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Film Festivals Have More Work to Do on Diversity and Parity, Says Toronto Panel

“Film festivals are 80 years old — but we should not act like we’re 80 years old.”

These words from TIFF artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey set the tone for Friday’s industry conference panel exploring how new creative leaders at four top festivals are evolving creative mandates while balancing relationships with filmmakers and the biz.

Hot topics of diversity and parity (still work to be done), the impact of streamers, the fate of two-hour big-screen storytelling (ain’t dead, not even close), and ongoing practical challenges facing big-city festivals (local theaters closing, attracting younger demos) were discussed in lively fashion by Bailey, Sundance Film Festival director of programming Kim Yutani, Berlin International Film Festival executive director Mariette Rissenbeek, and Directors’ Fortnight artistic director Paolo Moretti — all festival pros strutting their stuff in new roles this year.

Not surprisingly, gender parity and diversity at festivals were top of the panel agenda, and the directors all seemed to agree that simply striving to hit quotas is not the answer.

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“When I got this position I was able to bring on new programmers which for me is key to ensuring your program is diverse, and I’m not just talking about gender but also different backgrounds and life experiences,” said Yutani, formerly a senior programmer at Sundance. “These things inform our all of our conversations and that is what organically creates diverse programming.”

Directors’ Fortnight was the first Cannes section to strike a gender parity committee, Moretti said. “Not to have this idea of quotas but to develop a sensitivity to what is going on. It is difficult to express scientifically, but it is something that we are willing to encourage and develop. It is progressive, and part of our tradition to champion voices that are not, let us say, immediately welcome by the industry.”

“Well, you know that gender is well taken care in Berlin,” said Rissenbeek, referring to the impressive stat of women directors representing 63% of the films across 2019 festival’s 15 sections. “Since the ’90s, Berlin has developed into a very diverse city and the festival’s development reflects that change in the city.

“People have a natural desire to want to see something of their own life reflected on the big screen,” said Bailey, citing Toronto-screening “Hala,” the sophomore film of Minhal Baig, which was snapped up by Apple after its Sundance premiere, to illustrate the emerging role of festivals in this new era of streamers and self-curated entertainment. If the young Muslim girl, who hears about a smaller film because of a festival, can only watch it on her laptop via a service that’s available in 190 countries, that means the film is connecting with its audience. “And, suddenly, everyone in all corners of the globe can talk about these films,” Bailey added.

Ensuring that a festival both evolves with the times and thrives does not just come about through leadership change, but rather through more direct engagement with their constituencies.

“Metropolitan festivals like Toronto or Berlin have different potential and horizons, whereas Cannes is a heavy professional base, so for me the tradition of taking risks and cultivating new filmmakers and new film languages is what we can do at Fortnight,” Moretti said.

“I do think the conversation about film that happens online, in North America at least — on social media, on film Twitter — is where film culture happens, “ Bailey said. “There are more fast takes out there, the debate is fast, and that generates a different environment for those of us at festivals, so being part of those conversations and sometimes leading them is important.”

Exploring the art of film is something Yutani will focus on bringing back into the festival proper: “We are looking at creating a space towards the end of festival where we can focus on art and ideas and look in depth at what is going into the making of a film.”

Berlin’s Rissenbeek takes a similar tack in considering the evolution of her festival’s youth-focused Generation strands: “We can use this section to give audiences film history — where it comes from, how it has evolved — to keep them enthusiastic (about) seeing films on the big screen and convince them that it is still special to be in the cinema.”

 

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