Homelessness, poverty recurrent themes at this year’s Toronto film fest

By , on September 15, 2014

Richard Gere Time Out Of Mind

TORONTO — A poverty-ridden America mired in unemployment and despair was on stark display at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where movie-makers and actors speculated that cinema is finally catching up with reality.

“It does seem like there’s some undercurrent of filmmakers trying to portray the world that we’re living in,” ‘Nightcrawler’ director Dan Gilroy said in an interview at the 11-day movie marathon. “And America is going through a lot of changes right now. A lot of changes.”

‘Nightcrawler’ features Jake Gyllenhaal as a disturbed, unemployed thief who re-invents himself as a Los Angeles crime paparazzo. He hires another frustrated job-seeker (played by British actor Riz Ahmed) as his sidekick.

Ahmed (‘Four Lions’) speculated that entertainment tends to initially become escapist in times of crisis, but eventually swings back to reality.

“I thinks it’s to be applauded, films that — shudder to think — might engage with the world around us and ask us some difficult questions while entertaining us,” he said at the festival. “I mean the (economic) crash was 2008. I think it’s taken a bit long to be honest… Like, it’s about bloody time we have a look at ourselves and say: ‘What’s going on in our society?'”

‘Nightcrawler’ was just one of several titles in Toronto that showcased characters struggling in a challenging economy.

‘Time Out of Mind’ features Richard Gere as a homeless New Yorker who finds himself navigating an unforgiving bureaucracy. Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie star in ‘Shelter,’ about a couple living on the streets of Manhattan. And in ’99 Homes,’ Andrew Garfield plays an unemployed Florida construction worker who is evicted and turns to desperate measures to support his family. Michael Shannon co-stars as a shady real-estate mogul.

Ramin Bahrani, who directed and co-wrote ’99 Homes,’ says his previous five films have dealt with social and economic themes At the fest, he spoke with a sense of urgency.

“The mass of people has to change things because we cannot do this,” said the filmmaker. “A handful of people seem to getting more and more and more rich to the point that they’re going to explode.”

“You can only simmer the pot for so long before the kettle starts to whistle, and then if you ignore the whistling of the kettle, the water’s going to overflow,” added Garfield when asked to speculate on the number of dark films at the fest. “And everyone’s going to get scorched.”

American directors are not the only ones reflecting economic hardship on film. Movie-making brothers Pierre and Jean-Luc Dardenne showcased ‘Two Days, One Night’ in Toronto, which stars Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as a laid-off factory worker.

Many directors say they hope their work will start a dialogue, shine a light on social issues — and possibly enact change.

For his part, Mackie said “Shelter” gave him a new perspective on homelessness.

“I always felt like people were homeless for a specific reason, be it by choice or just lack of effort and the more I researched and the more I learned, I learned there was such a wide variety of reasons,” said the actor, whose previous credits include ‘The Hurt Locker.’

“It was very surprising to me that someone who is considered very liberal and open minded could be so ignorant about the people around him, and the compassion that people deserve and should receive from one another.”

Such subject matter is not always easy to watch. At least one critic has suggested that ’99 Homes’ might hit too close to home for audiences, but Bahrani bristles at that notion.

“Of course it’s going to hit an audience, that’s the point,” he said. “People want this now.”

The Toronto International Film Festival wraps Sunday.

With files from Canadian Press film festival reporter Diana Mehta