Cameron Bailey On The Spotlight

If you’ve watched any critically acclaimed movie in the past five years, there's a good chance it premiered at the Toronto international film festival (TIFF). Heralded in some quarters as the most important film festival in the world, TIFF has premiered countless oscar winners, blockbusters and cult favourites to hundreds of thousands of people each year. The man responsible for deciding who makes the cut is Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director for the past four years.

By Anthony James O'Dell 

I got a chance to chat with him about what’s next in film, what makes a great movie and what some of the biggest issues are that affect the film industry today.

Most people associate entertainment with becoming an actor or actress; what made you want to become a critic?

When I was a kid, I liked books more than I liked movies. I’d spend most of my weekends in the library exploring new books and stories. It wasn’t until I was in university that I really got into film. I got excited about what movies could do beyond entertain;I looked at how movies could get you thinking and challenge your beliefs and express ideas. I began writing about that. I wrote for my campus newspaper,The Western Gazette. When I graduated, it just seemed like a natural thing to do (write about movies). I got job at NOW Magazine as a film critic and I liked that because it allowed me to not only talk about the films I liked, but express the ideas in the films, too.

You came from the West Indies and are known for having a strong sense of heritage. What do you think needs to happen for directors and producers of different ethnicities to get high profile roles outside of actors/actresses?

The good news is there are more directors getting recognition (people like Barry Jenkins, who made Moonlight, expected to be one of the top films of the year at polls/awards). I think audiences need to keep asking for the stories they want to see. People find entertainment in the stories that mean the most to them. I think that they should start asking for what they're into from the movie companies (exhibitors and distributors) because those big corporations don’t always think there are enough people to see black/LGBT stories and the fact is, there is an audience.We’re seeing this with television as well, TV programs are often more direct now than feature films, and I think there's progress being made. The more that decision-makers are aware of the value of inclusion,and the business value of it as well, by reaching more people with what they're most interested in, the more you’ll see a more diverse range of work out there.

I’ve read that you think there's a decline in film criticism,although it’s not necessarily good or bad. What do you think this means for the film industry?

I think we’re in an era now where most of us don’t want to be told what’s good, whether that’s a movie, a restaurant, a song, etc.We want to discover that for ourselves. It does help to have some way to pick what to choose from, but I don’t think having a critic telling you this is the best album of the year is necessarily going to be as followed as it used to be. There’s a lot of other ways to find the stuff you want to consume. What I do think happens when critics lose some of that authority is that it becomes necessary to take some of that out. We’re not telling people that this is the best film based on a personal opinion, we’re curating a group of films that are all very strong, but that speak to different audiences in different ways. Our audience can then choose from that. I think the idea of curation is still very important,it’s just become more democratized.

What do you think makes a great film in 2016?

I think the same things that made a great film in 1916. I don’t think the elements of great filmmaking have changed that much. You want mastery of the language of cinema, something that connects emotionally/intellectually and some element of something new. I do think, beyond what makes a great film, what makes a successful film has changed now. There's so much competition for people’s attention, people’s attention spans have dramatically shrunk. I think the degree of intensity of the film-watching experience has changed. We want something that feels very new and fresh. The reason why films like Bird Man and Twelve Years a Slave have worked so well is they just have a compression effect. It’s just a much more intense feeling. It’s like a stronger flavour (like hot sauce instead of ketchup). I think that’s what audiences are really looking for.

What are a few sleeper films showing at TIFF this year that people should check out?

There's a film called Lady Macbeth that premiered on our platform competition section that I think is terrific. It has the kind of intensity that I’m looking for when I’m watching movies. It’s really well made and well written and has a great young actress, Florence Pugh, at the heart of it, as well. It actually just got sold to an American distributor so it will be out in North America. I think when people discover it they’ll be thrilled to see a new voice. A United Kingdom is one that played very well; it’s a romance in the old fashioned tradition and also has something to say about how we cross boundaries with inter-racial marriage and the conflict that causes.

It’s hard to say, I don’t think anybody would have predicted the rise of streaming media and how dependent we all are on our phones. In terms of technology, I have no idea what’s coming next, but what I can say is there will always be a desire to share experiences, so the fact that people come to our festival in such large numbers (upwards of 500,000!) will continue. People want to have unique experiences that they want to share with other people in different ways, so I see that as a big part of the future.

TIFF 2016 wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and continues to cement itself as the top (creative, not just film) festival around. With over 397 films in total from the 7 plus hour Czech Republic mystery miniseries film Wasteland to the Toronto-based documentary, The Stairs, few festivals in general come close to matching both the breadth and quality of art showcased during the event. This wouldn’t be possible without the man regulating the festival, Cameron Bailey. As streaming continues to gain steam among mainstream film companies, and viewers' attention spans continue to shrink, one constant you can expect from TIFF is a steady flow of quality content, no matter your taste.