For the love of film

Cameron Bailey and Piers Handling, co-directors of the Toronto International Film Festival, on films and new directors to watch
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Cameron Bailey (left), and Piers Handling, Co-directors of the Toronto International Film Festival
Cameron Bailey (left), and Piers Handling, Co-directors of the Toronto International Film Festival

As the 35th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) gets underway (9 - 19th September), Phaidon.com spoke to industry insiders, Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey, co-directors of TIFF, about the next generation of promising filmmakers, working together as co-directors of the festival, and their take on the best filmmakers working today. 

 

See the 10 best new film directors, selected by Handling and Bailey.

 

Watch trailers of the films by the 10 rising directors.

 

Read on for their full interview.

 

Q: You’ve both chosen five film directors who you believe are making the biggest impact in the world of film today, and they’re included in the book Take 100.  How did you make your decision?

PH: Cameron and I are co-directors of the Toronto International Film Festival, so we took the split the list into two and each chose five directors, so we didn’t have to fight about it. Originally I made a long, long list to come up with my choice of five directors.  I skimmed through festival programme books from lots of different festivals, including Berlin, Cannes, a little bit from Sundance catalogues, and of course our own programme from the last several years. I keep track of my own non-festival screenings too, and I probably had a long list of 30 or 40 people. I honed in on who I thought would be able to live up to the promise to continue to make films that would really interest me. And that was much harder.

'What I'm looking for most is a distinctive visual creation'

I didn’t want my choice to be too English language focused.  There are so many different criteria for me: there’s the subject matter, the formal qualities of the film, the filmmaking skills at work, there's the ability of a filmmaker to take on a challenging subject and to do it with incredible skill, grace and execution.  A lot of it has to do with the serious and personal auteurial touch that they’ve added to it. 

CB:  The process of narrowing down the list for me was similar to Piers.  In my case, I was trying to go back to areas in cinema where I’d spent the most time.  American independent film is one area, and I chose Miranda July and her film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005).  Asian cinema and particularly South Asian cinema is where I’ve spent a lot of time certainly in the last five years, and I’m familiar with a lot of those new young filmmakers, so I chose two filmmakers from India: Farah Khan whose a very commercial filmmaker - one of the best right now - and her film Om Shanti Om (2007), and then on completely the other side of the spectrum, Ashim Ahluwalia, who is really more of an essay filmmaker, much more of an intellectual who makes very interesting and certainly more difficult, less commercial films, for John & Jane (2005). I’m also interested in what you’d call transnational cinema, so filmmakers like So Yong Kim a Korean American, whose lived in Iceland and made films in different countries with her partner Bradley Gray (who is also in Take 100 actually).  

‘I am interested by filmmakers who are able to move among different worlds, and the films they are able to make there.’

I chose So Yong Kim's film In Between Days (2006), so although she’s Korean American, she shot the film in Toronto, so that’s also interesting.  Then Steve McQueen with his Cannes hit Hunger (2008), again a Black British filmmaker who lives in Amsterdam, making a film about Bobby Sands and the Irish political conflict. 

 

Q: What do you think of each other’s choices?  Were there any surprises or did you work together in your selection process?

PH: We shared lists at the beginning, so we weren’t duplicating each other's choices, but we didn’t discuss or debate or challenge each other’s selections.  I can’t say I deeply know the work of some of Cameron’s selection.

CB: Likewise, there were a few of Piers’ choices that weren’t familiar to me.

PH: You begin to specialize in terms of festival programming.  We’re both generalists in a certain way, but then we cover very specific territories and you’re exposed to many more films from those particular countries.  So as well as being a generalist, I do the UK, France, Italy, Poland, some Eastern European countries and naturally I see a lot of other films.

CB: I see films from all over, but I do specialize in South Asia, Africa.

PH: Although having just said which countries I specialize in, none of my chosen directors are from those countries:

Carlos Reygadas (Mexico)

Tom McCarthy (USA)

Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia)

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Germany)

Crstian Mungiu (Romania)

I really responded to The Banishment (Izgnanie) (2007); I love Russian and Eastern European cinema and Zvyagintsev for me is very much part of that tradition.  It’s been very difficult to see interesting films come out of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s been so hard for them to make films, but there’s such a strong individual tradition that I really respond to. The Romanian film by Mungiu: 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile) (2007) is such a formal not entirely Spartan exercise, and the subject matter is extraordinary.  The way he shoots it is wonderful. I’d say the same about Reygadas’s film which is a bizarre strange film shot in Mexico with this religious community speaking a very different language.  So you have your own territories but then you have your idiosyncratic responses to individual films. 

