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TIFF TIFF 2019: Move over, Masters: How the Toronto film festival is redefining which filmmakers get into the canon

Terrence Malick, is in the program this year for the first time with the Second World War-era drama A Hidden Life.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The headlines spilling out of the Toronto International Film Festival this week will be concentrated on three subjects: celebrities, the Oscars, and streetcar delays. But there is another layer to TIFF that often gets lost in the quick-hit discourse: the prolific international auteurs who make up the festival’s Masters program.

In previous years, this oversight was slightly easier to justify, given Masters’ reliance on very familiar (re: old, white, male) names. But now under programmer Brad Deane, Masters feels fresher, and worth whatever headlines can be spared its way.

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With the larger and flashier TIFF films having now premiered over the festival’s first weekend, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz caught up with Deane to talk about the ever-changing canon.

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You’ve assumed lead programming duties for Masters this year – the same year you’ve also joined the Platform programming team, in addition to your role as director of TIFF Cinematheque in the Lightbox year-round. How do you balance the responsibilities, and the sensibilities?

I’m asking myself that same question. Talking with [artistic director Cameron Bailey and senior director of film Diana Sanchez] this year, it’s all about creating better synergies between year-round programming at the Lightbox and the festival. And you start seeing the overlap in the sections, too. We’re trying to pay attention to those connections, especially since Cameron has taken over [as co-head].

For Masters, Piers Handling was the lead programmer for that, before he retired last year. How do your approaches differ?

I’m probably looking to bring new people into Masters. When I looked back at the program, a lot of the directors had been in there for a long time – it was a lot of the same people over and over again. I wanted to ask, what is a master? It doesn’t mean that every film you make in your career fits in there – it’s fluid. Some of the directors in there this year, Piers has programmed for a long time, like Marco Bellocchio and Roy Andersson. But I was also excited about thinking about the canon, and what’s in there and what should be. It’s my first year, too. It will keep evolving. And when I look at the other sections this year, there are other filmmakers who I think could be in Masters, too.

I Was at Home, But... [Ich war zuhause, aber...], the new feature from German auteur Angela Schanelec, hinges on the mysterious disappearance (and reappearance) of a 13-year-old boy. This sets in motion a cubist narrative that oscillates between precision and enigma, headiness and sensuality.

Courtesy of TIFF

To that end, there are five first-timers in Masters this year. And last year’s Masters featured zero female filmmakers. This year, you have two: Germany’s Angela Schanelec and Canada’s Alanis Obomsawin.

Which is still not enough. Hopefully we’ll have more and more every year. And it’s the system, too – the funding of films, who’s getting to make films. But I think that there’s no reason there should ever be zero. It’s the same with the Cinematheque at the Lightbox year-round, where it’s even more difficult because you’re going further back in history. It’s something that we’ve been contending with, so if there aren’t enough films to show from female filmmakers, then we’ll bring in women to introduce films, to change the perspective. Like culture, the canon is always moving, too. We have to keep paying attention, and moving with it.

A filmmaker many would regard as a master, Terrence Malick, is in the program this year for the first time with the Second World War-era drama A Hidden Life. What is it about his new film that fit Masters?

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Well, it’s his best since The Tree of Life, and it’s great seeing him work the source material that he has. People who love Malick are going to love this film, and its themes are pretty relevant today.

Is there any filmmaker in this year’s program who you think runs the risk of being overlooked?

France's Bertrand Bonello, because of the types of films he makes, I'm not sure the past people would've considered him a "master." But he is so in control of the form, is a great stylist, and has fascinating political angles to all his work. He's someone who, every single step of the way, is aware of that.

Last year’s Masters featured zero female filmmakers. This year, there are two: Germany’s Angela Schanelec and Canada’s Alanis Obomsawin.

Courtesy of TIFF

This interview has been condensed and edited.

The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sept. 15 (tiff.net).

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