Memories of TIFF’s Handling years
The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival is Piers Handling’s 37th as a key member of the TIFF team — and his 25th at the helm. It is also his last: Piers will retire this fall, turning his expertise to future projects following one final TIFF Cinematheque series, The Great War on Film, which marks the centenary of the WWI Armistice.
Piers joined the Festival as a programmer in 1982, and later served as Artistic Director for seven years before becoming Director & CEO in 1994, overseeing TIFF’s transition from a 10-day annual event to a year-round operation with a permanent home at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
To honour Piers' legacy, we've compiled the following oral history, originally published in the 2018 Festival Programme Book, drawn from interviews with just a few of his many friends and colleagues.
Michèle Maheux, Executive Director & COO, TIFF; former Managing Director; Marketing & Communications Director; Volunteer publicist; film student; late 1970s–present: Piers first arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival, then known as the Festival of Festivals, from the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa, in 1982. He started out as a programmer, and was editor of the programme book, too.
Wayne Clarkson, Festival Director, 1978–1986; Board of Directors, 1986–1997: Piers and I met in the spring of 1971 — a short while ago. We were fresh out of university and got jobs at the Canadian Film Institute. I was the information officer, because I knew how to type, and Piers was hired in the Archives and Publication division. We became friends very quickly. It was obvious that we shared a passion for cinema, and a commitment to Canadian movies. I remember picking 16mm or 35mm film prints out of the local archives and screening them during our lunch hours, chatting. My job was pretty mundane, and Piers was putting a lot of books away in the library. But we did have access to a lot of stuff, and we took advantage of that. I went off to study film in England, and he went on to run the publications division at the Institute. I came to the Festival of Festivals [officially] in 1978, but Piers and I were always in touch.
Anne Mackenzie, Managing Director, 1980–1985; Film Officer, 1976–1979: Very loosely speaking, Wayne and I ran the Festival for the first 11 years, then there was a very brief transition, and then Helga and Piers took it over before Piers ran it on his own. Both he and Wayne came from the CFI — as did Michèle.
Michèle Maheux: The CFI was like a mini-TIFF. By around 1980–’81, Piers was the associate director and head of publications. I’d just joined as assistant director in the library. Then Piers got us all fired [laughs].
Wayne Clarkson: There was a bit of an insurrection at the CFI, and Piers was one of the leaders. It wasn’t quite as successful as everyone wanted it to be.
Michèle Maheux: He put this group of five people together to sign on with him and kind of overthrow the executive director. Instead, they fired us. I went back to university. And Piers and I have been friends ever since.
Wayne Clarkson: I can’t even remember if I knew about [the insurrection] at the time. But in ’82, I said: “C’mon Piers, a lot is going to happen in Toronto and you’re needed.”
Anne Mackenzie: Piers is probably the biggest expert on Canadian film. Archival stuff, French- and English-language, new and emerging, major filmmakers, he’s the guy. So, a huge thing — and this isn’t just folklore — was the Canadian retrospective that Piers, Geoff Pevere, and Wayne did in 1984. Before that, English-language Canadian films were just not cared for or appreciated. That retrospective changed everything. Piers made it happen.
Michèle Maheux: The idea of the Northern Lights retrospective was to showcase the best of Canadian film from 80 years of cinema history — silent classics, Quebec cinema of the ’60s and ’70s, up to the current films. It was deeply ingrained in Piers that we should promote Canadian talent. We all learned from a particular professor, the late Peter Harcourt, who wrote about international film but also really promoted Canadian filmmakers, Quebecois filmmakers. That formed our foundational arts-administrator beings. Piers is super-close to so many Quebecois filmmakers, like Denys Arcand. And then you look at the Ontario filmmakers whose careers he helped launch: Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema, and Don McKellar, who worked for us at the Festival. It was just part of the DNA.
Helga Stephenson, Board of Directors, 1994–2005; Executive Director, 1986–1993; Director of Communications, 1983–1985: Northern Lights turned out to be the blockbuster hit of the Festival that year. The cinemas were jammed morning till night. It turned around a lot of people’s opinions about Canadian film. It became very important to continue that, so the Perspective Canada programme was born.
Atom Egoyan, filmmaker: Piers came to the editing room when I was cutting Next of Kin in 1984. It was on Granby Street, on the second floor of what was kind of like a rooming house, but the rooms had been converted into editing suites. It was grotty, to say the least, and this quite elegant, debonair guy showed up to look at my film. This was a particularly big year because it was the launch of Perspective Canada. Of course, it was very nerve-wracking to wait for his response. Maybe he would’ve preferred if I had left. But I was watching him like a hawk — well, just the back of his head, as he sat there attentively. We finished the first reel, I took it off, laced the second reel... I wasn’t hearing anything. But he invited the film. It was a defining moment for me.
