Toronto pulls changes into focus

The times are a-changin’ at Toronto … except when they’re not.

It says much about Noah Cowan’s attitude toward the Toronto Film Festival and its organization that he can marvel at the steadiness of the staff and its reputation for smooth transitions, and then in the same breath remark: “Maybe I’m a Trotskyist at heart, but I like to have sections and categories mixed up and reshuffled and have people re-evaluate what we’re doing.”

More than anything else, this balance of constancy and jiggering defines the nature of North America’s largest film festival, and now, entering his third full year as festival co-director and captain of the programming team, Cowan’s sense for what to keep and what to alter has come into acute focus.

He reflects that being away from Toronto from 2001 to 2004 gave him distance to view the massive festival more clearly.

When longtime director Piers Handling decided to concentrate on the building of Toronto’s upcoming Festival Center, he invited Cowan back to helm the festival’s day-to-day operation.

“I had to marvel how unusual it was to take a leadership role in a festival of this nature without someone having been fired mercilessly before me,” Cowan says. “You just don’t have these kinds of calm generational transitions in the festival world.”

Anywhere in the world

Even if refinishing is sure to come with the Cowan years, the house is to remain fundamentally the same. That’s how Strand Releasing’s Marcus Hu sees it: “Having run distribution companies, Noah knows what works in the marketplace, but he has quirks. While he’ll support more commercial films like ‘Thank You for Smoking,’ he’ll also make room for the latest Aki Kaurismaki film. To find really special talent like Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Thailand shows that Noah’s willing to go anywhere in the world to find filmmakers.”

While Cowan may state that Handling’s taste runs toward European and auteur films and his tilt is a bit more toward American films, Hu argues, “Cowan is a festival director who looks for films outside America, maybe even more than in America.”

There are a few things Cowan will never change. “Our programmers have full power to select what they want,” he says. “I joke that among directors of major festivals I’m probably the least powerful, since with this talented group and the freedom they have to curate, I’m more like one among many than a CEO type. And because of this freedom we’ve been more aggressive in searching for truffles out there.”

As Cowan is quick to point out, that includes “both premieres and the best films from other festivals.” On this point, he cites programmer Cameron Bailey’s desire to explore South Asian films, especially from India.

A major programming addition is the new Vanguard section, which Cowan argues was needed as a way to include adventurous films that were neither radical enough to belong in the experimental Wavelength section nor in the category-busting Visions section, but would appeal to a younger audience.

“We needed something hipper,” which is why Vanguard will include such films as the North American preems of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” and 21-year-old Oz helmer Murali K. Thalluri’s debut, “2:37.”

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