Piers Handling had spent most of his career at the Toronto International Film Festival, but nothing could prepare him for the shock of 9/11. As the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made their way up north, the festival’s CEO and director was forced to contend with immediate questions about whether or not the show could go on. Those decisions reverberated across the city of Toronto and throughout the film community.
On the 20th anniversary of that tragic time, Handling — who left TIFF in 2018 and is currently writing a book about the history of film festivals — spoke to IndieWire about the tumultuous experience and what lessons could be extrapolated from it for the pandemic era.
The morning news cycle on 9/11 was chaotic. At what point did you realize the severity of the situation?
The reality didn’t really set in until right after the towers fell. I was watching TV with a group of staffers in the press office at the Four Seasons Hotel. Of course we were hypnotized and in shock. As soon as the towers fell, we turned the TV set off and were just numbed.
I remember Nuria Bronfman, who was was running the press office, came up to me and said, “The press want us to hold a press conference.” My first reaction was, “Why? We don’t really have anything to comment in terms of the events itself.” And she said, “No, no, no. They want us to tell them what’s going to happen to the festival.” And then the reality set in. The festival had to react to this. That was when it sunk in that this could affect the festival in a serious way.
How did your strategy take shape from there?
We had to make a series of decisions very, very quickly. I think we decided to host the first press conference around noon. So we had an hour to decide how the festival would react. We had put a crisis team in place years before just to deal with any serious events that happen — how we might react to major disruptions, like an accident or a terrorist attack or a bomb threat.
It was a very small group of people, and they said that we had two decisions to confront for that press conference. The first one was, “Are we going to shut [down] the festival for the rest of the day?” And then the second one was, “Are we going to shut down the entire festival for the rest of the week?” For the first press conference, we decided to attack the first question, which was much simpler. We decided we were going to shut the festival down for the rest of the day, close all the screenings, cancel everything, all the parties. So we had that press conference. There was obviously a lot of discussion about where to go from there.
Ultimately you decided not to cancel the rest of the festival. How did you arrive at that conclusion?
So the crisis group regrouped immediately after the press conference. There was certainly a strong sentiment in the room to continue the festival in some way, shape or form, to show the terrorists that they had not won — that, in actual fact, they weren’t successfully shutting everything down. We weren’t going to let this interrupt our daily life.
So decided at the second crisis group meeting to continue the festival, but cancel all the red carpets, remove the sponsorship thank you’s, all of the trailers — anything that smacks of commercialism, anything that smacks of celebration. All we’ll do is show the films, introduce the filmmakers, and do Q&As after the screenings.
What sort of feedback did you get from your guests?
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We obviously had to contact some people. We wanted to kind of get a sense of how this was going to wash with certain key institutions. We had to tell the two gala films that their films were going to be canceled that night. One was Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding,” and the other one was a French film “Cet amour-là,” with Jeanne Moreau in it — and Moreau was in town. Mira’s film had a huge thing planned for that evening: elephants, Indian parades, the whole bit. That was a big deal for them to cancel that.
How did you deal with the practical challenges of people’s travel?
There was so much panic because so many people were just trying to get out of town. Many guests had checked out of their hotels and the flights were grounded. There were lot of New Yorkers who were freaking out and wanting to get back to New York, or were trying to connect to their loved ones by phone. People were out at the airport and they couldn’t get flights, so they were they just coming back to town without hotel rooms booked. It was just a day of chaos. But our guest office was in touch with the hotels and they were fantastic. The upside was that a lot of people were not arriving that day that should have been because flights were grounded almost immediately. A lot of our guests who were flying in were grounded in Halifax or Gander.
How did your decision to continue the festival impact planning for the days ahead?
I had to go away with my assistant and work out how we were going to reschedule all the films that were canceled on that Tuesday. Of course that was a nightmare to try and get new screening dates for them because the festival was already jammed to the rosters. It was a huge logistical challenge. We must have spent four or five hours on just that day itself getting in contact with people, dealing with our own internal logistics. It was mostly a celluloid film print festival, so we were trying to work out all the logistics of getting prints to theaters. We were trying to invent screening slots that didn’t really exist. There were a lot of major premieres of films were happening on the Tuesday afternoon and in particular Tuesday night. So these were filmmakers who were still concerned about what was going to happen to their films. They’re still trying to get distribution. They were agitated in a different kind of way. Most of them very understanding, but some of them obviously feeling the stress. There were a few tricky moments. Some people were champions and totally understanding, but there were a couple of others that were a little bit more self-centered.