Deepa Mehta, filmmaker; Board of Directors, 2007–2016: I had heard that Piers was going to come see the first film that I produced, Martha, Ruth & Edie (1988), at the Bloor Cinema, and I was really nervous because [I thought] he wouldn’t think much of this small, homegrown film that was about women, and rather simple. I remember watching him watching the film. He came out and I asked, “Well, what did you think?” — really stupid of me, you don’t ask programmers what they think — and he said, “Well, I must say, I didn’t like it very much.” But he said it in such a disarming, honest way. He said if I wanted to talk about it further, whenever I want, I can do that. I’ve never had a rejection that was so warm and so personable. We’ve become very good friends since then…. Three years later, Piers saw Sam & Me, my first feature [as solo director] at Cannes. He didn’t say anything to me. When we got back to Toronto, he asked to meet for coffee and said: “I loved Sam & Me. Can we have it at the Festival?” I was thrilled.
Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director, TIFF; Festival Programmer, 1990–present: My first meeting with Piers was in 1989. He took me to lunch and invited me to join the Festival of Festivals as a programmer for Perspective Canada. And… I actually said no. I was a film critic, but I was only two years out of university, I was still in graduate school, and I just didn’t think I had all the knowledge I needed. He came back a year later — there was another position on the programming team available and he invited me to take that up. That was the start of an almost-30-year career. I am so glad he asked me the second time.
Noah Cowan, Artistic Director, TIFF Bell Lightbox, 2010–2014; Festival Programmer, 1989–2014; box office, mid-1980s: Piers was a rock of the Canadian programme, and in retrospect that was maybe the most important thing at the time. It provided this very clear commitment to Canadian filmmakers. Piers realized there was something very special happening, particularly in Toronto. He created a kind of intellectual centre and attracted really interesting people to work with him on that Canadian selection, who then became the core of our programming team and the core of the critical community in Toronto film for many years to come.
Patricia Rozema, filmmaker: I remember “Piers-Handling” as a word. Piers Handling was the gate to the Festival of Festivals at the time. I had made my first half-hour [Passion: A Letter in 16mm (1985)]. Piers had been on a jury for its completion funding. The film wasn’t done, so I called him and he came to the edit suite. I played my cassette playback with the music cued at the right times. He was right there with it, and I knew from that moment that he truly loves filmmakers — not just the films. I think there are people in his position, and also critics, who don’t really care about the people behind it, just the product they create. I’ve always felt from Piers that there was a love of the kind of mind that invents this stuff. Of course, he’s a highly discerning intellect. I felt that Piers and the people he gathered around him loved films that were formally bold. And if there’s a word for Piers, as gentle and as kind a man as he is, it’s “bold.” His ambition — and that’s sometimes a difficult word because it’s associated with all kinds of unpleasant things — but in his case his ambition for the filmmaking community here is sky high. We all have him to thank for raising the bar.
Cameron Bailey: Piers was pretty young back then, but I saw him as a kind of eminence grise. Canadian cinema was what we first talked about. He’d studied its history, he’d done groundbreaking critical writing on it; I felt like I was learning a lot from him. At the same time, there was a new generation of filmmakers who had just come up, people like Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Deepa Mehta, Bruce McDonald, Srinivas Krishna, Don McKellar. That produced what Perspective Canada became. Piers on the surface is a mild-mannered, reserved guy, but he’s a very bold thinker, and that’s why TIFF has become what it is. His first thought was to do a Canadian retrospective in a massive way — not in a small, “polite” Canadian way, but to treat it like a big national cinema like the French cinema, like American cinema. And also, to do extensive retrospectives of Soviet cinema and Latin American cinema. This was a man who thought big when it came to film, and that’s part of what attracted the world’s filmmakers, film critics, and industry to Toronto every September.
Helga Stephenson: When I was hired as Executive Director and Piers was immediately hired as Artistic Director — the year when we did the world’s largest Latin American programme ever presented — we had a lot of time to talk. This was when we invented our vision, which was based on the classic Henri Langlois Cinémathèque Française: you show the best films, you save the best films, you have a reference library for the best films, you run screenings all year long. It was a very classic model. Thirty years ago the planning started.
Noah Cowan: The Latin American retrospective in the late ’80s was a real turning point for TIFF. It was the first major, self-curated exhibition we did that garnered international attention. Helga, a big personality, was able to get into anyone’s office, anywhere in the world. Piers could provide this enormous context and background. The kind of yin and yang between them became a defining feature of the Festival at the time.
