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‘The mountains push you to go past what you thought was possible,’ says TIFF chief Piers Handling.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

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You'd think Piers Handling might have gone to film school or at least studied cinema before becoming chief executive officer of the Toronto International Film Festival, a position he has held for the past 33 years.

But ask him how he ascended to the top of one of the world's most important film festivals and he will tell you it wasn't anything he learned in the classroom. It came more from learning to climb mountains.

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"Climbing, and being in nature, has instilled in me so many lessons, teaching me self-reliance, an ability to be quick on my feet and to be prepared for the unexpected," Mr. Handling says. "It's taught me to be resilient and future thinking."

The 65-year-old arts executive caught the climbing bug from his mother, an English war bride from an upper-class family who had climbed the Austrian Alps as a girl, guided by her father as she dodged members of the Hitler Youth movement all similarly climbing for sport.

Joan Garrod, as she was known before her 1944 marriage to Canadian military man Douglas Handling of Vancouver, returned to mountaineering in her 40s, after raising her two children: Piers and a younger son named Roger.

His father didn't climb, being afraid of heights. But he was an avid downhill skier, a passion Mr. Handling also came to embrace.

"So I had two very physical, very active parents," Mr. Handling says. "And on top of that my mom loved the arts. She played the piano, she loved classical music. She introduced me to the movies."

His mother also introduced him to some "very hard climbs" which appear to have exerted a greater influence on his career as the head of TIFF than a love of movies itself.

His job, he says, is a lot like mountaineering, often posing challenges that he must dig deep within himself to surmount.

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"The mountains push you to go past what you thought was possible," says Mr. Handling, who was born in Calgary, raised on army bases throughout Europe and educated at Queen's University, from which he graduated with a combined degree in history and philosophy.

Mr. Handling will be looking ahead to what's on the horizon as he enters TIFF's 40th anniversary season in September.

"It's a big deal year," he says.

"It's another summit," Mr. Handling says, ever inspired by his years of scaling great heights. "It's another mountain we must climb."

The plan for the 40th anniversary year is to take TIFF to "the next plateau" by expanding into foreign outposts in London, New York, Los Angeles and Beijing with Canadian and children's programming.

"These initiatives are more defined and play to our strengths," Mr. Handling says. "We feel we have strong expertise and knowledge in these two areas and that they will give us more of a presence on the global stage."

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The push to be bigger and better is a hallmark of Mr. Handling's long career at TIFF.

He joined the revered Canadian arts organization in 1982 as a programmer, landing the top job in 1987 after then-director Helga Stephenson stepped aside to take a position at Telefilm Canada.

From the start, Mr. Handling's goal was to guide TIFF on an upward climb, taking it from a popular local event to its status today as one of the world's most important film festivals, described by influential entertainment trade magazine Variety magazine as being "second only to Cannes in terms of high-profile pics, stars and market activity."

Originally known as the Festival of Festivals, TIFF launched in Toronto in 1976 with 35,000 enthusiasts watching 127 films from 30 countries during its first year.

Today, TIFF now attracts in excess of 400,000 people and as many as 400 films from more than 72 countries on its screens across the city.

The festival oversees a number of related events, all launched under Mr. Handling's watch, among them TIFF Cinematheque (formerly Cinematheque Ontario), the Film Reference Library and the TIFF Kids International Film Festival (formerly Sprockets).

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In 2010, TIFF opened TIFF Bell Lightbox, its headquarters and a state-of-the art facility with five cinemas, two restaurants, a boutique and designated areas for museum shows such as the recent Stanley Kubrick Exhibition and Film Series.

Building it wasn't easy.

"Getting our own building was the biggest professional challenge of my career," Mr. Handling says. "It was one of my biggest climbs."

He credits his mountaineering experience for helping him get it accomplished.

"When the going got tough I could just remind myself that there would be another day, and the sun would be shining," he explains.

That experience was honed early on when he accompanied his mother on some of her more important climbs.

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"She climbed the Dolomites [in Italy] and was often in Nepal, doing some very hard climbs," reminisces Mr. Handling of his mother, who passed away from cancer in 1984, at 64. "I climbed with her. I did that in my teens, and was hooked."

Mr. Handling went on to train with Peter Habeler, the first man to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen in the late 1970s.

"This was a ground-breaking climb as no one thought an oxygenless climb of Everest was possible. Peter was a superstar of the time, ... very fast in the mountains," Mr. Handling says.

"He set a new standard of excellence. Climbs that would take five hours he did in two and a half."

As his student, Mr. Handling also became adept at climbing mountains quickly, scaling them in half the recommended time.

"You'd be at the climax, pushing yourself upward and with diminished oxygen levels and aiming for the top," he says. "There are definite life lessons that have come as a result of that."

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Intense bodily pursuits like speed climbing stimulate his mind, empowering thinking and making the brain more agile where problem solving is concerned. At least that continues to be Mr. Handling's experience.

For him, pushing his body to the edge requires not just muscular control but also strength of conviction.

"They make you push past hesitation and fear. You always have to look ahead, not behind you at what has passed. It's a mind game."

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