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Questions for Noah Cowan, Co-Director of the Toronto International Film Festival

Questions for Noah Cowan, Co-Director of the Toronto International Film Festival

Organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival seem quite proud of this year’s lineup, in particular new festival co-director Noah Cowan is boasting about a diverse lineup of some 335 films this yea that includes more than 100 world premieres. Now in its 30th year, Toronto has become a key destination that ushers in the fall movie season for industry and audiences alike.

Cowan knows the Toronto fest quite well, having started at the event as a box office volunteer while in high school in 1981, later studying in Toronto and Montreal. He joined the event as a programmer in 1989 when he co-founded the Midnight Madness program and was named Associate Director in 1997. He later left the festival to found Cowboy Pictures with John Vanco and also co-founded Code Red Films, as well as the Global Film Initiative, and has worked as a contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine and written for numerous other publications. In late 2003, he was named Co-Director of the festival and is now in the second year of a three year transition, sharing duties overseeing the programming and administration of the festival with Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival Group.

Shortly after taking the Co-Director job in Toronto, Noah went on a bit of listening tour in New York, talking with a number of NYC film people about his ideas for the festival. We met for dinner downtown in New York and he expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the event. A Toronto fest regular for less than a decade, I will admit that I’ve been a big fan of this event for awhile now, they just do so many things right, even if the huge lineup is truly daunting and at times it can be rather difficult finding the artistic and geographic center of this sprawling event.

With the Toronto festival approaching its 30th anniversary this year, and Noah well settled into his position, we decided to send him a few questions by email. The day after announcing the full lineup at a press conference in Toronto he sent an email with thoughts about the Toronto festival and other events as well.

indieWIRE: The Toronto Film Festival has a tradition of screening a wide array of films from around the world for a large local audience and a sizable number of international film industry. This mix, in my mind, makes it really like few other film festivals in the world. Can you talk about the challenges of balancing these different audiences when assembling the festival’s annual program?

Noah Cowan: When we watch films, we actually always have our public audience in mind. They have been our greatest assets over the years in attracting films. Buyers and media feel they can get a reasonably good read on a film based on our public’s reaction. We have never been interested in becoming an official “market” with booths and screenings for buyers hived away and have always strived to keep a real public as a central part of the Festival’s mix.

As for the diversity of films on offer, this is again driven by Toronto itself. The city is easily one of the most diverse in North America – people from every inch of the planet have settled here and there is a robust sense of cultural engagement among new immigrants and second-generation Canadians. Ultimately a big part of our Festival project is to create a whole new population of film freaks — and the easiest way to do that is to lure people in with the familiar. That’s the thinking behind our mainstream-driven Gala section and our sniffing around the commercial cinema output of countries like Thailand, South Korea, India, Poland, South Africa and others.

iW: As the programmers considered films for this year’s festival were there particular national cinemas that were especially noteworthy or surprised you as a group in any way?

NC: While there are few surprises among the strongest national cinemas, the recent leaders have been clearly strengthened by recent international acclaim. The quality of films from South Korea, Iran, Argentina and France has been exceptional. These countries are producing work ranging from the intelligently commercial to rarified auteurism. Another strong cinema this year comes from Spain. We have five world premieres – “7 Virgins,” “Sud Express,” “Gronholm Method,” “Iberia,” and “Obaba” – that represent totally different approaches to filmmaking.

The biggest surprise this year has actually been the United States. There has been a kind of copycat lethargy to the US indie scene over the last few years, from our perspective. Only a few films a year really stood out from the crowd as meaningful cinema. But we have been overwhelmed this year by strong, political films by filmmakers unafraid to take risks. There are maybe twenty or more films from the indie scene that add to the international cultural debate. It’s amazing – like watching the sleeping giant suddenly awake. It feels like 1992 again – or even the 1970s!

iW: Fall has become a very competitive time for international film festivals, with Venice, Telluride, and others all vying to premiere new work, but obviously Toronto has a reputation of being an important fall launching pad. What is your sense of the state of film festivals right now, and has the role of the Toronto festival changed? How has the apparent increased focus on awards season impacted film festivals like Toronto? And finally, what impact has the creation of the new Montreal festival had on all of this?

NC: It’s hard for us to comment on our own place in the festival world – that’s your job. But we are certainly pleased that we have been able to provide such a healthy and happy home for many different sectors of the film world. From what we can tell, our role is really fourfold now. We act as a conduit for non-English language films to penetrate the North American market; we act as an unofficial starting gate for awards season hopefuls; we are a significant “market” for the selling of hot films; and we are the launch pad for new Canadian cinema. Even though this seems like a big umbrella, we feel comfortable in assuming all of these mandates. It really gives people attending the Festival a well-rounded snapshot of the cinema world because we look to the immediate past, with the very best of films from Cannes, etc; to the present, with the awards films; and to the future with the films “for sale” like “Crash” last year.

For the future, we want to consolidate our strengths in these areas and focus a little bit more in ensuring that the smaller, artistically driven films get more profile. We have been toying with the idea of creating a high-profile award in the Visions programme to do just that — although we have no interest in being like a European competition. We find that model too hierarchical; we believe our current programming structure relates to the audiences most interested in the films and so we do not need to make pre-ordained judgments about quality. There are “small” films every year that I think are just as satisfying as auteur-driven epics. Why confine them to a “sidebar”?

As for Montreal, we think it’s a great, unique place that deserves a great Festival. It would be a real benefit for Canadian film to have another complementary red carpet launch pad for our national cinema especially.

iW: Lastly, do you have any other thoughts or highlights you’d like to share regarding this year’s program? Perhaps programs, films, or trends that you feel should be noted by audiences or the industry?

NC: We are very much encouraged by the risks being taken right now by major stars — on all continents. We are seeing famous people appearing in challenging, artistically minded projects. In a huge number of films this year, there is a bracing sense of urgency to the political matters facing us – war, terror, poverty and so much else – that it is truly heartening to see people who don’t have to speak to these controversial issues really going for it. While actors and actresses cannot change the world on their own, they have the unique ability to encourage others to see films that might make them think. This can only be a good thing. We had a lot of success last year with two films in particular – “Crash” and “Hotel Rwanda” – that went out on a limb politically. Perhaps these films signaled a new willingness for cinema to engage with the wider world. In any event, it’s a great time to be a Festival programmer!

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