Toronto Festival Honorees Celebrated for Creativity and Impact

Terence Blanchard

Variety Artisans Award

The Grammy-winning composer has been working with director Spike Lee for more than three decades, starting as a trumpet player on “Do the Right Thing,” graduating to composer on “Jungle Fever” and scoring all of Lee’s films since — earning an Oscar nomination for 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” and acclaim for “Da 5 Bloods” now playing on Netflix.

But he’s not only “Spike Lee’s composer,” as the rest of his 70-plus film and TV credits attest. He’s just finished eight episodes of HBO’s “Perry Mason” and has two scores debuting at Toronto, both for films by African American actors making their directorial debuts: Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” and Halle Berry’s “Bruised.” Blanchard is in greater demand than ever, yet he continues to be selective about his film work. He looks for projects that have meaning, both culturally and historically (such as last year’s “Harriet” and 2012’s “Red Tails”). “It’s very important and I do seek them out,” he says.

He lost a lot of work in the 1990s when he consistently turned down films with stereotyped images of African Americans. “I’m not going to be that guy,” he says. “I haven’t been that guy in my music career as a performer, and I don’t see the need to throw away that identity just to work in film.”
Powerful scores including those for Lee’s “Malcolm X” and “25th Hour” and the Hurricane Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke” followed. The larger world beyond Hollywood has begun to acknowledge his gifts, as his second opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” will be performed next year at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. A strong advocate for education, he tells his UCLA students what he believes: “You need to think about what you want to do with your art and all of the messages you want to convey.”

Tracey Deer

Emerging Talent Award, presented by MGM

As a “12-year-old Mohawk girl” growing up in Kahnawake, a Native American reserve in Quebec, Canada, Deer was repeatedly told that she would never achieve her dreams of becoming a filmmaker.

“I was a little indigenous girl growing up on a reserve, and the message I got over and over again was that this is impossible, it’s never going to happen, we don’t do that,” says Deer, whose debut feature, “Beans,” which recounts the Oka crisis, a violent 78-day standoff in 1990 between two Mohawk communities and the Quebec government, premieres at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

“I fought my way through all the naysayers,” says Deer, who’s directing, writing and producing credits include the 2005 documentary “Mohawk Girls,” a small-screen sitcom of the same name that ran from 2010-17, and the TV series “Anne With an E.”

“I got back up every time I was pushed down,” adds Deer.

“We had been aware of Tracey’s work for a long time, and we’ve been excited to see her first feature,” says Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director and co-head. “The story is very personal, and she tells the story with such heart and such empathy that you really see this part of Canadian history in an entirely new light. She’s going to be one of the leading indigenous voices globally in terms of the stories she tells.”
Deer’s goal with her film: “to open heart, to open minds.”

“I’m hoping to make the world a better place,” she says. “I’m feeling very idealistic and very optimistic.”

Anthony Hopkins

Tribute Actor Award

It’s hard to imagine a more befitting recipient of Toronto’s Actor Award than Hopkins. The thespian cut his teeth at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he was spotted by Laurence Olivier, who, in 1965, invited Hopkins to join the Royal National Theater. Ever since, Hopkins has delivered legendary performances on both stage and screen, roles ranging from Shakespeare’s King Lear to Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.” In 2020, Hopkins netted his fifth Oscar nom for his supporting role in “The Two Popes.” His next project, Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” premieres at TIFF.

“It’s an incredibly powerful performance,” says Joana Vicente, executive director and co-head of Toronto. “It just becomes so obvious as you’re seeing films when something jumps out, and he’s obviously always amazing, but also, I’m sure as an actor this was such an intense acting experience.”
“Sir Anthony Hopkins is an actor’s actor,” says Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director and co-head. “He’s the one other actors watch to see someone practice at the very top of their craft and he goes back decades—in television, on the stage, in film.”

