Escaping the Lunchroom, or How to Survive Your First Film Festival

Stepping off onto the pavement, my overstuffed bags of unnecessary necessities mark me as the newbie. The rest, milling and seething with heads down because they don’t even need to look where they’re going, move with an assuredness reserved for the seasoned. The sun feels hotter for someone like me, sweating through my just-bought, too-crisp grown-up clothes. How is everyone else without tell-tale perspiration marks on their shirts? I pay no mind and shoulder my bag and head straight for the registration office, trepidatious and yet buzzing…

This precise memory of my first day of high school is all I can think of when I touch down on Festival Street in Toronto. This moment of elation, graduation and quiet terror, a moment it seemed only my thirteen-year-old self knew to navigate. And it’s in those vestiges of my teenage mind that I find the courage to enter rooms in which I, frankly, don’t feel I belong.

‘Adult Me’ knows better than to do that. But ‘Kid Me’ has just the right amount of blithe ignorance to say ‘yes’ to these new situations. Like getting my picture taken. Or being asked questions. Or standing before audiences keen to hear what I had to say. I felt the need to blurt out: “But wait, I think you’ve made a mistake. You realize it’s just me, right? Are you sure I’m not just blocking your view to someone more interesting? Are you sure you care to hear what I have to say?”

I was grateful that I had ‘upperclassmen’ friends who I could latch onto when the going got rough in those first days — or when I needed a party to go to, so I wouldn’t have to sit in my hotel room and anticipate waking up for my premiere the next day. First it’s agony over what to wear, then what to say, then where to look when the images are splayed on that wide, arching screen. And it’s best to assume that there will be no sleep had for the days before and after. And it’s best to assume there will be little digestion, either.

I’ll tell you what turned it around and got me out of my panicked, school lunchroom mindset:

Movies. Glorious movies.

I finished our premiere, said some things to people with microphones that I hope to God was sentient, and ran over to Roy Thomson Hall for an evening film. I flew into my seat, and looked around. I saw a temple to cinema, peopled by the celluloid-hungry masses. A hushed reverence. And it’s then that my mind dove back even further, back beyond the schoolyard to the days of sitting on my feet to see over the seats in that two-room cinema in my hometown.

To when Ariel sang for Prince Eric and Clint Eastwood always got the bad guy. And all is quiet. And the worry, and the fever and the anxiety fall away. And I wait for the lights to go dark on the hall and the screen to come alive. And I leave myself, long enough to sit in awe and remind my heart why I’m here in the first place.

The film finishes, my face is wet with tears, and I exit that beautiful building. The night is upon us, and I am relieved of all that consternation that kept me in fright for those first four days. Because I just saw a wonderful movie, in a beautiful room, hosted by a beautiful town and festival.

And from then on I greeted the interviews, and photos, and questions, and panels and parties with delight. Because who cares if I don’t do it ‘right’ and who cares if I’m not voted Most Likely to Whatever? I’m here, for this time, for these few days, participating in the history of something that is greater than me: an annual celebration of stories pitched against the dark, granting us leave from ourselves and communion with all the rest.

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