TIFF’s Dorota Lech and the Art of Programming an Inclusive Festival

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The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival began on September 5 and runs till September 15. In 2017, the festival started its Share Her Journey campaign, their five-year commitment to increasing participation, skills, and opportunities for women both behind and in front of the camera.

The festival’s Discovery section pretty much acquaints the world with the future of world cinema. By showcasing works of first- and second-time filmmakers, this section not only encourages but also inspires.

Dorota Lech is a Polish-born, Toronto and Los Angeles–based film programmer, who became the Lead Programmer of the Discovery section this year. She has worked for TIFF since 2013, and also produces the Hot Docs Forum, a pitching event aimed at garnering financing for international documentaries, at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival. Dorota previously held positions at the National Film Board of Canada, Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, and the World Congress of Science & Factual Producers. She holds a double MA in Political Science and Gender Studies from McGill University.

Dorota Lech, whose Discovery programme for TIFF has 37 films from emerging filmmakers who represent 35 countries; 54% of the movies selected are directed by women

DBW: Tell us a little bit about your TIFF journey. How did you become a curator?

DL: This is actually my seventh year at TIFF. I was previously working, for the last six years, on the festival’s documentary section with Thom Powers doing standard curatorial stuff like presentation of films, introductions, Q&As, hosting filmmakers, doing research. This year is the first time that Discovery section has a Lead Programmer. I was very excited when that came up. In addition, for the last four years, I have also been scouting fiction films from Central and Eastern Europe. So, this position is more an expansion into the larger world beyond Canada. We, of course, have programmers that deal with Canadian films alone.

DBW: When you curate a programme, what are the two most important things you keep in mind?

DL: This year’s Discovery section has 37 films, and almost 54% of them are directed by women. My priorities kind of self-evident!

Having said that, we don’t actually operate with a quota per se. It’s not that I was told that I need to represent these many countries in the programme or how many women I should include but that is something in the back of my mind for us, all the time. I really believe in representation. So, it was important to me to be looking for films from all around the world. It would never happen that we would only have 5 or 10 countries represented in a programme like Discovery. That would not be how I work and of course it was important for me to have gender representation but I didn’t have a number in mind. It just kind of turned out that actually more than half of the films in the programme were directed by women and they’re really the best films. So, I would say those things are important but they weren’t necessarily specifically directed. The other thing is, the whole point of this section is to find the masters of tomorrow. I really have been looking for films and filmmakers that show vision in terms of style and concepts. I was keen on curating a programme that exhibits filmmakers who are daring and are stepping out of boxes; who are doing something different and presenting themselves as very strong.

DBW: You said there is no quota but including more and more women in the programme is something TIFF has been consciously doing, especially after Share Her Journey. Something even the best film festivals around the world are not doing. They still believe that not too many films made by women are festival worthy. So, as a part of TIFF, how do you have that conversation? Is it really that difficult to curate a gender-just programme?

DL: Honestly, no. It’s not like that at all. I absolutely did not struggle to find “festival worthy” women filmmakers. I work with upcoming voices and there are a lot of first- and second-time filmmakers in the programme I curate. So admittedly, I do have younger filmmakers to choose from. These films are now distributed much better than they used to be. But when you look at a section like Contemporary World Cinema, which is programmed by Kiva Reardon, that is also a very representative section, and she doesn’t just work with first-time filmmakers. In both our programmes, there are filmmakers from all around the world. It is something I think about a lot; to be honest, I have my Masters in Gender Studies, so this is pretty much who I am, this is my personal politics. But I will say that all our staff is passionate about the representation of female filmmakers and people of color and I can imagine that that influences the way we see the world. I’m an immigrant to Canada and I am drawn to well-told immigrant stories and they inevitably end up being films that are often made by non-white male filmmakers.

DBW: I don’t want to generalize but most of the time, it really helps to have female curators if one wants an inclusive programme. Or even for male curators, research cannot be very hard, right?

DL: Oh, of course! There are many programmes and cinema runs that are programmed by men that are very representative. The programme at New York’s Museum of Moving Image, BAM are incredible. So, I think the biggest hurdle is people’s perspective. The idea is to know where we are and how we can speak to as many people as we can, from there. Toronto is one of the most diverse cities so we have to speak to its diverse population.

DBW: You’ve been doing this for seven years. How have you seen programming trends change?

DL: The Discovery section didn’t have a lead programmer and neither did Contemporary World Cinema. So those are two big changes this year. But the truth is that in my time at TIFF, it’s always been a really representative programme. I’m not saying that it’s always been 50 per cent women-directed films but the definite aim has always been to represent films by women and people of color. TIFF has always been at the forefront of equality. That has remained constant.

DBW: What would you say are the highlights of your programme this year?

So many! I would love to highlight the film called Simple Women by Chiara Malta. It’s a spin-off of Hal Hartley’s Simple Men and it’s a beautiful story of a young girl living in Italy who is watching television on New Year’s Eve in 1989 and she sees the president of Romania and his wife being executed on state television. Then she gets triggered and has an epileptic seizure. She doesn’t go out a lot and becomes obsessed with the Elina Löwensohn, the star of Simple Man, who has an on-screen seizure and she really sees herself relating to this character. Later in life, the girl becomes a director and has a chance to make a film with Elina and it’s very interesting. It becomes really playful and heady and in a way. I absolutely love it.

DBW: Who are the other female filmmakers we should look out for?

DL: María Paz González, whose film Lina from Lima is great! Then there is Iranian filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi with her film Son-Mother. She’s an actor, director and women’s rights activist in Tehran and this is her first fictional feature. There is the Georgian filmmaker Tamar Shavgulidze’s Comets, which is a very deep exploration of the relationship and love between two female friends. I didn’t even know much about Georgian cinema before this!

DBW: Who or what has been the biggest revelation for you, with this year’s Discovery programme?

DL: Oh, this is easy! Antoneta Kastrati’s Zana. It’s the first film from Kosovo to play at TIFF, ever! It’s a beautiful and tragic film based on the filmmaker’s grief of losing her mother and sister in the war in Kosovo. It explores trauma, grief, and politics so well.

DBW: It’s such a pity how some of the greatest festival films don’t see a larger release. All these great films and such few people get to watch it…

DL: It’s really difficult. I think this is why we need to persuade people to support their local film festivals. When I visit a festival abroad, I’m not watching the star-driven films that I know will find distribution in larger cities. I really am trying to find films that have a hard time reaching large audiences but then again, not everyone attends film festivals. So, I really don’t know the solution to this. I can encourage people to come and watch small films and to take chances but of course there is a larger business angle to this. I think the solution lies in audiences going to the festivals and taking chances on films that aren’t the usual superhero dramas. TIFF is trying to make an intervention within this by providing guidance and mentorship to emerging filmmakers and helping them figure out distribution potentials for their work. We help them network with distributors and basically equip them to create a post-TIFF life for their films.

DBW: My last question is about your process. How do you find your films?

DL: My section is a unique situation because I literally have to go hunting for first- and second-time filmmakers. The Discovery section plays only international premieres so I can’t really pick up films from other festivals but I visit smaller festivals all over the world to meet and speak to emerging filmmakers and producers from all around the world. I go to talks about funding, I talk to film institutes to see what they’re producing. Then either I get in touch or they get in touch, I see the films and we go from there. I also believe in taking chances with filmmakers whose work I admire and enjoy.

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