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Programming TIFF Kids, which this year will feature the film Rock Dog, is ‘about finding something for everyone,’ festival director Elizabeth Muskala says.
Programming TIFF Kids, which this year will feature the film Rock Dog, is ‘about finding something for everyone,’ festival director Elizabeth Muskala says.

TIFF Kids: The challenges of being a family-first film festival Add to ...

In a town filthy with film festivals, TIFF Kids stands out by being the lone event to cater exclusively to the under-13 set. Once known as Sprockets, the event has grown steadily alongside its parent festival, even managing to balance its programming in a way the more mature TIFF has struggled with in recent years. As TIFF Kids celebrates its 20th anniversary, festival director Elizabeth Muskala spoke with The Globe and Mail about the challenges of being a family-first film fest.

Twenty years of programming is no small feat in Toronto, which seems to spawn a half-dozen new film festivals every year.

Toronto is such a film-savvy, festival-going city, yes. But where we have an advantage is in generations – we’re seeing now adults who maybe came to Sprockets back at the beginning, now they’re bringing their young ones to the festival. In terms of attendance, it’s allowed us to grow. When we launched, the festival had about 2,000 participants. Now it’s closer to 40,000.

What was the reasoning a few years ago to change the branding from Sprockets to TIFF Kids?

We made that decision around our 15th anniversary, and it was because we were seeing this trend in the attendance of young people, those 13 and under, wanting to have their own version of TIFF, basically, their own festival. So we wanted to strengthen that brand, and give audiences the opportunity to engage with the films they wanted to, both during this festival and throughout the rest of the year.

How closely does TIFF Kids work in concert with TIFF itself, then?

I program at both festivals, so if I have a film at the regular festival in September, I’ll try to bring them back for TIFF Kids in April. We try to bring them back because September is a tough time for families to go see films, so this is an opportunity to bring the best of world cinema to our junior audiences.

If it’s about accessibility for families, why not program TIFF Kids during March break?

We’ve had conversations about this in the past, but it comes down to there being so many competing events and commitments during March break. It’s a challenge – people go away, people have activities. What we’ve heard from our audience and from educators is that April works well, and we’ve seen our audience grow as a result.

How do you ensure the festival doesn’t get overrun with Hollywood product? I mean, this year TIFF Kids has the new Smurfs movie.…

The balance is incredibly important, because we exist to introduce audiences to world cinema and Canadian cinema, too. Toronto is a multicultural city, so we want to reflect that multiculturalism in the programming. We also need to consider the ages, because what a three-year-old wants to see is very different from a 13-year-old.

Some of this year’s lineup seems to reflect current headlines. I’m thinking of films dealing with immigration, race. How deliberate was this?

Immigration is a huge issue we’re seeing in our screenings. For instance, the film The Day My Father Became a Bush tackles the issue of refugees head on. But it’s about balancing these films with films that are just entertaining, too. So we have a Disney nature documentary, and something like Rock Dog, which won’t see a theatrical release in Canada. It’s about finding something for everyone, so families can find the films that are going to be appropriate for them. There’s a power in seeing films as a family. Many of the young people coming to the festival this year, this is going to be their first experience in a cinema. This is going to be someone’s first experience seeing a subtitled film. When you think of the memories that you want to pass on to your children, if you love cinema, this is something you want your children to experience, too. I feel a great responsibility to ensure we’re bringing the best cinema to our young audiences.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

TIFF Kids runs from April 7 to 23 in Toronto (tiff.net/kids).

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