Michèle Maheux: Piers and Helga had a dream. The Festival was great 10 or 11 days every September, but how to sustain an audience of film lovers year-round in Toronto? How to create a year-round institution? That all happened in 1990 when the Festival assumed responsibility for the Ontario Film Institute, and Cinematheque Ontario was born, as well as the Film Reference Library. The mission and vision came with a set of values that Piers has espoused his entire career, be it as a programmer, as an academic, he cares deeply about the impact film can have on society.
Cameron Bailey: Piers was a global thinker. Although he was born in Canada, his family has deep roots in the UK, he went to a British boarding school, he lived in Pakistan for a while as a child, he travelled all over the world. I went to Burkina Faso with Piers, the first trip to Africa for both of us, in 1991. I remember vividly getting off the plane in Ouagadougou for the biggest African festival at the time, FESPACO. We were looking for something new. We had shown African film in the past, of course, but we hadn’t really engaged with the filmmakers and the film culture on the African continent, and this was the beginning.
Norman Jewison, filmmaker; Board of Directors, 1981–1990: I was on the Festival board when I met Piers in 1982. I remember I was kind of stunned by his knowledge of foreign films. He and [late film critic and Festival programmer] David Overbey were really responsible for the Festival stepping out globally. They started to move around the world and find wonderful filmmakers in Germany and Italy, and Japan and Singapore, and I think the Festival started to attract, because of that, a worldwide group of artists. It gave it a stature. When Piers later took over, in ’94, TIFF seemed to have a global reach.
Suzanne Weiss, Board of Directors, 1999–2003; Managing Director, 1994–1998; Director of Corporate Relations, 1987–1991; Fundraising Associate, 1984–1986: I think Piers’s family background had a lot to do with his personality in the early days. He was very solitary, he was academic, he was very neat and tidy, and Eurocentric in a lot of ways because of the fact he was raised in part in Germany. His father was in the military, his maternal grandfather was in the military. Being a kid who moved around a lot, he was very self-sufficient. He was also somewhat shy and introverted. He’s not like that anymore. He’s changed enormously. He really grew into the job, and amazingly so. It was just a pleasure to watch him.
Anne Mackenzie: Piers’s dichotomies are very interesting. I’ve talked to a few filmmakers recently, and no one will say a bad word about him. One of the things that keeps coming up is that he’s such an extraordinary mixture of a film nerd and a CEO. The guy who can sit and talk about Tarkovsky for hours — and would prefer to, I think — can also run a place this big, with all the difficult responsibilities and problems, and do it gracefully.
Jennifer Baichwal, filmmaker; Board of Directors, 2016–present: Piers has a rare combination qualities that are not normally found in one person. He’s a total cinephile, so he can totally geek out with the best of them — we’ve done that. He’s a skilful diplomat, someone who had a vision for this building. He’s an icon for Canadian cinema internationally. And he’s not an intimidating person. I never felt like I was being condescended to when I was younger, and never feeling like I was a “woman filmmaker.” I was a filmmaker. And that was a big deal 20 years ago.
Robert Lantos, producer; Board of Directors, 1989–1995, 1999–2005: When Piers joined in 1982, those were the playful years, as I recall them. As Piers ascended through the ranks of the organization and became CEO, he lived through, as did all of us in the Canadian film industry, the Festival’s transition from its carefree childhood years to its much wilder adolescent years. And then, as CEO, Piers is the one who oversaw the transition from those wild teenage years into fully mature adulthood, which is where the Festival is today.
Deepa Mehta: I think it was Toni Morrison who said that all art is political. I think Piers is actually an astute political programmer. He had a vision of what cinema could achieve as a political tool. Now we talk about celebrating diversity, and the importance of inclusion, and who are we and how we’re represented. He took that cinema as a tool and made it public. Before we all started talking about diversity, he made it a possibility.
Patricia Rozema: Piers and other programmers here navigated a potentially difficult relationship very well. They’re friendly, supportive, warm, but they’re not just going to put any old thing in the Festival. They have to maintain a standard because their international reputations depend on it. I always felt they wished to help me raise my game. And that’s giant, especially when you’re a young filmmaker just starting out. Somebody wants you to be good? Especially when you’re a woman? Lesbian? Piers was accepting of alternate voices. I felt included. Were there enough? No. I was really the exception to the rule. I think now we’re watching as the rule is changing.
