Festival Daily

Who: Piers Handling, Director of the Toronto International Film Festival and CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival Group
Where: The Library Bar at the Royal York Hotel, 100 Front Street West
When: 6:15pm
What: A glass of shiraz and a cranberry spritzer

Kate Lawrie sits down with Piers Handling in the hush of the Library Bar to chat about the role of film festivals, the atomization of culture and why silent filmmakers are still the bomb.

KL: What has changed with the Festival since you first joined?

PH: The attention. Everything’s just gotten bigger, with more attention on every part of the Festival: the public, the industry, the media and the talent. Twenty years ago, one out of every three or four films would have a director attending. Now it’s virtually every film in the programme. I think the internationalization of the Festival has grown enormously during this period.

KL: Have you ever been told anything really surprising about TIFF?

PH: Some really wonderful people (like Patricio Guzmán, whom I respect enormously) have said that we’re doing a wonderful job, but that as it gets bigger, with more spotlight, more attention, we just have to be really conscious and aware of preserving what made us who we are – that incredible spark. I guess what does surprise me is how universal the sense is among so many filmmakers that it’s their favourite festival. And it’s not just the filmmakers, it’s the press, the industry too.  

KL: Is there a filmmaker who’s never been to TIFF whom you would like to have come?

PH: Alive or dead?

KL: Either.

PH: Antonioni never came. Bresson. Fassbinder. (Fassbinder went to Montreal when I was around in the early days.) Yeah, those are probably the three.

KL: What wisdom would you impart to a filmmaker who is trying to take the pulse of the art form right now?

PH: In terms of their professional development? Educate themselves about cinema. When there are so many people who have worked within the form and set an example and a style, it’s difficult to be uneducated. They should actually be really curious and explore and see very different styles of films, look at films from other countries that have different rhythms, different shooting styles, different narrative practices, different storytelling modes. On a practical level, I’d say hang around as many film sets as possible and imbibe that knowledge as quickly as you can.

KL: What are your thoughts on the role of festivals as an alternative distribution circuit for films?

PH: I’ve been making this argument for a long time: that with the collapse of the art house circuit around the world – and the film society movement too – that film festivals are basically fulfilling the role of being an alternative distribution network. There are so many films being made now that are probably only ever going to be screened in festivals, making them the only outlet that a lot of these filmmakers actually have for their production. That’s what actually worries me with the collapse of the curiosity around foreign-language film. Where does that material go? How is it going to surface? That’s one of the reasons the Festival started.

KL: Is there something about being part of a Festival audience that will keep the experience immune from the general tendency to watch things on screens you keep in your pocket? Is that a utopian view?

PH: No, I totally agree with you. There’s a social requirement on the part of people to get together that probably explains the success of sports. I don’t think we’re unsocial creatures: we enjoy sharing with like-minded people. There’s nothing I like better than to actually be a part of a large group of people laughing at a film, or listening to an opera or going to a rock concert…there’s something vibrant about it.

KL: So you’re not afraid of the much-hyped idea about the culture of the virtual?

PH: I think it will take generations for that to happen, if it ever does happen: the atomization of society. You cannot exist in your shell entirely. To be honest, the virtual I think is an addition to what we’re already doing: an opening up, not a replacement.

KL: Who would you want to direct the biopic about your life?

PH: Godard is probably the most influential director in my life, so I’d be interested to see the fragmentation and creativity and humour and irony that he would bring to something like this. Otherwise – Jerry Lewis! Maybe Eisenstein or Vertov. You’ve got to see Enthusiasm… it’s one of the most brilliant sound films you’ll ever see. It’s mind-blowing, it’s phenomenal. The silent filmmakers… what they were doing… I don’t know if other filmmakers have ever caught up. When I see Abel Gance, Jean Vigo, it still astounds me. Rich period.

KL: There’s so much emphasis on script and dialogue now.

PH: That’s why Godard was so important to me: he threw out the well-structured script and just said, “To hell with that.”

KL: Looking back on this year’s Festival, did you have any especially memorable moments?

PH: Introducing Agnès Varda at her Varsity screening; hearing Fernando Meirelles talk about filmmaking at Talent Lab; and seeing Sean Penn taking so much care and time with the documentary he executive produced and narrated, Witch Hunt

KL: What are you usually found doing on the Sunday after the Festival ends?

PH: There were times when the stragglers of the Festival would just have a big dinner and hang around and share stories. You want to deflate and be with people too. You feel like you’re being released from prison, and suddenly your time is your own and it hasn’t been your own for about four months. When I was younger, I’d have ridiculous romances that would start at closing night parties, and we’d drive to Niagara Falls and stay up all night.