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Toronto International Film Festival and its Women: A Conversation with Helga Stephenson

Toronto International Film Festival and its Women: A Conversation with Helga Stephenson

The Toronto International Film Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this September. TIFF has become the most important international film festival
in North America. It is a festival for the people of Toronto as well as for the film professionals who gather here for the first big event on the yearly
film circuit of festivals and markets which culminates in May with the greatest film festival/ market of all, the Cannes International Film Festival and

TIFF’s red carpet Galas kick off the Academy Award Oscar Campaigns. The most important film distributors, international sales agents, producers,
financiers, agents and festival programmers come to do business, buying and selling the newest of world cinema available at any festival. They gather and
meet at the Hyatt which is where festival headquarters, the marketplace and conferences are held. The Hyatt itself is just around the corner from the
multiplex where most of the movies are screened for the industry. Public screenings are around the city. Buyers also attend them because the Canadian
public loves movies and offers a good sense of how the movies will be received publicly.

Helga Stephenson was Executive Director of the


from 1986 to 1996.

When she began many things in our world were changing – the financial crash of 1987, AIDS, Tiananmen Square in China, the Gulf War, genocides in Bosnia and
Rwanda. Films were exploring new meanings for modern values. Native voices were just being heard, Latin American filmmakers were just emerging…

She is also founder and co-chair of the

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival


She has been


of the

Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television

since May 26, 2011. Her aim at the Academy is to make the Canadian Screen Awards (the equivalents of the Oscars and Emmys in the U.S.) achieve the status
of being engraved in the minds of every Canadian.

Did you always know you wanted to be in film?

Generationally, film was the major art form for sure. When at

McGill University

(Bachelor of Arts, 1969), I went to Robert Lantos’s Erotic Film Festival. We came from a generation where if it flickered on the screen, it was fabulous.

Films in the 70s both in and out of Hollywood were bursting on the screen. It was good-bye to Doris Day and hello “Bonnie and Clyde”. The screen was
responding most strongly to my generation.

But there was no way then to make a living from film and so I became a PR person specializing in the arts, “a girl job” which got my foot in door.

My entry into film and TV was in 1976. Before that I was a fan. The world of film was almost exclusively male.

How did you break in?

I got there in spite of being a woman.

I moved to Toronto in the fall of 1976 from Havana where I had been teaching English in CUSO, the Canadian version of the Peace Corp.

I started an independent PR company called SRO with Maureen O’Donnell and Bob Ramsay and by our third year we were the PR company that took care of the
Festival. We started the Fest’s first receptions at Cannes.

I volunteered to fundraise for the Festival and in 1982 I became Director of Communications.

At that time the classics divisions of the studios started up and women began getting jobs at the studios — Linda Beath, Carol Greene, MJ Pekos, Donna
Gigliotti. This was in the late 70s, early 80s …they were known in Cannes as “The Pink Mafia”. The numbers of women in business on Croisette in Cannes grew
yearly: Aline Perry, Carole Myer, Claudie Cheval, Michele Halberstadt. No longer were they confined to PR and assistant positions or “D girls” like Marcia
Nasitir who was already a veteran when we began. 20th Century Fox hired Sydney Levine, the first woman in international distribution in 1975. Agencies also
began hiring women where earlier Sue Mengers and Ina Bernstein were the only female agents.

For Toronto, it was a very big leap for the Board to hire a woman. There were big arguments; it didn’t want a woman; it didn’t see how a publicity girl
could jump out of the box even though she had negotiated most the deals with Hollywood.

How did they finally hire you?

I had a quite few advocates; people admired my work and they liked me. They were just not used to the idea of women in leadership positions. I had to be
patient. Mounting an attack would not work. After they hired me, there was no looking back.

How did you feel throughout this? Did you feel inferior to men?

I never felt inferior; sometimes I felt locked out but I managed a style that that allowed them to allow me into the conversation.

How did you do this?

My style was very direct, even gruff, like the men.

How has it changed today?

