Epic yet Intimate: the 2023 Windsor International Film Festival

November 1, 2023

The Taste of Things | Photo by Carole-Bethuel. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Is WIFF the new TIFF? Members of the Toronto Film Critics Association attended this year’s Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) and enjoyed a jam-packed weekend of screenings and events. The robust line-up is curated by festival director Vincent Georgie and features a choose-your-own-adventure smorgasbord of award season hopefuls, Canadian films, documentaries, and independent works. There are no egos at WIFF—just a pure love for movies that brings a sparkle to the eyes of festivalgoers and festival staff alike.

The festival also features an important snapshot of our national cinema with the $25,000 WIFF Prize in Canadian Film. This year’s selection included TFCA member Peter Howell on the jury and saw the prize go to Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person, which delivered on the promise of its novel title for the jury. The first feature by Ariane Louis-Seize beat out some stiff competition that included Matt Johnson’s Blackberry, Sophie Dupuis’ TIFF champ Solo, Atom Egoyan’s Seven Veils, and Louise Archambault’s one-two punch of Irena’s Vow and One Summer.

Here are some highlights from the 2023 Windsor International Film Festival.

What defines the WIFF experience for you?

Simply put, WIFF has perhaps the best pound-for-pound programming in the entire country, rivalling far larger festivals like TIFF and VIFF with an impressive selection of festival favourites, francophone selections, and cherished classics that play over its 11-day schedule with little in the way of dreck. It’s an astonishing feat, only surpassed by world class logistical and technical prowess, from the simple yet effective graphic design, the well laid-out printed schedules, the well-trained and friendly volunteer staff, even the simple yet welcome gift bags stuffed with care to make out-of-town guests feel at home. It truly is a gem on the Canadian festival calendar, but it also shows events around the world how a relatively small community can truly shine with its celebration of cinema.

There’s still some things to work on, from improved Q&A structures to even greater outreach to other underserved areas of Southern Ontario, and, as always, some films had better attendance as others. Plus, there are obvious benefits that would be gained by having patrons cross the river from the U.S. in numbers to see some of the best films of the year with excellent projection, which feels like an impossible dream. But given how well run the rest of the event is, it’s certainly within the possibility that this festival can grow into something even more impactful, all while hopefully holding onto its preternaturally welcoming air and its commitment to films that both entertain and engage. – Jason Gorber

The sense of community. From the organizers and volunteers to the audience, the festival inspires an undeniably familial atmosphere for the city’s film lovers. Adding to the communal sense is how close the venues are to each other, which creates an almost campus-like feel. Having not been to Windsor since I was a kid, I was surprised by how small-town the relatively large city felt as neighbours waved to one another from across the street and coffee shop-goers greeted one another warmly on a chilly Saturday morning. Combining the feel of the city with their love for movies (especially Canadian fare), Windsor stands out as a real hidden gem among the many film festivals across the country. – Rachel Ho

I think there are two things that really define the Windsor International Film Festival. One echoes what Jason said: the programming. There is just a tonne of options—quality ones at that!—and films that didn’t play some major Toronto festivals. Those of us feeling major FOMO could finally see films like The Taste of Things or Priscilla, but there’s also a chance to catch up with films we missed at other fests, like TIFF People’s Choice winner American Fiction, which had a line-up that wrapped around the block and brought the house down. But the schedule is so loaded that one can zip from one film to the next and still miss lots of goodies. For someone like me who sees roughly 60 films at TIFF and Hot Docs, Toronto-grade festival-going is actually amateur hour. One Windsorite I chatted with said that his schedule had 82 films! The other factor that makes WIFF great is the intimacy. Yes, it has a whopper of a line-up, but it’s a manageable festival in terms of size and structure with everything within a five-minute walk. The team makes the effort to know its attendees, both industry delegates and civilians alike, and will make you feel cozy and welcome. It’s so nice to attend a festival where everyone knows your name! – Pat Mullen

