It is two days before the start of the Toronto International Film Festival and Noah Cowan, co-director of the event, is living like a celebrity.
He is ensconced in the prime minister's suite at the Royal York Hotel, a haven of yellow walls, conservative brown furniture and safe art. This is where he will reside for the 10-day duration of the festival with his partner, Nathan Smith, who is an artist.
Cowan is wearing a casual outfit by Strellson, a men's clothing sponsor that is providing a wardrobe for Cowan and Piers Handling, the other co-director of TIFF. "Why not?" he responds when asked why he accepts free clothing. "We're onstage. We're on the red carpet." A publicist sits at his elbow, supervising the interview. It's all very Hollywood up here in the penthouse.
But Cowan doesn't need any help in crafting answers to questions. He is eloquent; his sentences, rapid and tight, are as perfectly pressed as his pants. Like this: "I honestly believe the only way that a society can actually grapple with the immensity of political strains in the world is through art, and the moving image is the lingua franca of cultural understanding."
When handed a difficult question, he passes back an answer as spontaneously and exuberantly as someone making an acceptance speech for an unexpected award. Asked why he still carries the title of co-director after being widely seen as Handling's successor when he took up the post three years ago, he says, "I think both of us [he and Handling]feel strongly that it's not a job for one person."
But it has been in the past. "Uh, yes and no," he replies. "It has always been something of a collaborative effort." In addition, the proposed $173-million Festival Centre, scheduled to begin construction next year, has made it necessary for Handling to assume more fundraising responsibilities, Cowan says.
But there is confusion over who does what. Many TIFF announcements list Handling as the director. Who is the public face of TIFF? "I guess I have been over the last few years," Cowan begins. "[But]it depends on where you are in the world."
That doesn't ring of clarity, I tell him. "Well, people know Piers very well," he explains. "This is someone with 30 years of experience, 30 years of trust behind him and what he's been able to do, not only for the festival but also for international cinema."
So it's a matter of Handling's reputation being stronger than Cowan's? "Yeah, and why would you mess with that?" he shoots back happily. "I always say that I thank my lucky stars about the situation that I find myself in. Normally, when a festival hires a new director, it means there has been a palace coup or some government agency has fired someone. There's a bloodletting that tends to go on with high-end cultural positions. Piers, all the way along, has wanted to have a very careful and well-planned succession for himself. I'm really happy with the arrangement we have right now. I can rely on him for some of the tough stuff."
There are "certain people who are major players in the film industry, who have been there for decades and who require certain kinds of careful handling," he offers to explain where Handling's expertise is needed. "These are all relationships that are born from mutual suffering and mutual success, and so it's complicated for someone to walk into those relationships. Piers can continue to act in a way to better the festival and have films come to us in appropriate ways to make sure that everybody who comes to this festival and leaves this festival is happy."
Helga Stephenson, a former director of TIFF, says Cowan, who is 39, represents "a whole new generation. One of the strengths of TIFF is to constantly infuse new voices into the programming," she says. But the transition from Handling to Cowan, she adds, "is a long-run game. There's no need to do it quickly."
Cowan has the intensity of someone who has spent many long hours in the darkness of a theatre, thinking deeply. Which he has. When he was growing up, the last of three boys in a culturally minded family (his mother, Nuala Fitzgerald Cowan, worked as an actress, and his father, Edgar Cowan, a former publisher of Saturday Night magazine, is a co-founder of CITY-TV), he never bothered with trucks and toys, he says. "At six, I was looking at the Friday papers to see what movies were out."
Educated at Toronto's Institute of Child Study and then at the prestigious University of Toronto Schools, he attended McGill University in Montreal, where he completed a degree in philosophy.
He began volunteering at TIFF at 14 and continued his involvement with the festival through his university years and after he graduated, when he began working as a film critic for Eye Weekly, an alternative tabloid in Toronto. To give himself a grounding in technical aspects of filmmaking, he signed up for courses at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT).
His big break, in terms of having a greater voice in programming at TIFF, came in 1988 with the introduction of Midnight Madness, an event featuring offbeat films for a younger audience. "We did it as a group, and I was the kid," he recalls. "They were like, 'What does the kid think?' The next year, the kid just took it over. It was happenstance. Quentin Tarantino and directors like him changed the perception of things like martial-arts films, horror films and how they could be relevant to a mainstream audience. That programming got a lot of attention."
In the mid- to late-nineties, he became "obsessed by the fact that all these amazing films we were seeing every year weren't finding their way to theatres," Cowan says. To tackle the problem, he moved to New York and started a distribution company, Cowboy Films. The films they handled included documentaries such as The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg by Aviva Kempner and The Endurance: Shackleton's Great Antarctic Expedition by George Butler, as well as "significant art films of the last 10 years," such as the controversial Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat, and George Washington by David Gordon Green.
He later helped Susan Coulter, a well-known New York philanthropist, start up the Global Film Initiative, which helps to fund films in the developing world and create distribution networks for them. Handling phoned him up three years ago to offer him the co-directorship of TIFF.
Cowan calls himself "a Piers Handling acolyte" and says they argue every day about curatorial ideas. In the last few years, there have been "radical changes" in the programming at TIFF, he acknowledges. Perspective Canada and Planet Africa, two long-standing programs, were dissolved. "Perspective Canada didn't feel like a useful category any more," Cowan says. "Canadian film had transcended its need to be profiled that way."
In its place, they created a special section, Canada First!, for first- and second-time Canadian filmmakers. Other new categories include Vanguard (irreverent films that "challenge the boundaries of social discourse," according to the TIFF website) and Sprockets Family Zone (featuring international children's cinema). This year's one-off program is called Mozart's Visionary Cinema.
A few things remain the same, however. One is the initial vision for the festival, which Cowan describes as "a marriage between Hollywood and Europe and Asia." Another is the imperative he lives by for the duration of the festival. "Don't drink too much!", Cowan concludes with a laugh.
Cowan on the biz
On the impact of film:"It basically works out the psychological traumas of the day."
On the importance of building TIFF's Festival Centre: "Nowhere else in North America is there an institution like the Festival Centre in terms of its devotion to the moving image and the various art forms that have come up around it. From my perspective, the moving image is the most crucial art form of the last 100 years. It is the crux of modern art and especially modern popular art."
On the importance of celebrities: "Stars are very useful and especially when they have made adventurous work -- to show it is possible. So to have Brad Pitt here for something like Babel is fantastic." -- S.H.