Course, exhibition turn spotlight to TIFF

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsCatherine Cassels, an Art History and Museum Studies major, helped organize an exhibition, Let’s Talk About TIFF: 44 Years of Promoting the Film Festival Giant, showcasing promotional posters that have been distributed by TIFF over the years.

A new course examining film festivals has debuted to rave reviews worthy of an interdisciplinary blockbuster.

Catherine Cassels, an Art History and Museum Studies major, said the course, Film Festivals: Beyond the Red Carpet, has offered important perspectives into the inner workings of film festivals, including their structure, chaos and branding.

Offered through the School for Advanced Studies in Arts and Humanities, the course began with a whirlwind visit to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), included a second trip after the films’ airing, and concludes with a week-long exhibition of posters promoting the Toronto International Film Festival for the past four decades.

“Film festivals are an excellent nodal point to think about culture in terms of complexity and through interdisciplinary studies,” Modern Languages and Literatures professor Constanza Burucúa said.

And the proximity of TIFF – along with Burucúa’s expertise in film, cinematic history and the theory of documentary-making – made it both logical and necessary to offer a variety of experiential learning.

Without a deliberate interdisciplinary approach, it would have been just a film course, or an international study, or an urban geography project, she said.

“I wanted students to know what it was to be at a festival, running from one screening to another and having to find food in between,” she said. And when the festival was over and the stars had gone home, “It was an opportunity to see how the festival works behind the scenes, beyond those crazy two weeks, the belly of the beast.”

Some students viewed the course through the lens of screenwriting; others through Toronto’s view of itself as an international host; others through organizational structure; and others through the symbolism of language or the depiction of women.

For Cassels, the class helped her make connections between how a festival operates and what she is learning about curating exhibits in her museum studies. She was also thrilled by the two field trips. “I didn’t realize how jam-packed the day would be in that sort of environment. Outside of being in the actual screenings, it’s chaotic – but the best kind of chaos.”

The course culminates in an exhibition, Let’s Talk About TIFF: 44 Years of Promoting the Film Festival Giant, at the Satellite Gallery, 121 Dundas St., Nov. 27-30 and Dec. 4-5. This exhibition showcases promotional posters that have been distributed by TIFF over the years, displaying the festival’s development from its beginnings in 1976 to becoming the world-renowned festival it is today.

The posters themselves are an interesting cultural phenomenon, showing how TIFF has viewed itself and how it has wanted to be seen by others.

“Its aims were very clear from the beginning because there was this will from organizers to bring big names to the city, to the festival,” Burucúa said. “One of the trademarks, what made the festival stand out fairly early on, was that they somehow managed to strike a balance between art cinema, European cinema and mainstream cinema. It became an excellent place to display a wide variety of films and try new things.”

Cassels, who also helped organize the gallery exhibition, said the earliest posters, in the first two decades of the event’s life when it was called the Toronto Festival of Festivals – the name changed in 1994 – tend to highlight glamour, high art, movie stars and a celebrity cachet.

But as it gained status and a solid footing as one of the top festivals in the world, its posters began to tout the TIFF brand. “That’s all it needed to really sell itself because it’s so large and has so much clout. It doesn’t need to promote an image anymore. It is the image.”