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It's that time of year in this city when the Evian flows like tap water. The streets of Yorkville are congested with stretch limousines, with cell-phone Sallys who haunt moviehouses in search of the next "Blair Witch Project." You overhear a snippet of conversation that begins "Harvey's strategy," and-even before the key phrase "Print ads for 'Brassed off' were bigger than the ones for `Men in Black'"- you have no doubt that the Harvey in question is indeed Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein. The 24th Toronto International Film Festival has taken over. What a bizarre movie it would make. But then, Eva Ziemsen already knows that. She has her Sony video handicam pointed at the red carpet unrolled for the opening gala screening of Canadian director Atom Egoyan's new movie, "Felicia's Journey."

It's not what you would expect of red carpet -- you know, some blood-red velvety fabric that Liv Tyler's heels would slice into like a knife through Haagen Dazs. No, the carpet leading into Roy Thompson Hall, the one that dozens of stars will stride over throughout the 10-day festival is . . . this can't be . . . there must have been a mix-up at the cleaners . . . shag.

Fifteen feet of cherry red shag. Which should really offer some comfort to the rest of us. All that time we spent trudging around college dorm rooms, hospital waiting rooms and rec rooms decorated in 1975, we were actually getting the red carpet treatment.

"I'm making a documentary about the festival," explains Ms. Ziemsen, a 19-year-old ultra-earnest York University freshman who asks a bystander to move her purse to her other shoulder, please, because it's spoiling her shot.

"This documentary is about my envy of all the people seeing these films when about half of them are just here to network. This is about the irony of people who really should get to see these movies to inspire them to do better films -- people like me -- but they can't because they don't have the money.

"What's an all-access ticket cost -- 300 bucks? That's rent.
That's food."

Think "Roger and Me" meets "The Player": Ms. Ziemsen plans to gussy up for other gala screenings and worm her way in. She eyes the laminated almost-all-access pass that press and industry types wear around their necks, wondering out loud if she could forge one. "It's terribly illegal -- oh, darn -- but that's what these festivals make you do."

Regrettably, the budding documentarian missed a prime minicam moment by about 15 minutes.

An hour before Thursday's premiere began, about 100 members of the media-savvy Ontario Coalition Against Poverty decided to cut the rug. Out of the picture, that is. The demonstrators gathered across the street from Roy Thomson Hall chanting into megaphones, "The films may be nice, but the homeless pay the price" and waving signs with such catchy slogans as "Nice limo, can we sleep in it?"

Police on horseback diverted celebrities, including the movie's stars -- Bob Hoskins and Irish newcomer Elaine Cassidy -- to a side door. As a result, they missed the controversy, the crush of would-be star-gazers and their red (shag) carpet strut. Talk about scene stealing. One of the panhandling protesters even received a $100 handout.

'Please don't approach her'

The festival is a celebration of film -- of independent film and future blockbusters, of edgy experimental short features and emerging directors. It's about art, damnit.

But isn't that Minnie Driver I spy trying on leather jackets in Roots?

"Please don't approach her," implores one of the employees of the store, Canada's answer to the Gap but without as many khakis. In dark aviator shades, a blue denim dress with a little ruffle at the bottom and navy sneakers, Driver conceals herself behind a rack of sweaters. "The lavender one" -- she points to a $600 jacket across the aisle.

The following night, Driver is spotted again, this time at a post-reception party for the black comedy "American Beauty."

A Double Driver. Ho hum.

This is how ogling starts: The first day of the festival you're so hungry to catch a glimpse of fame that everyone starts looking famous to you. You think you see Jewel, but then realize the woman is emerging from a University of Toronto lecture hall. At the beginning, even secondhand sightings count -- the Roots saleswoman who tells you that Andy Garcia and his mom were just in buying festival T-shirts.

By day three, however, you start becoming finicky. You'll stand for nothing less than A-list glitterati. You want to see lots of celebrities once, not a few of them twice. Eye contact is a must.

Micah Meisaer, who insists that he watched Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman's wife stuff hors d'oeuvres into her bag at the festival's opening night party at the Skydome, is evidently at the beginning of his star search. "My friend thought he saw Marty Scorsese" -- yes, a festival box office worker calls Scorsese 'Marty' -- "but he actually saw a version of Scorsese circa 1978."

As he speaks, Meisaer's gaze shifts between the industry execs riding the Ferris wheel at one end of the Skydome and, at the other, Jason Priestley mugging for the cameras inside the white picket fence that separates the V.I.P.'s from the rest of the revelers.

Desperately seeking autographs

Outside the Four Seasons Hotel, take one. A suspicious-looking loiterer lingers outside the parking garage. Four men wearing FBI-style earphones cluster near the ramp. We quickly learn that the four work for the hotel and are responsible for ensuring that the red carpet crowd enjoys hassle-free entrance to and egress from their limos.

The loiterer's job is the opposite. He's not just an autograph hound, but an autograph Rottweiler. He pays the rent by getting signatures that he then sells to the highest bidder.

"I have to figure out if Elton John is coming. I called his publicist, and he said he hadn't booked a plane for him. But, you know, if he came here, Elton John would probably f-----' helicopter onto the roof of the Four Seasons because he'd get mobbed by collectors," sneers John Hancock, refusing to reveal his real name.

His friends, less experienced versions of him who join in the pursuit, are clearly impressed by Hancock's success. "This guy has gotten 15 Michael Stipes," one gushes.

Just as the shooter in the group pulls out a picture he shot of Jimmy Smits giving him the finger, someone shouts "Eric Stooooltz!"

The group tears across the street, pulling paper out of their backpacks as they go. Stoltz obliges, gives them signatures, smiles for the camera, and they return to the Four Seasons breathless and victorious.

An hour later, John Hancock's intended target makes for his stretch limo. But Hancock has let his guard drop.

Rather than watching the door for Bob Hoskins, he's inspecting a pimple in the sideview mirror of a Federal Express truck. When someone alerts him that it's showtime, he whisks a black and white glossy of Hoskins out of his backpack and slips past the Four Seasons crew. "Bob, Bob, can you sign? Would you sign? Bob? Can you sign?"

"Not today, sorry," Hoskins dismisses him, fading to black behind tinted windows.

One of his friends puts the loss into perspective.

"Big deal -- some old guy."

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