TIFF has faced many difficulties in its 45 years, but this year is its greatest challenge yet
We speak with festival co-head and artistic director Cameron Bailey on running the festival during a pandemic
For the past 45 years, the Toronto International Film Festival has continuously had to reinvent itself — first to develop, then to defend, its reputation as one of the greatest film festivals in the world. However, this year has been less about fighting for world premieres and more about sustaining cultural relevance and economic survival in the midst of a pandemic.
Since its inception in 1976 as the Festival of Festivals, TIFF has had its fair share of unforeseeable issues to respond to — labour strikes, protests, economic shifts, the Sept. 11 attacks. But, despite that, artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey understands the magnitude of this moment.
"This is certainly the biggest challenge I've seen TIFF face," he says.
Bailey and co-head Joana Vicente had the daunting task of scaling back the festival this year, starting with the selections: they cut the number of titles by about 80 per cent. And bans on non-essential travel prevented international directors, stars and industry leaders from coming to the city. (California-based NBA player Steph Curry and his wife, Ayesha — who's a Canadian citizen — made the masked trip through customs for a TIFF date night, however.)
On top of that, TIFF Bell Lightbox has been closed since March, and in June the economic downturn forced 31 full-time staff layoffs. Just over a week before opening night, TIFF banded together with 40 other international film festivals to call for government support due to the impact of COVID-19. Despite all this, instead of cancelling the festival, the reduced team got resourceful, introducing online screenings, virtual press conferences and drive-in theatres — in addition to socially distanced physical shows — for the first time in TIFF's history.
As Bailey reminds us, as a leader in arts and culture, TIFF also responded to the cultural reckoning this year, which has seen numerous institutions called out for their long-standing systemic anti-Black practices. This is not surprising considering this year marks the festival's 25-year anniversary of Planet Africa — a program which attempts to address many of the inequities Black filmmakers are still fighting for today. In July, TIFF also invited leaders in the Canadian arts sector to the virtual table for a conversation around combating anti-Black racism, moderated by CBC Arts's own Amanda Parris. Hundreds of artists, filmmakers and industry leaders attended.
"I'm heartened by the fact that Canada's screen institutions — which is, I guess, my world — have to confront systemic racism," Bailey says.
This year has been defined by a pandemic and a political movement, which has shifted power dynamics and demanded structural change that arts institutions, including TIFF, can no longer ignore. The festival's success is partly due to programming talks and films that resonate with the racially diverse audience it serves. Even this year, at a time when we are normally distracted by red carpets and camera flashes, the festival has, through its programming, done its part to open a dialogue from the perspective of women and Black filmmakers.
We caught up with Bailey just a few days before TIFF began, while the Lightbox was closed to the public. He has a lot of weight on his shoulders, and even though the festival is quieter than in years past, it's clear his commitment to the transformative power of film is still as firm and purposeful as ever.
"These national screen institutions have to take a closer look because they have been asked to reflect the full range of society in a bigger way," he says. "And time's up. We have to actually do it."