Best Film of the Festival

Only attending for the first weekend, and having seen a significant number of films that were programmed ahead of the fest, I need to highlight exceptional Cannes titles such as Anatomy of a Fall and Zone of Interest, or Berlinale gems like Blackberry, that saw their local premieres. I caught a few films that had slipped by, but a rewatch of the delicious Pot-au-Feu (now renamed The Taste of Things, and with French title La passion de Dodin Bouffant still being a mouthful) as the opening film proved that the meal was as tasty the second time served. Trần Anh Hùng’s film was a somewhat controversial pick for France’s Oscar submission, yet for me, its captivating use of food as a form of seduction, its impeccable navigation of the societal changes in post-Revolution France that echo in every haute-cuisine kitchen to this day, and its downright erotic use of copper pots, exotic ingredients, and gluttonous portions makes this easily the best film I saw during my stay in Windsor, echoed only by the many fine meals I got to partake in with friends old and new alike. – JG

The entire lineup of the festival is beautifully curated with a particularly standout selection of Canadian films vying for the WIFF Prize in Canadian Film. Although I got to catch American Fiction while at Windsor (which truly is as good as everyone says), the film sticks with me the most is UFO Sweden. Following a high school student whose father went missing when she was a child, her belief that she was abducted by aliens consumes her thoughts. What results is an adventure that many of us dreamed of as kids — one that involves government cover ups, riverbed discoveries, and multi-dimensional jumping — coming to life before our eyes. UFO Sweden was on my list early and it didn’t disappoint. – RH

If the prawn scene in I Am Love gave you an orgasm, then The Taste of Things will make your heart, belly, and genitals explode. I was skeptical of WIFF’s choice to open with a French film that runs two and a half hours, but the film flies by and intoxicates a cinephile with its rich serving of food and film. A never-better Juliette Binoche stars as a chef who satisfies her employer (Benoît Magimel) through the love language of food. Binoche simply glows from within and radiates the joie de vivre that exists only in French kitchens. The food is also exquisitely ridiculous. The Taste of Things an easy call for “best of the fest” and is quickly rising in my list of the best films of the year. It will leave you both hungry and satisfied.

I also have to give a shout-out to WIFF’s Canadian programming, since the $25,000 WIFF Prize in Canadian Film is a festival calling card. While my TIFF favourite Solo held as the best of the competition, of the films I hadn’t seen elsewhere, My Mother’s Men by Anik Jean completely floored me. The singer’s first feature as a director is a deeply moving ensemble piece about family, love, and the relationships that get us through the best and worst times of our lives. Meanwhile, M.H. Murray’s I Don’t Know Who You Are also knocked me out, especially Mark Clennan’s performance. While it didn’t get a slot among the competition titles, it stands among the most impressive Canadian works of the year. – PM

Pro Tip

Get a Nexus card and schlepp over to Detroit. It’s a wonderful city worth exploring as well between films, and if you take time to explore some of the fine food on that side, or even as I did hit up record stores in Lincoln Park and Royal Oak, grab some amazing chocolate milk at Calder Dairy, and bring back an obscene amount of salty snacks from Trader Joe’s, it makes the schlepp all that more worthwhile. Hitting a few Essex county wineries on the way home was a new treat this year, while sharing a medium pizza at Antonino’s minutes after arrival in town seems a tradition bound to be repeated. – JG

I’m not a big popcorn fan but What’s Poppin’ popcorn is absolutely fantastic. The Windsor-made snack is for sale at the Armouries and Capitol Theatre, and at their factory that’s about a five-minute drive from the core festival area — worth stocking up. (I brought home two bags of Cheddar & Pickle and two bags of White Cheddar.) Also, for the physical media collectors, Dr. Disc Records on Ouellette Ave. has a great collection of new and used records and a healthy selection of Blu-Rays and DVDs (and some books!). -RH

Plan your 5:00pm and 7:00pm films smartly. While a festivalgoer can quickly zip from one film to the next during the other time slots, the 7:00pm screenings generally fill up. This may mean looking at the 5:00pm options and then checking the other screening times for those films if you really care about a prime seat. If that’s the case, grab an early dinner around and then get in line. If you’re fine stumbling over folks for whatever random seat is available, though, power to you and see that extra film! Also, make sure to stop by Maiden Lane for cocktails after the show. They put some of Toronto’s best watering holes to shame! -PM

Would You Return?            

If I’m not back next year, hopefully for even longer than the few days we attended, something very wrong has gone on indeed. – JG

Absolutely! I’ll have to remember to bring my passport next time so I can head into Detroit for Mom’s Spaghetti. -RH

For sure. I actually planned my TIFF schedule anticipating a return to WIFF this year and will do the same in 2024. It checks every box for what you want in a festival. – PM

WIFF runs through November 5, 2023.