Cameron Bailey On: ‘Rebel Women,’ Trump Era & Netflix At TIFF 2017

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07 September 2017 | Gregory Ellwood| The Playlist

Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Telluride have all had their turn. Now, it’s time for the global cinema spotlight to shine on the Toronto International Film Festival. For artistic director Cameron Bailey each year is an adventure as the Canadian institution programs one of the largest slates of films in the world (this year’s festival topped out at 255 feature length films).

Bailey, who has been in his current position since 2012, has the unique responsibility of programming not only a wide number of films looking for commercial distribution (TIFF’s acquisition market is arguably on par with Sundance depending on the year), but awards season films either looking for a major world premiere gala or another opportunity to show their wares.

Some of TIFF’s exclusive premieres this year include “The Current War” with Benedict Cumberbatch, “Breathe” with Andrew Garfield, “I, Tonya” with Margot Robbie and “Kings” with Halle Berry.

Notable films that screened at other festivals but are making their TIFF debut  are “Call Me By Your Name” and “Mudbound” from Sundance; Cannes standouts “The Square,” “120 Beats Per Minute,” “The Florida Project” and “Killing of a Sacred Deer”; Venice selections “The Shape of Water,” “Suburbicon,” “Downsizing,” “mother!” and “Victoria & Abdul”; and Telluride players “Battle of the Sexes,” “Darkest Hour” and “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.”

The former film critic took a few minutes last week to discuss this year’s slate, the Netflix quandary, how quickly political events impact narrative cinema and more.

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Gregory Ellwood: Hey Cameron. How are you doing?

Cameron Bailey: I’m good, how are you?

I’m doing pretty good.  I’m sure you’ve heard its crazy hot in L.A. but we’re surviving.

You’re surviving. Well, no floods at least.

Exactly. No fires, no floods or earthquakes yet. We’re all good beyond that. But let’s talk about TIFF. Is this the calm before the storm? Is this a slight break for you?

You know it’s a different stage, it’s not quite a break. But the longest hours are over until the festival itself starts. Once we lock the lineup and the schedule then we’re into just logistics and planning and there’s lots of sort of unpredictable things that come up every day, but you know, you’re not here late and you kinda know what’s coming and then it all starts next Thursday.

Beyond the actual festival itself, is there one time of year that you enjoy the most? Is it the anticipation of it all? Is it traveling the world watching hundreds of films?

I think apart from the festival itself, it’s almost when we’re starting over. There is an element of this process that’s like an expedition.

You know, you’re setting out someplace you don’t always know where you’re going to end up. We begin traveling in the winter. We go to Sundance, we go to Berlin, I make a trip to LA, to New York, and to London and Paris all between January and May and that’s when the festival is still just a concept.

We don’t what the films are going to be, we don’t know much about what’s going to come our way but we’re just talking.

We begin to hear from filmmakers and companies that bring us the films, and that’s when you begin to get a sense that, ‘Oh, this is gonna be an amazing year.’

Or this filmmaker has a new film or here’s someone I’ve never heard of before but it sounds like it’s going to be exciting. So, when it’s all that potential, that’s when it’s the most exciting, apart from the festival itself.

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It must be hard to generalize with so many different films from so many different filmmakers, but is there any theme or themes you see running consistently in this year’s selection that people should be aware of?

We begin to be able to discern things after the lineup is done, and it’s always a matter of trying to tease at what looks like the most relevant things out of many, many different themes. But, one of the things just given debates that have been happening in film culture and generally in the industry, is there are a number of films about rebel women. Real outlaws in a way that I quite like and have been really enjoyable to watch.

“Molly’s Game” with Jessica Chastain giving a terrific performance. “Battle of the Sexes,” you know the Billie Jean King story. “I Tonya,” finds Tonya Harding kind of rehabilitated in way as heroic in her own way given the life that she lived. We’re showing the Agnes Vardafilm (“Faces Places“) and she’s the original rebel woman in film as far as I’m concerned. Greta Gerwig‘s new movie, “Lady Bird,” is terrific.

And I’m glad to see her directing after writing and acting in so many other people’s films. All over the world, there’s a great Indian film called “Village Rockstars” about this really, kind of determined young girl in Eastern India that is great as well. So, as we began to put the lineup together we began to notice more and more of those. That’s great and good to see, and I think they’ll resonate now especially well.

We also noticed a number of films about survival. Everything from explicitly the survival, like in the movie “The Mountain Between Us” to different kinds of survival in terms of a massive life change in films like “Stronger,” “Breathe” and “First They Killed My Father,” of course, surviving the Cambodian genocide.

And then, the last thing I’ll probably say is there are a number of films that are about faith, and religion in ways that are more direct than we often see. Many filmmakers are not that keen to explore it but Paul Schrader‘s new film, “First Reformed,” really digs deep into his interest in faith and religion, which extends all through everything he’s ever written and directed. We’ve got a great film about the Jehovah’s Witnesses community called, “Apostasy.”

