Piers Handling had just ended a telephone call on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti — in which he urged the Cannes winner to visit the Toronto International Film Festival — when his colleagues quickly urged him to turn on his TV.
"There is a small plane that's gone into the World Trade Center," the TIFF CEO recalled being told before he and his staff — like people worldwide — became glued to news coverage of the terrorist attacks.
"We watched the [Twin Towers] come down and as soon as the towers came down, we just switched the televisions off and went into crisis mode," Handling said.
Immediately, TIFF executives shuttered the day's movie screenings and events. As the shock of the attacks sunk in, executives made the decision to carry on — albeit with a much more sombre version of the annual cinematic celebration.
"We were taking up all the red carpets. No sponsor introductions. All the parties were cancelled. The focus was just on the films. We took all the partying, the glitz and glam out of the festival and decided to continue," Handling said.
"We had no idea at the time if it was the right decision or not. We went into the cinemas the next day, very early, to see if there was an audience there for the films that had been rescheduled. Our audience was there...I think there was a desire for people in the city to get together in a community and actually share experiences and that was what the festival provided for them."
A decade on, TIFF is honouring that fateful day with a four-minute short by Toronto filmmaker Lucius Dechausay that will play before every public screening on Sept. 11.
The movie blends together the recollections of staffers, guests and filmgoers who were at the festival 10 years ago to "evoke what happened that day," said TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey.
"The film is really about what happened in that moment, when we were at this celebratory event, this horrible thing happened, people couldn't get home and what we did to get through it together."
The hope is that the film will inspire TIFF-goers to pause and reflect on their own memories of the day, he added.
TIFF specially commissioned its short on 9/11, but both Handling and Bailey believe that, generally, more time and distance are needed before filmmakers feel fully comfortable addressing the attacks themselves.
"It's still too early," Handling said.
"It's going to take a little bit more time for people to fully absorb what went on... It will take 20 to 25 years before it settles. Then people will want to frame it and feel like they're doing justice to what actually happened that day."