Hopkins maintains a humble attitude to his widely touted artistic prowess. “I was lucky to get the part,” he says. “I didn’t go out to get it. I was called one day to meet Florian [Zeller] and [screenwriter] Christopher Hampton at the Bel-Air hotel for breakfast, and they wanted me to do it, which was much to my surprise and pleasant shock. I said, yes, of course. But it doesn’t take a genius to do it. Once you learn the text, you’re in pretty good shape.”

Mira Nair

Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media

Born in India and educated at Harvard University, Nair has been writing, directing and producing on both the documentary and feature film fronts since the late 1970s, breaking out with a trio of documentary projects: “Jama Masjid Street Journal,” “So Far From India” and “India Cabaret.” With her 1988 Oscar-nominated, Hindi-language crime drama, “Salaam, Bombay!,” a heartbreaking, unsparing look at the children living in the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai), Nair continued to establish herself as a force of cinematic excellence, helming such celebrated films as “Mississippi Masala” and “Monsoon Wedding.” Nair’s latest project, the six-part TV series “A Suitable Boy,” will close the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

For Joana Vicente, executive director and co-head of TIFF, selecting Nair as the recipient of the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media “made perfect sense.”
“This is an award where we really look for somebody in the industry that has an impact, someone that has been a transformational force throughout their career,” says Vicente. “Mira, not just through the films and the stories that she chooses to tell, but also through the work that she does in developing talent in East Africa and India and even in the U.S., has made such an impact. It’s part of who she is and her commitment as a filmmaker.

Kate Winslet

Tribute Actor Award

From her inaugural feature film role in Peter Jackson’s biographical crime drama “Heavenly Creatures” in 1994, to her star-making turn in James Cameron’s cinematic juggernaut “Titanic,” Winslet has consistently tackled intrepid, unconventional roles that have propelled her to the top of her craft. When she proclaimed, “Well, it’s not a shampoo bottle now!” of her Oscar statuette after nabbing the lead actress prize for her role in “The Reader,” Winslet further endeared herself both to industry insiders and fans far and wide. In her latest project, Francis Lee’s 19th century period drama “Ammonite,” Winslet plays English fossil hunter Mary Anning, an acclaimed pioneer for her contributions to the field of paleontology.

“It’s powerful, it’s raw — it’s one of the best performances of the year,” says Joana Vicente, executive director and co-head of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

“[Kate] has always been a daring actor, but I think you see her really, fully in command of what she can do in her craft,” adds Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director and co-head.

“Ammonite” also centers on a romantic relationship between Anning and British geologist Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).

“What’s wonderful about the film is that so often when we see stories that portray same-sex people in an intimate loving relationship, they’re often referred to as controversial or sensationalized, and this story is just a love story between two people,” says Winslet. “It happens to be a love story between two people of the same sex.”

Chloé Zhao

Ebert Director Award

Born and raised in Beijing, filmmaker Zhao’s 2015 debut feature “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” unspooled in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. In that film, Zhao captured the blazing spirit of two Indigenous siblings faced with myriad familial challenges as they navigate life on a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. In her 2017 drama, “The Rider,” Zhao charts the identity-seeking journey of a young cowboy in the American heartland. In her latest directorial effort, “Nomadland,” for which she also wrote the screenplay, Zhao explores the life of a woman in financial ruin (Frances McDormand) as she traverses the American West in a van.

“[Joana and I] are both big fans of Chloe Zhao,” says TIFF artistic director and co-head, Cameron Bailey. “She’s a unicorn. She is unlike any other American filmmaker, having come to the U.S. from China and immediately gravitating toward stories of outsiders in America that really tell the truth of what the United States is. In her first two features, she worked very closely with the Indigenous communities and focused on the Southwest and the Midwest of America, telling those grand epic stories we know from American cinema but from a completely different perspective.”
Bailey calls “Nomadland,” which will bow at TIFF, “a story about a true outsider.”

“In watching it, you feel like you understand this country better than films about its more mainstream heroes. Chloe has an eye for the landscapes and the people of the United States like very few other filmmakers right now.” l

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