So he makes the following proposition to his fellow actors: rent the suits, go out into the city of Toronto, and see what happens. He doesn’t know if it will be a worthwhile acting exercise or if it will produce any meaningful results, but he knows that something has to change. At first the actors are resistant, even to the point where Saul (Joey Klein) fights Leo on the spot and Mira (Sarina Parmer) leaves the studio. But as the film follows the actors over the course of the next 24 hours, the audience sees that everyone has something to escape, to confront, or to radically challenge in his or her life. The actors acquire the suits, go out into the city, and something happens to everyone. Something life-changing, but unique to each character.
There were some absolutely gorgeous moments of character development. The small details of a character slowly sinking into a bathtub filled with balloon animals. A red balloon at the front gate of another character’s house. The ceramic mug that wrapped around one character’s hand, almost protecting it from the outside world and the truths he was just learning to accept. These visual details wove together with the lives of these characters to make the silly escapades of an owl, donkey, babboon, lion, mouse, bunny, and jaguar in the streets and parks of Toronto seem very meaningful. I believed it when the actors told us after the film that the suits had all affected them in different ways, just as it had their characters. It was that real.
I loved the film, the whole concept of going into a project because something in your gut and your imagination has led you there. Thankfully, because of the special screening at TIFF, I got to learn even more about the filmmaking process and how Veninger created the film out of similarly daring creative schemes. She cast the movie before writing a single line of the script. She too had nothing but this image of 6 to 7 furries standing in a field of snow, but she led the auditioning actors through the paces of a deeply personal audition process to find a few who would commit without knowing a single detail about the project. Through her unwavering belief in the process and the amazing confidence and cooperation of the actors, the small production team was able to write, produce, film, and edit the film in less than 9 months, in spite of 3 full months of shooting.
I’m sure there’s a lot I missed at TIFF this year. I only saw the one film. But I think it was a great one and I encourage everyone to find it at their local indie theatre in March for the wider release. Once again, Toronto and life in general led me to an experience deeply tied to the anxieties I’m facing and the dreams I also want to follow–to tell great stories, to flesh out living characters, and to continue leaping into the unknown.