TIFF’s director of film programs on what makes this the ultimate screen city.

Jesse Wente remembers the movie that got him hooked on film: Star Wars when it first played in 1977. Today, as the director of film programs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, he gets to live his passion every day.

Jesse Wente

That’s especially true each September, during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). “It’s a huge event, and you get to experience something you may never experience again,” he says. “And we now have the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which screens films year-round. You can come any day of the week and be transported by the magic and beauty of the cinema.”

Outside the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre at night on King Street West
TIFF Bell Lightbox plays host to numerous other Toronto film festivals

TIFF shares its illustrious digs with a number of other film festivals, including Inside Out, Hot Docs and imagineNATIVE. And that’s only part of Toronto’s screen action.

“Toronto loves a good festival,” says Wente. “There seems to be a film festival almost every weekend except Christmas and New Year’s. It’s wonderful to be a part of something where you really feel you’re at the edge of new cinema and in the moment. The festival allows you to be among the first to experience a film before it comes to a theatre near you, before there are reviews. You get to bring fresh eyes to a film and usher it into the wider world.”

Does one TIFF moment top all the rest? “I went to see Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville—almost a perfect movie, and I’ve watched it dozens of times—because Chow Yun-Fat was introducing the screening,” Wente says. “This was at his apex of stardom. He was maybe the biggest star on the planet. The limo pulled up, and he got out in a full white silk suit. And it was at that moment I think I understood the idea of a movie star. Those moments allow even someone who’s spent two decades in the business to get goosebumps—I fall in love with movies all over again.”