Helga Stephenson: He kept up the artistic standards. And then the job really became the realization of the dream of a permanent home. He managed to balance the two — not an easy job, by the way. But he did it with grit, he did it with grace, and he did it with utter commitment. But Piers was living the dream of his life. This is a massive cinephile who wanted to share these treasures with people here. There is now a large cadre of filmmakers who are loyal to this festival, I think that’s very much part of Piers’s legacy. His imprimatur is still there.
Norman Jewison: The Toronto Festival under Piers kept its identity because, I think, he is absorbed and devoted to film in a way that is just uncanny. We’d meet in Algonquin Park, or in various places, and he’d always be coming back from someplace, you know: “I just got in from Istanbul, and I saw some interesting films.” In the last 24 years that he’s been Director of TIFF, he really has given us an international reputation.
Robert Lantos: Piers became a champion of two very difficult causes: independent cinema and Canadian film, both of which need all the champions they can possibly muster. That is really his greatest legacy. He has many others — TIFF Bell Lightbox, the transition of the Film Festival to a year-round [operation], Cinematheque, all the educational and outreach programmes. But his most important legacy is the extent to which he successfully championed a seriously endangered species called independent film — which includes Canadian film. It has few champions as important as Piers Handling. As a Canadian filmmaker who only makes independent films, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Jeremy Thomas, producer: I’d rather be pally with a great festival director than with the head of a studio. As an independent filmmaker trying to smuggle my films into the mainstream, I found Piers was one of those people who understood what we were doing in terms of delivering very high-quality, profound, original films for festival audiences.
Mira Nair, filmmaker: When you go through this journey of cinema, whichever side you’re on, there come these pillars that you know you can rely on, that hold you up. Piers is in that pillar category.
Cameron Bailey: Piers climbs mountains, literally, and as a young man he spent a lot of time in the Himalayas hiking at very high altitudes. I think that is a symbol of what he does in his professional life. He has a kind of fearlessness leaders need to have. And he does it in a quiet way. He just has a kind of belief and asks, “Why not?” If you ask that question at the right moment, it can be a great spur to a team achieving more than they ever thought they could.
Jennifer Baichwal: I think that Piers’s legacy will be one of an integrity of vision, from the very beginning when he was a programmer, to the end as CEO, having realized the Lightbox and brought the Festival to this point where it is now. That integrity of vision has been unwavering all the way through, and it is tied to a love and respect for film. He has never lost sight of that, and it would’ve been easy to lose sight of that with all of the swirling things that go on, especially in an organization as big as TIFF has become.
Cameron Bailey: Our festival has become many different things. It’s an audience festival, it’s an industry festival, it’s a media showcase, but at the heart of it, it is a filmmakers’ festival. That really flows from Piers’s inspiration. I think everyone who has worked with him is inspired by that and tries to live up to supporting what filmmakers do. When we’re putting the Festival together, he will always challenge us: How many languages do we have represented? How many countries? How many foreign-language Galas do we have this year? He will insist on that diversity. He believes that’s what cinema always has to be — that we have to challenge our audience. Piers’s challenge to us to keep this festival global has made it a more complete festival.
Michèle Maheux: Piers is our cinematic gentleman. He is the consummate diplomat. He is a film-loving racecar fanatic. He is the sum of all his parts. We wouldn’t be where we are today as an institution if we hadn’t had the benefit of 36 years of Piers Handling here, in all the roles that he’s played at the organization. I think TIFF, and all of us here, have benefited from that trajectory.
Noah Cowan: I actually don’t believe that Piers is capable of retiring, so I look forward to seeing the next act of kindness that he gives to the film world, whether it’s in the form of a book that he’s been threatening to write, or in screening programmes — we’re all just fascinated as to what the next chapter is going to be for this incredibly important guy in our lives and in the life of film.
Anne Mackenzie: Whenever there’s an obscure, strange, interesting screening (at the Lightbox), Piers is usually there — as is Wayne, actually. They continue to learn and watch stuff.
Atom Egoyan: Piers is a real adventurer. There are a number of things that he’s wanted to do in the summer that he never could do because it was Festival season and he was too busy programming. I think this will be a golden moment for him.
Norman Jewison: I’m sure Piers will find another mountain to climb.
Denys Arcand, filmmaker: I wish him good books, great music, some operas maybe, and wonderful hikes in unknown forests and on magic mountains. I also wish him a very noisy weekend at the Montreal Formula 1 race, where we will be for our annual dinner. I hope these dinners go on forever. Bon voyage, my excellent friend.
Listen to Piers discuss the films that made him a cinephile, the biggest challenges facing film festivals today, and more on TIFF Long Take