It's easy to get caught up in all the premières, parties and celeb spotting in Toronto during TIFF, but there are still groups getting their message out that some peoples still need help. Artists for Peace and Justice has been working in Haiti's poorest areas since before their devastating earthquake in 2010. They held a fundraising event at Toronto's AME, with the public being invited to pay $150 for a ticket to rub shoulders with some Hollywood Elite, like Gerard Butler, Jason Reitman and the founder of APJ, Ontario's Gemini, Emmy and Oscar winner Paul Haggis. Our very own George Stroumboulopoulos was hosting the event alongside them.
APJ are working to build schools in Haiti, have worked to prevent cholera and their ultimate goal is to build and run a university on the island. The $150 cost of the ticket will cover the cost of a uniform, books and supplies for an Academy for Peace and Justice student for a full school year. 100% of the money raised is going to APJ, and this year's event was a record breaker. Since 2009, the APJ events in Toronto have raised around $300,000. On Friday night, Haggis had raised over $400,000 before walking in the door, breaking their previous fundraising records.
We were lucky enough to have a word with the hosts:
What is it that keeps bringing you back to Toronto?
Paul Haggis: Well, it's Canada, and it's Toronto - I gotta come, right? No, I love it here. I love the film festival, I was born 100 miles from here so I've been coming to the festival since it began. I love it here.
Are you overwhelmed at all by all the positive response you're getting?
PH: I'm very grateful for it. Very grateful. We've raised over $400,000 tonight before walking in the door. That's pretty cool. Every year it doubles, and we'll raise a lot more. We really need the money - that school alone will cost us $1,000,000 a year to run and it's costing us several million to build. The land alone there cost us $1.6m to buy - things are expensive in Haiti, it's an island. We built our cholera centre very quickly, 36 hours before cholera got to Port-au-Prince we had a cholera centre open and we've had 10,000 patients so far. 5,000 of those would have died in 24 hours without it - most of those kids. Kids just die like that from cholera. We had it open and we're just really good at finding and trusting the right people. All Haitians, the folks that build our school - Haitian architects, Haitian structuralists, designers, Haitian engineers, same with everybody else - Haitian doctors. We bring in volunteers but still, I'm really proud that we're helping empower the people of Haiti and not walk in there as neo-colonialists and say 'I know what's best' - they make the decisions.
What made you want to work with our man George?
PH: Well George is a member of our board and one of the first people I reached out to when we decided to start APJ Canada. He's one of the most trusted voices in Canada and he's also - besides a great interviewer - a great guy. So I reached out to him right away and asked if he'd be a part of this and he said right away, absolutely. I was thrilled that he did.
George, you must be pretty proud to be not just part of APJ but on the board as well?
George Stroumboulopoulos: Yeah, I don't know that I'm proud as much as I'm excited. I mean, you know me right? You know that if I feel like I'm doing something then I feel like I'm not wasting my time as a human. I'm not unaware of how bizarre it is to have any kind of profile - you get a lot of perks. You're generally - especially Canadians - embarrassed about it so this is a chance to do what you're supposed to do as a human being, to do the stuff that will make my Mom happy, stuff that she taught me to do as a kid and to be around other people who really want to get it done. I'm really excited. Paul isn't one of those guys who does stuff for the profile, he does stuff 'cause he knows he can get stuff done. He doesn't give a sh*t about the profile. I think that's pretty remarkable.
And you're hoping to head out to Haiti yourself?
GS: Yeah, we're talking about the trip right now, just whenever we're not shooting - whenever we can get there.
Gerard Butler said his timing of finding out about APJ was a crazy coincidence:
I had been told about Artists for Peace and Justice - this sounds crazy - but two days before the earthquake. I'd been with my agents who were telling me about this great organisation who were already involved in Haiti. Two days after that, the earthquake happened. It almost seemed like weird synchronicity, y'know? A calling for me, and immediately I got in touch with Paul Haggis and said, 'what can I do?' He put the trips together so quickly and raised an incredible amount of money and basically went in. The first day they were on the scene and now are continuing this education program, and the food program. It's pretty incredible. What we're celebrating tonight is that we just basically opened the first wing of the school for 700 students and by the end of next year we'll be up at 3,000. That's a pretty incredible thing to pull off. There's a couple of different ways to go about it - you could be basic aid and just struggling with that or you can go in at this level which really looking at the long term future for the kids. It just gives me such a big smile to be involved with these guys 'cause I think it's beautiful.
We can't forget that this is TIFF, a film festival. Gerard is also here promoting the film Machine Gun Preacher - where he plays Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing biker who found God and became a crusader for hundreds of Sudanese children who've been forced to become soldiers. We asked if helping with APJ gave him a certain kinship with his character.
Butler: Absolutely it did yeah. It's not why I did it, because I didn't know I was going to do MGP at that point. What I witnessed when I went down to Haiti and just the nature of what they do and what I saw - the same as anybody else - is very similar to what Sam Childers experienced when he first went down to Africa and came across things so powerful as to almost be unbelievable and change his whole life. So, y'know, yeah. I definitely was fed a lot by my experience.