In a rare and historic moment, actors and writers united in simultaneous strikes, marking the first such occurrence since 1960, a significant milestone predating the inaugural Toronto International Film Festival by 16 years. Despite this backdrop of labour activism, the fifth annual TIFF Tribute Awards still managed to draw an impressive lineup of renowned figures who gathered on Sunday evening at the opulent Fairmont Royal York Hotel. This gala dinner serves as both a fundraiser for the festival’s philanthropic endeavours and a potential precursor to the coveted Oscars.
This year, the spotlight shone brightest on the distinguished honoree Spike Lee, whose contributions extend beyond the ongoing awards season. Spike Lee was bestowed with the Ebert Director Award, presented by TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey, acclaimed filmmaker Barry Jenkins (who lauded Lee as “one of the finest filmmakers of our era” and expressed gratitude for his enduring support of Black filmmakers), and Chaz Ebert, widow of the late film critic Roger Ebert. Chaz Ebert acknowledged the rarity of being a Black woman at a film festival led by a Black man, presenting an award to a prominent Black filmmaker.
Spike Lee received a heartfelt and extended standing ovation, during which he expressed deep appreciation for the pivotal role Roger Ebert played in his career. Lee emphasized how Ebert staunchly supported him at a critical juncture when other critics, whom he mentioned by name, speculated that his 1989 masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing,” might incite unrest within Black audiences.
In contrast, this year’s other Tribute Award recipients all have films featured in the ongoing 48th edition of TIFF. Colman Domingo, acclaimed for his roles in festival films like “Rustin” (which has already generated significant Oscar buzz for his performance) and “Sing Sing,” received the Tribute Performer Award. Clement Virgo, who directed Domingo in the upcoming Netflix limited series “The Madness,” paid tribute to him as “an exceptional talent, an extraordinary individual, and a remarkable human being.” In his acceptance speech, Domingo underscored the importance of “service” and aspired to inspire others through his 33-year journey in the entertainment industry.
The second Tribute Performer Award was presented to Luxembourg-German actress Vicki Krieps, who graced the festival with her presence in “The Dead Don’t Hurt.” Viggo Mortensen, the director of the film, praised Krieps, stating that she exceeded all expectations with “a fierce originality and a radiant presence that hints at immense inner strength.”
The esteemed recipient of this year’s Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media, the legendary Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, graced the festival with a narrative short film he directed, titled “Strange Way of Life.” David Linde, representing Skoll’s Participant Media, expressed how collaborating on four films with this auteur had been a highlight of his career. Almodóvar dedicated his well-deserved honour to the Iranian director Ali Ahmadzadeh, who recently faced legal challenges for his award-winning work in “Critical Zone.” He also extended his thoughts to the actors currently on strike, expressing hope for a resolution that benefits all parties involved.
Lukasz Zal, the accomplished cinematographer behind the beloved festival gem “The Zone of Interest,” was honoured with the Variety Artisan Award. Ethan Hawke, praising Zal’s work as “staggering” and “inspirational,” presented this prestigious accolade.
Adding to the festival’s star-studded lineup, Oscar-winning actress Patricia Arquette, who received the Share Her Journey Groundbreaker Award, was present with her directorial debut, “Gonzo Girl.” Her film was introduced by its stars, Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone, with Morrone marvelling at the versatility of Arquette, who wears numerous hats in the industry.
Furthermore, Shawn Levy, renowned for his role as director and executive producer of “Stranger Things,” attended the festival with his limited series, “All the Light We Cannot See,” which received an enthusiastic standing ovation during its screening. Levy was honoured with the inaugural Norman Jewison Career Achievement Award, recognizing his significant impact on the global film industry. Taika Waititi, also present at the festival with his own awards season film, “Next Goal Wins,” presented this well-deserved honour to Levy.