Since 2012, Toronto Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey has overseen the selection process for the sprawling fest that serves as an essential, if unofficial, market for U.S. indies and foreign-language cinema. Bailey’s Toronto roots are deep, and the Barbados-raised film maven was first noted in Variety when he joined the Toronto team as a programmer for the Perspectives Canada sidebar in 1990 — a time when the almost simultaneous fests in Toronto, Telluride and Venice didn’t necessarily kick awards season into high gear.
Did you imagine when you joined Toronto in 1990 that you’d stay on for 25 years?
Actually, I was approached by (Toronto Fest director/CEO) Piers Handling in 1989 and he asked me then to come aboard as a programmer and I said, “ No, I’m too young.” Bizarrely, he came by a year later and I’d wised up a little.
Handling saw something that you weren’t seeing?
He wanted to broaden the range of the programming team and he wanted to bring diversity to the film landscape.
By 1990, Sundance had exploded in terms of impact and the American indies were hot.
And Canadian cinema was emerging in a big way. I had been writing about filmmakers who were fringe players at that time, people like Atom Egoyan, Deepak Mehta, Jeremy Podeswa and Patricia Rozema. There was a whole new generation and they weren’t simply following the Canadian documentary filmmaking tradition. I wrote one of the first critical analyses of Egoyan around 1988. We could all tell early on that he was going to be an important filmmaker.
This is also before Toronto became established as the beachhead for specialty cinema.
Back then, we had some really important champions in the critical community, like Kenneth Turan and Roger Ebert, and they made people aware of our brand as an alternative to some of the stuffy European festivals. We were more informal.
You were also instrumental in raising the profile of the new African cinema.
Yes, there was the emergence of the Pan-African cinema and I was excited about filmmakers like Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cissé and Djibril Diop Mambety. We had a Planet Africa sidebar that helped introduce their works.
The Toronto Festival has grown dramatically, but has the job of fest programmer changed?
The physical task of programming has gotten easier. Remember, when I started here in 1990 it was before screening links. It was the beginning of DVDs but most of the work was done on paper and you were looking at 35MM or 16 MM prints and VHS tapes. It was a more cumbersome process.
After 25 years, do you still love film?
You know, I left Toronto Festival for a while because I found I was not completely prepared to deal with the business side of cinema. I was a naïve young programmer with perhaps a pure, detached approach to film and I learned that film is an art and it is a business and some people treat film as product. And every now and then you get invited over for breakfast with Agnes Varda and you remember why it’s all worth it.