The Religious Order of the Toronto International Film Festival

In the months following the Toronto International Film Festival, one can see how life in a film festival and life back home are wildly different. Having seen both the visual and written sides of a festival, one can make deductions that TIFF is truly, as André Bazin writes about, a religious order. The ritual and culture of a film festival are unlike anything seen in day-to-day life. At home it is not commonplace to wear an industry badge, talk about rush lines, see four movies a day, and attend red carpet premieres in hopes of seeing a celebrity. It can be drawn from the literature that the entire thing is a spectacle and an Order in which participants are fully submersed when they arrive. The concept of a film festival as a religious experience is something that can be seen in almost every aspect during a festival such as TIFF. Fans worship celebrities and will do almost anything to get that photo. The collective performance of these festivalgoers is based on cultural scripts. All of our social activities go off of a collective performance that we get roped into playing when stepping foot in a film festival. We can see this in the festivals day-to-day functions, which include the rituals, hierarchies, and immersion into TIFF.

To better understand the world of a film festival, one has to look at the start of the phenomenon and the day-to-day. Like Bazin, “I have witnessed first-hand the gradual perfecting of the Festival phenomenon, the practical creation of its rituals and its inevitable establishment of hierarchies. Its history is comparable to the foundation of a religious Order; fully-fledged participation in the Festival is like being provisionally admitted to convent life.”[1] Starting off at a film festival is overwhelming. Getting accustomed to the crowds, rules, and schedule is the first part in beginning to explain the crazy things that happen at TIFF. “The main feature of festival life lies in its moral obligations and the regularity of all its activities.”[2] It is expected of press and industry badge holders to attend the various events and activities that come with the luxury of said badges. These events occur at the same time and place each day, which lends to the regularity of the Industry Conference side of the festival. Outside of the Industry Conference, rush lines and theaters are also almost identical, no matter which one you go to. Whether it’s the Elgin Winter Garden or the Roy Thompson, each theater distinctly shows where rush and ticket holder lines are, so the continuity of the festival is the same throughout. The process to get into each theatre is the same: stand in line, get a rush token, show your badge, and find a seat.

The daily activities at TIFF lend themselves to the created performance of the people who attend. A first time festivalgoer could have never set foot at TIFF before, but behaviors start to develop and this new way of life (even if for just a short while) feels foreign when they return home. Time at TIFF is one factor that dictates the collective performance at the festival. “Whatever the lateness of the hour at which our Festivalgoer retires to bed, he’s up in time for ‘dawn,’ that is to say for the private screening at 10:30 a.m. The service is held in one of the chapels in town.”[3] A clear example would be the Press and Industry screening of Spotlight at 10:00 a.m. that I attended. It was held at the Princess of Wales theatre, which is centrally located on King Street. For the duration of the festival, theatres like this are looked at as the central location of all the excitement and can be considered a chapel of sorts. This is where festival attendees go to find different messages being “preached” through film, and where they can escape for solace.

The performance can differ depending on the type of screening one attends. Press and Industry are usually more reserved, with the media there for the strict purposes of writing a review, seeing if there is interest in purchasing the film from the studio, etc. Public Screenings tend to have tighter security and they show anti-piracy warnings before the film starts. This is just one example of the clear distinction between the different groups at a film festival.

“But clothes don’t make the man, and membership in the Order is conferred by an electronic machine dispensing uncopiable cards, which will get you in. Once you’re standing on holy ground another hierarchy rises up – what might be called functional discrimination.”[4] The divide between those who have tickets and those who don’t is noticeable. The lines are clearly marked and there is no good way to try and cheat the system. Each badge is color coded and scanned upon entering a screening or event. The press and buyers do not have to wait in any long lines. As soon as they show their badge to a person with a headset they are automatically taken inside. This also spotlights another form of hierarchy: those who work for TIFF and those who don’t. You can look anywhere at the festival and see volunteers in bright orange shirts, or TIFF staff in all black with a headset. These are the people that festival attendees look to for guidance, and the ones that have the power to get you into a coveted seat at a screening. These hierarchies fit into the notion that the festival as a whole is an Order.

“If an Order is something defined by its rules as well as being inseparable from a life of contemplation and meditation, in which people join in holy worship of a common transcendent reality, then the Festival is a religious Order.”[5] People come from all over the world to TIFF and live a life for about a week that is nothing like their normal one. An example is the abundance of movie premieres that happen at TIFF. To fully participate in a film festival, one usually must attend a movie premiere. What is seen in the trades and online is much different then seeing it in real life. The thunderous screams festival participants hear in person when a black Escalade pulls up to a theatre is no match to just watching it on TV. Part of the population at TIFF chooses to join in the holy worship of the reality of celebrities and media culture. It is not uncommon to see throngs of people standing outside a hotel or building at any given time of day. When stopped and asked for whom they were waiting for, one person’s answer was “No one in particular, we just want to see someone famous.” The idea of seeing a glimpse of any celebrity in person is enough to make some people wait great amounts of time. This borderline holy worship of celebrities is what makes film festivals feel like a different world. Being at TIFF gives you the access to run into stars that you would not get everyday. When you go home, the fact that you have been immersed into a religious order is evident when you talk about your time there, and those who did not go have no idea what you are talking about.

When it is eventually time to leave a festival like TIFF, normal life at first seems very mundane. Gone is the thrill of screenings, panels, and star sightings. You are leaving a religious order that focuses on rituals, hierarchies, and complete immersion in the day-to-day functions. The rituals of a film festival, such as waiting in rush lines, lead to the collective performance of those who are attending. The hierarchies that exist at TIFF keep the Order in place. While the Order is being constructed, you find yourself being fully immersed in the whole experience. The day-to-day functions and performance are based on cultural scripts that you fall into once you step foot in a festival. There seems to be no getting around being sucked into the culture of a film festival, and it is something that only those who experience with you will understand.


[1] BAZIN, ANDRÉ. “The Festival Viewed as a Religious Order.” Cahiers Du Cinéma, June 1, 1955, 15.

[2] Ibid. 16

[3] Ibid. 16

[4] Ibid. 17

[5] Ibid. 15