Western media students learn what it takes to be a film critic at TIFF

Western University students getting a taste of what it takes to be a film critic at one of the world's largest film festivals are in Toronto this week to screen premieres of independent films from the global south.

Students are screening independent, international films at the Toronto festival

Fans walk on King Street during TIFF.
Western Univeristy students are at the Toronto International Film Festival, learning how to critique films. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Western University students are getting a taste of what it takes to be a movie critic at one of the world's largest film festivals in Toronto this week.

Twenty students in Western's PhD Media Studies program are being bussed to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to watch and critique two films a day from Wednesday to Saturday.

Students are expected to see past the glitz and glamour of star-studded red carpet premiers, and engage in complex and imaginative writing through their critiques, said Nataleah Hunter-Young, an assistant professor in the London university's media studies program who spearheaded the project.

"The real objective was to get them to have that experience, to learn that this festival space is open to them as well, that they can play a part in this world," said Hunter-Young.

A major inspiration for bringing the students to the festival came from her hoping to see future critics engage with films in a more creative manner since there is no formal training.

woman on stage at TIFF 2023 giving a presentation.
Nataleah Hunter-Young spearheaded the idea to get students to learn how to write on films with a critical lens at TIFF. (Provided by Shawn Cheatham)

Most of the films that students will be reviewing are from are largely unknown, independent filmmakers from around the world, showcasing diverse stories for students to focus on, said Shawn Cheatham, a graduate student helping to co-ordinate the Film Festival Critics Lab.

"Watching with an enthusiastic crowd that really is engaged and excited is such a different experience for them and they'll have access to things they normally would never get a chance to see," said Cheatham.

man in black hoodie and glasses in front of picture mural and black sofa chairs
Shawn Cheatham, a graduate student co-ordinating the Film Festival Critics Lab, and other Western students are at the festival learning how to be film critics. (Provided by Shawn Cheatham)

They're also getting a behind-the-scenes look at how films land a spot at the festival and get picked up by a distributor thanks to Hunter-Young.

"The film festival world is this kind of hermetically sealed universe to filmmakers. A lot of us want to know how to get our films into big venues like TIFF and it's been really great to have that process broken down," Cheatham said.

The ongoing strike by actors and writers in Hollywood is also going to be touched on to highlight the connections between the makers, the financiers and the labourers who work on set and what the ripple effects could mean for the student's futures in the industry, he said.

A once in a lifetime opportunity

It's a dream come true for Santasil Mallik, an international student from India and a second-year PhD candidate in the program. It gives him the opportunity to share his love of films with people outside of academia by allowing him to write in a more accessible way.

"Having access to such a big festival which is connected on a global scale, attending screenings and getting to know the [film] industry up close is huge for me," said Mallik.

man in front of a tiff/bell/visa wall on a red carpet
Santasil Mallik is a second-year graduate student in the PhD program at Western University's Media Studies course. Before coming to Canada as an international student from India, Mallik was an independent filmmaker. (Provided by Santasil Mallik)

Billie Anderson, a fourth-year student in the program, is looking forward to seeing films that might never be commercially shown again in Canada and is excited to see how her classmates' diverse backgrounds and experiences will impact their critiques.

"We're all going to the same movies so I think it would be really cool to see all of the reviews at the end of this."

No Canadian content on the program

Most of the films the students are set to watch are from foreign filmmakers that are largely unknown in Canada, except among film buffs and festival-goers, Cheatham said.

While there are plenty of Canadian films being showcased, Western didn't choose any because they didn't line up with their scheduling.

"It's just the fact that TIFF has so many films from international filmmakers that we get the treat of seeing things like that," he said.

A large red logo reading TIFF stands in the middle of a street.

The films that students are critiquing include:

TIFF wraps up Sunday.


Mike spent his early life in Northern Ontario and Quebec before making London his home. He is a graduate of Fanshawe's Broadcast Journalism program and lives in the city with his family and three cats.