TORONTO — When Piers Handling persuaded a young film critic to join the Perspective Canada program committee almost 20 years ago, it was a prescient move.
“I look back and wonder what was he thinking,” laughs Cameron Bailey, relaxed, barefoot and sipping tea in the elegantly decorated Toronto Victorian he shares with his wife.
A longtime critic for Toronto alternative weekly Now and a Canuck media personality, Bailey gave it all up last December when Noah Cowan offered him his TIFF co-director chair as he moved on to become artistic director of Bell Lightbox.
“I was an independent agent for 20 years with programming only part of my professional life, so I had to consider the change,” Bailey says. “No matter what kind of superstar you are, you can’t run TIFF by yourself. It’s about teamwork.”
Three weeks before his inaugural opening gala as co-director, Bailey recalls early cinema adventures, notably his first visit in 1991 to the Pan-African Film and TV Festival of Ouagadougou (Fespaco) in Burkina Faso.
“It was a revelation to land in Ouagadougou, experience this gathering of everyone involved in African film and become more versed,” he says.
By 1994, Bailey felt Toronto needed a showcase for cinema from Africa and that continent’s diaspora, similar to TIFF’s audience-building Asian Horizons.
“Planet Africa was a valuable spotlight but also a fragile coalition, because there were films from Mali alongside ones from Europe and America, and not everyone wanted to be there,” says Bailey, who helmed the Planet Africa sidebar for the first three of its 10 years.
After a break — during which he co-scripted Clement Virgo’s “The Planet of Junior Brown” and made the short “Hotel Saudade” — Bailey was summoned back in 2005 by Cowan to become an international programmer, focusing on Africa and South Asia.
“Digital cameras were leveling the playing field,” Bailey recalls. “The technology was often best used in some of the poorer countries, where I found some of the most exciting work.”
Bailey embarked on annual post-Cannes screening marathons in India four years ago.
“Irony doesn’t exist, which can make Bollywood films difficult for Western audiences,” Bailey explains. “Cannes doesn’t program Indian films despite huge delegations that attend every year, so for us it’s become important to give India’s best commercial cinema international attention.”
Believing good programming balances an understanding of the art, audience and industry of film, Bailey has already shaped the future with three hires, including former Fortissimo exec Raymond Phathanavirangoon to strengthen and expand the Asian slate.
“There are parts of the world that still focus on the big European festivals, but no other leading festival can match Toronto’s well-informed, curious and enthusiastic audience,” Bailey asserts. So, add ambassador to his job description.