CB: For nearly all the filmmakers in the book, I know many in the book and I’d happily champion many of them; they’re great new filmmakers and it doesn't matter which of us got to write about them, I’m pleased they’re there.

 

Q: What do you think of the overall list of 100 emerging directors in the book Take 100?

PH: The phenomenal thing for me about the book, as a professional in the industry, is that there are a lot of new names to me.  The book is an eye opener.  There aren’t many American filmmakers on the list.  I thought that was pretty interesting. I wonder if this list is a true reflection of what’s happening in international cinema, which may well be the case that there’s a lot of vibrancy coming out of non-traditional film producing countries.  Although some of my favourite filmmakers are American independent directors. Tom McCarthy who I selected for the film The Visitor (2007) is a really interesting voice.  There's also not a lot of French on this list either.  So I like the eclecticism of the list. It's a list of a group of films I wanted to go off and see now. They aren’t necessarily accessible in your multiplex or DVD store.  It made me wonder about the cinema I am looking at. 

CB: The 100 names are really a complete mixed bag.  You’re got film festival directors championing young up-coming film directors and we want to find new filmmakers we can give a showcase to, we want to find the more obscure choices, we want to find the ones people don’t already know about and aren’t already writing about. So that’s part of what drives our choices.  So if there’s a name in this list that is a real discovery for any of us, I think that’s great.  I mean looking at this list you’ve got everyone like Judd Apatow who couldn’t be a more commercial Hollywood filmmaker, to some very obscure filmmakers from Latin America or Asia who haven’t had more than limited festival exposure so far.  So it’s completely across the spectrum and a lot of them are just at the start of their careers.

 

Q: What did you want to say with your choice of films?

PH: These are the true artists of cinema. Their work is not immediately and easily accessible. You’re going to have to search them out.  A lot of them are probably shown at festivals.  Very few of these filmmakers are part of the commercial mainstream.

CB: Another thing I would add is that the book is based on a notorious foundation, that there are filmmakers whose individual voices still matter.  And I think in the context of that debate around auteurism it often feels like the great auteurs are all behind us, that we all grew up with those great filmmakers and they were the ones who established what art cinema would be and there is not a strong new contingent of individual voices out there.  What this book tells you is yes there are.

‘The point is that auteur cinema continues to thrive.’

 

Q: How do you discover the undiscovered?

PH: Through a huge network of contacts around the world, pure luck and screening so many films.  We’re in the privileged position of running a festival where young filmmakers know that’s the place they have to premier their work and get a leg up.

CB: We’ve just finished our screening and selection process, we’ve been travelling a lot and seeing hundreds of films, and when you do that it can feel like ploughing through product. But every now and then an individual filmmaker’s perspective just completely shatters whatever numbness you might have begun to feel and you realize you're in the presence of a new filmmaker.  Sometimes you see a film that you don’t know anything about and all of a sudden - it can be in the first 10 minutes of a film - you know you’re in the hands of a real filmmaker. And that’s how the discovery process happens.  When there’s an awareness of cinema in the filmmaking, that’s what really strikes me.  Filmmakers who know cinema.

'Filmmakers who are maybe not explicitly referencing other films, but who show an awareness of what has gone before and a deep knowledge of cinema. I think that always produces films which resonate.’

PH: For me it’s the combination of music, sound, visual and editing to a certain extent. When you see those elements working together with real authority on the material, you can tell right away. There are very few films which surprise me after the 10 minute mark, in terms of the control that the filmmaker has over the material. There are true moments of excitement at the journey you’re going to take with the filmmaker, you feel you’re seeing a unique voice. You feel in the hands of someone who has their finger on the rhythm of the film, the look and the sound of the film, and the music they are or not employing.  There’s an authority with the material and you feel like you’re a willing passenger on the journey they are taking you on.

 

Q: In Take 100 you picked one classic film that you believe has influenced contemporary cinema.  Which film did you pick and why?

