The Toronto International Film Festival, otherwise known as TIFF, is one of the largest publicly attended film festivals in the world. Tomorrow, September 5, begins the festival and it is sure to engulf eager audiences once again with a stellar lineup of thought-provoking, challenging films.
Artistic director of TIFF, Cameron Bailey is in his second year as co-head of the festival. Under his direction, the festival has a slate of films that will enlighten as much as they entertain, and that includes a plethora of films about the Black diaspora.
“It’s always hard to pick,” he said when speaking with S&A about the “terrific lineup” of films audiences might love to see this year. “But I will say I’m excited for audiences to see Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. I think it’s one of the most powerful films we saw all year.”
Bailey also mentioned Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, saying that it is “a story that should have been told.” Other films Bailey highlighted included Dolemite Is My Name starring Eddie Murphy and directed by Craig Brewer, and the film adaptation of American Son with Kerry Washington reprising her stage role. More films across the diaspora will include UK director Sarah Gavron’s Rocks and French director Mati Diop’s Atlantics. Earlier this year, Diop became the first Black woman in Cannes history to win an award by taking home the Jury Grand Prize. Bailey talked about the film’s resonating quality, and shared similar praise for the South African selection Flatland by Jenna Bass.
The TIFF Cinematheque selection this year also tells a story of South Africa. A Dry White Season, directed in 1989 by Euzhan Palcy–the first Black woman to direct a studio film in Hollywood–and starring Marlon Brando, Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Zakes Mokae, brings to life writer André Brink’s story of political awakening in Johannesburg during the height of Apartheid.
Having a film selected for inclusion happens by either one of two ways. “One is just through the submissions process where filmmakers send in their films and programmers watch those films and they get passed up the chain until a decision is made,” said Bailey. “And then our programmers are also going out looking for films. We’re talking to filmmakers, producers, film companies that represent films and we’re attracting them all year round and as soon as they’re ready, and then inviting them from there as well.” The vast array of programmers and program associates “are doing that for months and months at a time.” It’s a rigorous process.
But that process also includes finding stories that resonate with diverse audiences, reflecting the times we live in as well as the demographics of those in attendance.
“The programming committee is charged with finding the best films and films that represent the world to bring to Toronto every year,” he said. “This year there are films from 84 different countries and that kind of regional diversity is very important to us…We also just want to make sure that our audience feels they are able to see some part of themselves on screen. Toronto is a very diverse city; [about] half of the people who live in Toronto were not born in Canada. They bring a wide range of experiences.”
Those experiences also include the press corp that comes to TIFF. In response to news that film criticism is overwhelmingly represented by white, male writers, TIFF has taken it upon itself to upend that statistic. Bailey said that last year, TIFF added “200 underrepresented journalists” and are “continuing that this year.”
“We’ve got to have a wider range of perspectives on those films,” he said. “That’s important…The wider range of opinions you have the better. The more informed opinions you have, the better.”
Bailey knows all about the importance of having diverse opinions on a film. Before he added onto his role of TIFF’s artistic director by becoming co-head, Bailey was a film critic, writing for Cinema Canada, Now Magazine and extending his film criticism into social action by working with Full Screen and the Black Film and Video Network. Bailey talked about the similarities there are in being both a programmer and a film critic.
“When I was a critic, I had to always understand how films work, what makes one film work better than another. That’s somewhat subjective, but you have to bring the technical demands in as well. As a programmer, a big difference is that a programmer is also looking to see how a film works with an audience,” he said. “A programmer is also advocating for the film to be selected too, so the programmer is on the side of the filmmaker” he noted.
“As a critic, you’re supposed to be impartial, so you have to exercise a neutral eye with the films you’re watching. But for the films we show at the festival, we show them because we love them, and we want the audience to see them and love them too,” he continued. “We’re champions of those filmmakers. That’s one of the big differences. When I was a film critic, I was always looking for…alternative voices from the mainstream. I was interested in [that because] the wider range of perspectives we have, the more we can understand each other. And that is one thing that we [think about] as a programmer.”
TIFF is just one of the many ways people are finding entertainment that speaks to them. Whereas several in the film industry feel threatened by other avenues, such as Netflix and other streaming networks, Bailey is happy about the added accessibility audiences now have.
“I’m just happy if people get to see great movies. There are lots of different ways for people to see great movies, we’re one place, but there are a lot of different places. As long as we are a way that films find their way to audiences, I’m happy to be a part of it. We don’t have to be the only way.”
TIFF might not be the only way audiences can learn about great films, but it’s definitely one of the biggest ways out there. Thankfully, this year’s lineup is shaping up to be no exception.
Photo: Mike Epps in ‘Dolemite is My Name’ | Courtesy of Netflix