40 years later in Canada, the business is predominately female. All three major TV networks are now run by women (Bell Media, Shaw Media and CBC). At my
meetings with networks there may be 20 people in a room – mostly women. The whole market place has changed. Even banks concentrate on women, or on gays.
It’s not through goodness of heart but by profit motives.

There is a huge cadre of female producers – very successful ones.

Where are the men?

I don’t know, in wealth management maybe.

How did this happen?

It seemed sudden. When I returned to the industry after raising my child,

I was shocked to see the cultural workplace was predominately women. Of course it is not perfect and to be exclusively female would be no good.

All the “culture” organizations are non-profit and encourage diversity rather than white male dominance across the board. Big corporate sponsors and
networks are mostly women today in leadership positions.

I never expected to see this change happen so fast.

What were your biggest challenges in moving ahead in your career?

Balance between life and work is always very tricky especially as a single mother. I tipped toward my child and left the industry to care for her.

When I was not doing too much I brought Human Rights Watch to Canada to appease my conscience. This was 10 years ago. I wanted to feel I was doing my part
to make the world a better place. I needed to know I was doing something.

What motivated you to start the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival?

They wanted to do a Film Festival, so I chaired it and found that it went back to my roots in CUSO.

Can you tell us more about it?

In the films we covered four or five years ago there was a spate of migrant films. It was so clear and obvious that what is happening today was coming. If
people had been paying attention, today’s horrible situation could have been avoided. U.S. and Europe today look like a gated community.

Everyone came here for a better life. The entire continent was founded by immigrants…not anymore. This post-colonial mess all is based on anti-immigration
sentiment of the current powers.

Then I became involved with establishing Reykjavik Film Festival because I was Icelandic. Joni Sigivattson the Hollywood producer suggested me for the
role. Reykjavik is another film festival run by a woman.

How does it happen you are Icelandic? I thought you were Quebecoise.

I was born and raised in Montreal. My great grandmother divorced my great grandfather and came to Canada with my grandfather.

What about today’s women in the film industry both in the creative and business sides?

In film, males remain dominant.

There is still more to go on creative side than on the business side. Women directors are not where they should be, but they’re climbing.

Today there is an interesting study of Women in Media in Canada. Kay Armitrage (a former programmer of TIFF and an academic) has statistics which are not

But, a woman runs Telefilm Canada, and a woman is chair of the biggest bank. There are lots of women in very important positions in and out of the cultural

Is the Academy taking any action on affirmative action or women’s parity?

It already has a predominately female staff. The Board is 60-40 male-female. It offers lots of professional seminars for and by women.

What about TIFF?

The Festival was great from day one. Linda Beath brought in the cadre of programmers – the best in world. It was the Festival of Festivals. It did not care
about status of the film, but it did have world premiers. Classics divisions of the major studios and then video buyers came for the best films in the
world and they loved the great audiences who made big hits so it became a great vehicle for testing the market. It became the gateway for foreign films to
the U.S. niche market. That activity surged in spite of TIFF not wanting to have a market. The Market started in spite of itself and markets demand fresh

It is still not a formal market, but to appeal to the public, industry and press, it became more important to get the newer films.

The rapidity of information and reactions have created a new reality today. Now because of social media and the internet, it’s best to show films never
seen anywhere before. TIFF still shows films that are not necessarily world premieres but obviously gives preference to WPs. And it still shows the best
films in the world as it has always done. This is the key to its success over the years.

I notice about 20% of the directors are women at this year’s Festival.

There are Chinese, Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Japanese, Palestinian, Tunisian and Lebanese; Natalie Portman’s directorial debut is an Israel-U.S. coproduction.
She’s one of nine U.S. directors. France has six, Canada five, Australia four, India three, U.K. three, Israel and Austria have two Turkey, Mexico, Brazil,
Greece, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, and Pakistan have one women-directed film each.

I don’t know yet which films I favor; I’ll have to see them.

There are also In-Depth Conversations with Julianne Moore, Salma Hayek, Sarah Silverman. This year’s Industry Conference includes a series of
“no-holds-barred” conversations about gender in the media to cover topics such as “Financing Female-Led Films” and “Uncovering Unconscious Bias”

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