On the opening day of TIFF 2013, I find myself reminiscing about my history with the festival, which I’ve been attending fairly regularly (with a few gap years here and there) since the mid ’90s.

The first time I was supposed to attend a TIFF screening, I was in my last year of high school and my friend Peter scored tickets to whatever Hal Hartley film was premiering that year. It was probably Flirt, because  ’95-96 was my grade 13 year (or OAC, as we used to call it in the olden days of the Ontario Academic Credit system), and that’s when Flirt came out.

I don’t really remember what film it was, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because I never made it to the screening. I got caught shoplifting instead. I was stealing Gravol, and I can’t even begin to tell you the nightmare chain reaction that began when my parents were called by store security and started to fear that maybe my friends and I were getting high off over-the-counter anti nausea meds. We weren’t (I’m not even sure it’s possible). We were just doing the completely idiotic things that teenage girls do, which apparently often involves shoplifting. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve compared this experience with those of my female friends, and apparently almost all of them have some history with stealing, even if it was just penny candies when they were eight years old. I don’t know what that’s about but it sounds like a fascinating research paper waiting to be written.

Who knew that behind this sweet face lay the heart of a thief?

What secrets lay behind that enigmatic frown?

Anyway, back to TIFF. I was far more heartbroken to have missed a Hal Hartley film that day than to have so embarrassingly ended my short lived career as a thief.

To backtrack a little: When I was 16, I came home one day and turned the TV on, as I almost always did after school. I watched a lot of TV in those days. We were still fairly fresh immigrants, and my parents worked long hours at multiple jobs. It was lonely and quiet at the apartment when they weren’t there, so I watched old sitcoms in syndication (Welcome Back Kotter and Cheers, most especially), reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and an endless parade of movies on the Movie Network, or whatever the still relatively new “all movies” channel was called back then.

On that day, 16 year old me sat down and started watching a film that had begun a few minutes before. I didn’t miss much, plot-wise. But I did miss the title, so I had no idea what the film was. Remember, this was pre-Google. It was even pre- there being a channel on the TV that listed what was playing. I had no way of finding out what this film was unless by some miracle one of my friends had also seen it at the same time. Spoiler alert: they didn’t, and it took me a damn year to find out what the film was.

I was completely mesmerized by the steely-eyed, trench-coat wearing, grenade toting male lead, the beautifully written dialogue and the strangely flat delivery that all the actors seemed committed to. I wasn’t a completely ignorant 16 year old. I’d been to the Cinematheque, I’d seen “art films”. They were usually foreign, and almost always a few decades old. But I had never seen a contemporary film – clearly American, too – that didn’t fit the mainstream Hollywood mould. And even though I was listening to bands like Pavement and Beat Happening, it never really occurred to me that “American indie” was a term that could apply to film too.

This man will make me swoon forever.

This man will make me swoon forever.

I was completely obsessed with this film. I memorized lines from it and recited them to other people in the hopes that they’d recognize them and tell me what it was. I checked the movie channel regularly, hoping to catch it again. Like I said, it took about a year. The film was Trust by Hal Hartley (this is the scene that made me fall in love). You can argue with me all you want that Simple Men or Surviving Desire is better, but for me, Trust will always be The One. It literally (and I do not mean figuratively) changed my life.

I still get weak in the knees when I see Martin Donovan’s face, and I can still recite lines from the film.

But back to TIFF. In 1995, I was heartbroken that my incredibly stupid decision to steal a drug I wasn’t even interested in taking prevented me from seeing one of his films on the big screen. I graduated from high school, never shoplifted again, and started attending TIFF on my own. I loved the whole process – yes, even getting up at 3am in order to line up to hand in my tickets. I bought tickets in advance but I especially savoured my time in rush lines, where I would meet other movie buffs, swap stories, and take (often fantastic) recommendations on what to see. One of my favourite rush line experiences goes back to – you guessed it – Hal Hartley. It was 1998, and my friend Eddy and I were hellbent on seeing Book of Life. Hartley had premiered Henry Fool the previous year, and was still on a pretty hot streak of great movies. I was out of my mind excited. We arrived four hours early in the rush line at the Cumberland. We sat in that cold alley next to the cinema and waited as other people were let into earlier films until we were at the front of the line. Even in 2013, four hours is excessive. In 1998, it was downright insane.

R.I.P., this alley

R.I.P., Cumberland alley

About three hours before the feature was scheduled to screen, another couple got in line behind us. “What film are you here for?” they asked, clearly puzzled. Turns out, they were also Hartley mega-fans who thought that arriving in the rush line three hours early would assure at they’d be first in line.

We spent our time in the line chatting like old friends, and of course, all four of us got in. We sat in the first or maybe second row, close enough that I had to crane my neck, anyway. Book of Life isn’t my favourite Hartley film but it’s pretty good, and that experience was totally fantastic.

PJ Harvey AND Martin Donovan? Everything I loved about the '90s in one film.

PJ Harvey AND Martin Donovan? Everything I loved about the ’90s in one film.

Not that I’m a jaded oldster with a fancypants industry pass to TIFF, I really miss those early days, in the lineups with the actual fans. These days, I contribute to Hal Hartley’s films on Kickstarter and don’t get to see them on the big screen, and that breaks my heart a little bit as well. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make here. Attending TIFF while I was in university was as valuable to me as the formal education I was getting. It changed the course of my life.

What was my point? Oh yeah: don’t fucking shoplift. Do go to TIFF.