Festival Daily

By Hailey Eisen

When Canadian documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor agreed to show me around her Toronto, it seemed only appropriate that we begin at the University of Toronto’s scenic Philosopher’s Walk – a pathway that runs through the school’s downtown campus. An academic and writer, Taylor made her second feature documentary, Examined Life, with the intention of taking philosophy out of the classroom and into the streets. Presenting some of today’s most influential thinkers, including Cornel West, Judith Butler and Michael Hardt, Taylor’s film takes us from New York’s Fifth Avenue to San Francisco’s Mission District to Toronto’s Pearson Airport as nine philosophers discuss their theories and beliefs.

“I didn’t want them sitting down and talking at the camera,” says the 28-year-old, Winnipeg-born director. “Walking allows for motion and change of scenery and the possibility of interacting with your surroundings.” It was for this very reason that I suggested Taylor meet me for a walk on an afternoon in late August. Though she was somewhat sleep-deprived (having just taken the red-eye in from New York), she was buzzing with anticipation for her film’s premiere at the Festival and thrilled to share her Toronto recommendations with locals and visitors alike.

While she has only lived in the city for about eight months, she has already scoped out its different neighbourhoods. “When you come from out of town for the Festival, you often think Yonge Street is all there is,” says Taylor, who was based in Montreal when her first feature, Žižek!, premiered at the Festival in 2005. To get a wider sense of Toronto, “you want to either take the Queen streetcar east to Leslieville or get on the Dundas streetcar and head west.”
We wander along the shaded walkway, heading north toward a café on Bloor Street. As we order large iced coffees, Taylor tells me that her entire family is coming to the Festival this year, including her sister Sunaura Taylor, an artist who is featured alongside Judith Butler in Examined Life. Taylor’s mother grew up in Yorkville in the 1960s, and the filmmaker is excited to show her family how much the city has evolved. 

An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, Taylor finds inspiration in Toronto’s many alternative bookstores. She loves all things non-fiction, admitting, “I’m really immune to melodrama – I just think reality is so far-out as is it.”

While editing her film at the National Film Board, Taylor visited Pages Books & Magazines (256 Queen Street West) at least every other day. “They have a great selection of philosophy and cultural theory titles, and just browsing through the store helps you learn what’s new and what you should be informed about,” she says.

For a lovingly selected collection of books and magazines, Taylor recommends the independent bookshop This Ain’t The Rosedale Library (86 Nassau Street), which just moved to its new home in Kensington Market after more than 20 years on Church Street. Ten Editions Books (698 Spadina Avenue), a second-hand gem filled with everything from cheap paperbacks to antique tomes, is located just south of Bloor Street. And finally, before any visit to Trinity Bellwoods Park, Taylor stops into Type Books (883 Queen Street West), an independent boutique bookstore that just opened its second location on Spadina Avenue in Forest Hill Village.  

Once you’ve stocked up on reading materials, Taylor suggests a trip to Ward’s Island, the ideal place to seek respite from the chaos of the Festival. Costing just $6.50 for a return trip, the ferry leaves from the foot of Bay Street and Queen’s Quay. “With no cars allowed on the island, you’re in an ideal universe where every house is a quirky work of art,” she says. “There is something very magical and otherworldly about this place.”

As we finish our coffees and Taylor prepares to go meet some friends, there’s just one final thing I’ve been anxious to ask: “What is it you hope Examined Life will accomplish?” Her response is as eloquent and beautiful as the film itself. “If it inspires some people to pause and ponder how they came to hold the beliefs they do, to question the ethical assumptions and preconceptions they take for granted, or to reconsider their responsibilities to others or to see a problem in a new way, I’ll be content,” she says. “But, I’ll be really pleased if, after watching the movie, they get swept up in the enthusiasm of this process and find it to be an irresistible pleasure.”

Examined Life
Sept. 5, 5:15pm, AMC 9
Sept. 7, 10:00am, AMC 9
Sept. 13, 9:15am, AMC 2