Once the festival did continue, how did films play?
The next day, we were shell-shocked. The first screening that I had to attend was the Uptown, which had 950 seats. It was the supposed to be a repeat screening of “Monsoon Wedding.” This was around 9:30 a.m., it was a beautiful day, and the city was dead. Everybody was a walking zombie. As I walked to the venue, I wondered, “Is there going to be anyone there? Is the audience going to come?” Then I walked in and the place was absolutely packed to the rafters. There wasn’t an empty seat in the place. It was an incredible moment of the community coming together in collective shock. There was a real sense of people wanting to be together, sharing a communal experience. We did a minute of silence before the screening, which was very moving. Then Mira came up, introduced her team, and we went on with the screening. From there, the festival just sort of continued.
Still, the mood must have been different.
What you usually associate with a festival is joy, happiness, celebration, excitement, energy. Instead, everything was so muted and serious. But what that did was put focus back on the films — not which star was going to be there, or which director was going to be there. It was a 100-percent focused on the films themselves and what they had to say. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that at any other festival, before or since. The screenings were packed for the rest of the festival.
How did the specific nature of the tragedy impact the way people were responding to films?
Even though they obviously weren’t about 9/11, so many films were dealing with issues that were so contemporary to their own societies. Whether it was Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, or even North America, these were contemporaneous issues. So there was that sense of a real attentiveness to the work on screen. That was really quite something. One of the films that got canceled on 9/11 was the Canadian film “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,” which had just won the Camera d’or in Cannes. We rescheduled it for an afternoon screening in Roy Thompson Hall. We never do afternoon screenings in Roy Thompson Hall. This was a 2,000-seat cinema, and it was by no means full, but it was extraordinary. The film team had all of the Inuit actors, musicians, technical people. They brought them all into town — about 20 people — and I remember introducing them on stage. It was just one of those rare moments. Here was one of the first Inuit features made by an Inuit in this country, and the respect and love that they received was really quite something.
Every few years, you’ve looked back on this experience as another 9/11 anniversary has come around. Now, as the film community grapples with COVID, what role do festivals play during crises?
We often lose focus or don’t pay attention to the work on screen. We move so quickly from film to film, day by day, and we’re seeing five, six films a day. These become replaceable objects. Your life exists in a funny, strange way during a festival for a couple of hours before you moving onto the next film. This is a bit of a simplification, but I think what 9/11 did for me was that it taught me to believe in the international and transnational aspect of festivals, getting so many different voices into a room and learning from them, getting a snapshot of the world in a very unique way without traveling anywhere.
What sort of challenges do you see for the festival landscape going forward?
Since 9/11, the razzmatazz and the glitz have really accelerated enormously. I think festivals are now hugely important as marketing tools to launch films into the marketplace. In a way, they have become so commercialized and oriented around the marketplace — which films are going to go on to win awards in particular. There’s so much attention placed on that. As a result, there’s only a certain number of films that get an enormous amount of attention.
But at our festival in 2001, there was a leveling, a flattening, because you’d taken out all the red carpets and press conferences. Of course, a lot of stars didn’t show up during the second half. So that small film from Chile felt like it was elevated onto the same platform as a film from Hollywood or a film from France. I think every festival director — whether we started out our lives as programmers or critics — believes in that. A lot of us fell in love with cinema because of a Cinema Novo film, or a French New Wave film; you fell in love with cinema because of that, not because of a film that was going to go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
I think it’s a sobering moment for festivals to begin to look at their real function. The pandemic will be an interesting moment for festivals to reflect on what they’re about, who they’re for, and how they achieve their mission. I’ll be interested in seeing what the post-pandemic world looks like — if festivals actually do take lessons away from this, or if there’s just a return to business as usual.