Labour Day is upon us and it’s not the end of summer I’m thinking about …

For me, Labour Day has always been synonymous with TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). Well, maybe not “always,” but for at least as long as I’ve been living in Toronto — which is 34 years.

TIFF, for anyone unfamiliar with it, is a 10-day long extravaganza that takes place in Toronto every year right after Labour Day. What has made it unique in the world of film festivals, is that it’s always been accessible to members of the public, instead of just the film industry, the critics and the press. And for movie lovers like me it was one of the highlights of the year.

I say “was,” because I packed it in several years ago, after attending for close to 30 years. No matter what was going on in my life, I never missed a year. Hell could have frozen over and I wouldn’t have cancelled my plans to be there. I would book the two weeks off from work a year in advance and everyone in my personal and business lives knew those two weeks were sacrosanct. 

The “season” started in the Spring, May I think. That’s when the tickets and packages would go on sale for VISA card holders. I’d be up at the crack of dawn on the first day, with my finger poised over the phone, so I would be one of the first callers when the ticket office opened.

Why the urgency? 

Because I was one of the die hards who bought the 50-movie pass and there were a limited number of them available. No, it’s not a typo. With a couple of exceptions when I only saw three movies a day, for the most part I saw five to six films a day, everyday, for 10 straight days. I loved every minute of it, never got tired, always remembered the films I’d seen and went into mourning when it was over.

And it wasn’t just the films I loved. I loved the process (challenging and frustrating as it could be) and the whole experience. Even standing in the endless lines. Because through it all I met the most interesting people and had the most fabulous conversations with an incredibly diverse group of film lovers, like me.

We couldn’t have been more different. What a mixed bag we were. Students, grandmothers, ladies who lunch, city dwellers, suburbanites, locals, tourists from near and far. White collar workers, blue collar workers, unemployed workers. What united us was our love of film. We became line buddies who saw each other once a year at TIFF and our conversations just continued where they’d left off the year before. Incredible, really.

Going to the Festival was no cake walk. Ordering your pass was just the beginning. Next you had to plan a first and second choice schedule (not easy when you’re seeing 50 films, being shown in a lot of different theatres in various parts of the city, let me tell you) …  figure out which films you wanted to see (also not easy when there are upwards of 300 films to choose from) — all in a couple of days.

Then came the long, anxious wait, because even with all of that work, there was no guarantee you’d get the films you asked for. It was a lottery system. And we didn’t find out until the day before the Festival started whether we were in or out of luck — whether we’d have to start over, just replace a few films or if we’d lucked out.

One year my envelope was in the last box and I was convinced I’d have to replace all my movies. I was distraught and managed to work myself up into quite a lather until a friend of mine came up with a brilliant suggestion.

She decided that we should get to the ticket office at 4:00 a.m., so in a worst case scenario, I’d be there early enough to get first crack at whatever movies were still available. Another friend also volunteered to come and we devised a fool-proof plan: One friend would stand in the line for the tickets. The other friend would stand in the line for the ticket office. And I would position myself in front of the huge chart that listed the still-available films. It was like a relay. 

Did I mention that initially we had to line up outside? In the dark — it was, after all, 4 a.m. Did I mention that it was quite cool at that hour — it was, after all, September? 

Believe it or not there was already a line of people when we got there, so we weren’t the only crazies. Some people had camped out, in sleeping bags, all night. I cannot tell you how much fun it was. We were all in it together, trading war stories from previous festivals. 

In the end it worked out better than I could ever have hoped for. Out of 50 films I just had to replace two. We were done in minutes and then my friends and I — and several of my line buddies — went to a nearby diner for a celebratory breakfast. For us the Film Festival had officially begun. Finally, after a year of anticipation.

All I had left to do was pack my knapsack, otherwise known as my Film Festival survival pack. 

When you go to as many films in a day as I did, there wasn’t exactly time for a sit down meal. So I’d always make sure I had water and non-perishable snacks. Because we had to line up to get into each film — and most of the line-ups were outside — it was also important to be prepared for all kinds of weather. Into the knapsack went sun screen, a cap, a small collapsible umbrella and a lightweight sweater or jacket. And a book and the newspaper. And the Festival schedule of films in case I had a free hour or two and wanted to see another movie — as if 50 weren’t enough. Yes, there were years I did end up seeing a few extra films.

Are you wondering why, if I loved it so much, I don’t go anymore?

They cancelled the 50-movie pass. The prices were dramatically increased. And that wasn’t all.

To be honest, the prices alone wouldn’t have necessarily deterred me. It was just a once a year indulgence. But losing the 50-movie pass was a deal breaker for me. 

And so was the fact that the films became more mainstream. So much so, many of them open in theatres the day after they’re shown at the Festival. Which proved to be a bridge too far for me. That’s not why I went to the Festival. I went to see the independent films, the little films from all over the world and the documentaries.

So I stopped going. But I still think wistfully about those years. And Labour Day will always be more about the start of TIFF than the end of the summer for me.

6 thoughts on “Labour Day is upon us and it’s not the end of summer I’m thinking about …

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