PH: It’s a difficult challenge to set a film festival director to ask what they think is the most important film.  I picked Rossellini’s film Stromboli (1950) for several reasons. Rosselini is one of the crucial figures in the history of cinema. He bridges a moment in time. His film Stromboli comes almost mid point in the history of film. As film was becoming more elaborate and more entertainment-orientated and more frivolous as we can see from the American frothy films of the '20s and '30s, Rossellini came along.  It was at a time when everything was studio bound, it was an industry and there were major stars and that’s what people thought was cinema. 

‘Rossellini came along with the other Italian neo-realists - with no resources at all, no money - and he went on to the streets and started shooting films.’

It was a huge moment that had enormous ramifications for a younger generation of post-war filmmakers, from the French new-wave on to virtually every other colonial cinema who never thought that they could aspire to make films because it was too much money and you needed a star system and you needed an immense machine of distribution and exhibition behind you in order to get your voices heard.  Rossellini was to me the most important person that marked that dividing line.  

'Rossellini also reached into Hollywood through his wife Ingrid Bergman and pulled a major American star in to his very low budget vision of the world.  This is an immense legacy.'  

In many cinemas around the world, major stars going right up to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are now making independent films.  They move between the two as Bergman did, as they’ve realized that for their personal and professional fulfillment they need to move outside of the Hollywood system. So you have Brad Pitt working in small Westerns, you have Angelina Jolie working in a Michael Winterbottom film.  It was really Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini who in a funny way set that tone. 

There was a huge moment when Ingrid Bergman stepped down, away from Hollywood into a completely low budget production, shot on location for Stomboli.  It was a major moment in the history of cinema and it set the tone.  A lot of American stars in the '60s then began to appear in Italian movies like Burt Lancaster in The Leopard (1963) and Farley Granger in Senso (1954).  The independent European filmmakers began to pluck Hollywood stars, so talent was becoming very transnational, moving outside the structures and the strictures of a system.

‘Rossellini is an example to all aspiring directors, showing what you can do with little money and limited resources.’

The French new-wave took great inspiration from Rossellini, they brought him to Paris and he hung around with the Cahier du Cinema gang because it was clear to them – I mean some of them had no resources either – that here was a filmmaker that they could relate to and was like a mentor figure. I think Rossellini had that influence over many of Latin American filmmakers who were just inspired by the fact that he could just take a camera and go off and shoot in the streets as he did in Rome, Open City (1945).

 

Q: What are you most looking forward to on the agenda for the Toronto International Film Festival this year (9-18 September 2010)?

CB: We’re showing some significant world premiers, including Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Trip (2010) with Steve Coogan, we’ve got some really interesting work coming out of Asia, some of it was at Venice and is now at Toronto.  What we always we try to do at TIFF is try to find ways of reaching different audiences. So we’ve got a really strong documentary programme.  It’s a huge list of new films and what really distinguishes it is the huge diversity of the selection.

PH: I’m particularly looking forward to showing the new Raoul Ruiz film, Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), which has a true independent voice.

CB: We really consider ourselves the leading public film festival in the world, with the emphasis on public.  Our major award is our audience award, which has been won by films including Slumdog Millionaire (2008), American Beauty (1999), Crash (2004), The Hurt Locker (2008).  So at TIFF you’ve got this incredible selection of new films that can be overwhelming in its size and range but the way to experience it is with your fellow audience members and there's a kind of thrill: the houses are packed, people talk about the movies to each other and they really get excited in that exchange.

PH: The other thing is that the talent are there in the screenings, they introduce their films and there are Q&As after the films.  You really get to see the talent.  At many other festivals the talent is just not visible, they walk the red carpet and are in press conferences but then that’s it.  To actually be able to engage them in conversation at the Q&As - that's fantastic. It’s a big deal that the stars appear and talk.

CB: There’s an informality too that, say, Sundance also has but it’s more focused on American independent cinema and has done a good job there; TIFF is really an international film festival with some of the accessibility of a North American event.

 

Q: How do you see the future of film?

CB: That is such a big question!

PH: I think the future of film is healthy beyond belief because everyone is looking at moving images. Young people are making films, obsessed with watching films, whether it’s on their home screens, in movie houses, on their phones.  We may have to start questioning what we mean by film, but in terms of moving images, I’m completely optimistic.  What we value in cinema is a whole other question and probably a long discussion.

 

Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey, thank you.

 


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