Actually, you know what? There are two. There’s another one called “The Children’s Act” based on an Ian McEwan novel with Emma Thompson that is also very strong. “Apostasy” is very much set within the community. It’s fascinating, I found. And then, of course, we’ve got “Disobedience” set within the Orthodox Jewish community and a love story between two women, which is of course quite taboo in that community. So it’s an interesting mix this year.

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By my count there are 17 different sections in the festival. Are there specific programs that you deal with more through the year on a daily basis?

My job like a director making a movie, your first job is casting. With me, my first job is choosing members of the programming team. And once I do that, we give them a lot of authority and a lot of autonomy to follow their own passions and their own interests and to make choices.

So, I spend a lot of time before someone is hired as a programmer and then every year we do multiple check ins to make sure we’re on the same page, what I’m looking for, if there are any changes in the festival overall. I spend a lot of time talking to them about that. Then I let them go and do their job. They’re all incredibly skilled and experienced professionals and they’re great at what they do.

I pretty much let them do their job. Now there are some sections where I do have a more day to day job to do, the Gala section for sure, Platform, which is programed by Perry Sammon and myself. And the Special Presentations section. And I’m also still programming certain regions of the world, directly less and less now, but I do still spend some time in South Asia, India and other countries in that region.

Netflix sort of rocked Cannes in a way even they must not have expected. There was a lot of drama about whether they were really true films or not and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily died down, I think maybe people have been distracted about certain stuff in the world and it hasn’t really come back to the forefront yet. Was that anything you took into consideration when you guys were programming this year? Do you feel the reaction on this side of the Atlantic is different than what the feeling was there?

The Cannes Film Festival was put into a very particular situation because of the laws around distribution and exhibition in France, which don’t exist in the same way in North America or most other regions. So, we’re not putting the same kind of bind at all, we’re free to choose films that may not ever have a theatrical life.

It certainly a new world we’re living in and the big streaming companies that are not just exhibiting films but also financing and producing them are now major players. I think that’s a good thing from everything we’ve seen. They’re giving filmmakers a lot of autonomy and the ability to make movies that might otherwise not get made, that would be a lot harder to get made, for instance, in the studio system these days.

For us, we’re happy to see great films wherever they come from. Where the film eventually will find a commercial audience, whether it’s in theaters or streaming services is not a big concern for us. It’s really more a case of do we find a film that we love that we can bring to our audience and if we can do that then we absolutely will.

Obviously the last 18 months have been tumultuous due Trump’s unexpected rise. And as the world where we now live in is never-ending six hour news cycles, Sundance scheduled some last minute docs about what happened with the election and there was “An Inconvenient Sequel” which redid their ending at the last minute because of what had happened. In terms of how how world impacts narrative film were you expecting to see a little more of that in this year’s submissions? Or in your own mind were you like, “No the way the cycle works creatively, we won’t see it till next year.” Does that make sense?

I’m not sure how much cinema as a whole will react to immediate political wind. Some filmmakers absolutely do do that and some filmmakers do it in a more unconscious way or don’t directly respond but you begin to find it in their films. We know there are certain periods in cinema like the 1970s in the US which were certainly colored by I think Watergate and the Vietnam War.

France after 1968, that affected cinema. I think what we’re seeing now is primarily filmmakers trying to find stories, trying to find the art, trying to find the deeper understanding that goes beyond headlines and what’s happening in the world right now. One film I would really point out is a film called “A Season in France” by Mahamet-Saleh Haroun which, for me, is one of the most moving and profound films I’ve seen on the issue of migration.

Because it’s not just about the issue it’s about people who are affected by it. About two brothers who are migrants from Central Africa who are living in Paris under very precarious circumstances. It’s just a beautiful film, and it’s not going to tell you what to do or who to call, or how to mobilize your local politician on the issue but it gives you insight and it gives you empathy for people who are going through this. I think that’s the most important thing films can do.

One last question for you. If recommend one movie that you’re want to tell audiences, “Please, please go see, don’t let this get lost,” what would you suggest?

This is so hard.

You can name a couple if you’d like.

I’m gonna give it a shot, I’m trying to maybe find some films that are maybe less obvious. But especially on the question you asked earlier, about how filmmakers are responding to what’s going on in the world. I would say, Ziad Doueiri‘s film, “The Insult,” is one. If you’re struggling to understand what’s happening in the Middle East it’s almost a satire really in terms of the story.

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These two guys who find one small conflict that gets escalated and escalated until it’s a national crisis. It’s a great movie for that, moves at a very fast pace, directed by a guy who used to be an assistant director for Quentin Tarantino. I would also recommend “What Will People Say?” by Iram Haq from Norway. Again about migration and crossing borders but also very much about young women and what they need to go through and battle with as they define their identities as teenagers.

Terrific film that’s also in the Platform section. And then you know one that I’m just really excited about because I’ve been following her work for a while is Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” I just think it’s terrific filmmaking. Just fun to watch. Such a sharp writer and Saoirse Ronan in the lead is really great. And I’m glad to see her making her feature debut. I think she should just make lots and lots more movies.

Oh, I love that. Cameron, thank you so much for taking the time during a busy time right now. I really appreciate it and best of luck at the fest I hope everything goes great.

Thanks very much.

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