The Toronto International Film Festival is just around the corner. Koliah Bourne of SHIFTER Magazine and SHIFTER On Films had the opportunity to chat with TIFF’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, about diversity in film and television.
Koliah Bourne: First off, thank you again for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Cameron Bailey: No problem.
Koliah: So there’s been a lot of talk in the past little while for the need for diversity, and I’m not talking gender diversity, I’m talking cultural diversity, race, ethnic diversity. And so I’m asking, why is this so important in this industry?
Cameron: You know diversity is important in the film industry, in the television industry, because these are incredibly powerful media; they’re influential. We form the way we see the world and the way we see other people often through the media we consume. We all grew up watching sometimes hundreds of hours of television shows every year and dozens of hours of movies. And these are powerful media that sometimes work on us in ways we don’t even realize. We form our image of what’s normal, what a normal family looks like, what a hero looks like, what a villain looks like, what a community looks like from these media; from what we consume. So if they’re not diverse then our sense of what’s normal will reflect that. And if they’re more diverse, and if they are more complex than our sense of what’s normal, then our reality we carry through the world will reflect that too. And because we’re living in complex diverse societies, if there’s a mismatch between what we see when we walk out the door and we walk around our streets and what we have in our heads, that causes some kind of dissonance and that’s hard for people to make sense of and then people begin to do sometimes silly things.
Koliah: Care to elaborate on those things? (laughing)
Cameron: Sure. So I mean it’s everything from if you’re living in one of Canada’s big cities and you are surrounded by a very diverse population – we got many, many different backgrounds, languages, faiths and all of those kinds of things. But you carry around, in your head, a notion of what’s normal and what’s real that’s much more limited. That can sometimes cause you to shut out the reality that’s in front of your eyes. And so you don’t take that seriously, you don’t treat those differences in people as worthy of respecting. And you might not even be conscious. It’s often a matter of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias comes from somewhere, right? It comes from whatever has been made normal in our lives. And we have to be aware that the movies we watch, TV shows we watch, the music we listen to, the books we read, all of that help shape unconscious bias.
Koliah: True. very true I love that. The last little bit that has helped us talk about this, about diversity and sometimes the lack thereof has been the Oscars. Recent Oscar nominations. What are your thoughts on the nominations this year?
Cameron: I mean I’m glad to see the mix of people in films who’ve been nominated. We happened to present a lot of them last September. I think 59 of the nominations are from films that were at TIFF which includes not just the front runner La La Land in terms of nominations, but also Moonlight and Hidden Figures which we presented in kind of a sneak preview and Manchester By The Sea as well. So that mix of films is a much more diverse mix than we saw last year. That’s a good thing. One of the things I think is notable is that films that might have seemed marginal have been brought to the center so Moonlight is one of the top contenders, and that’s a film that is about a love story between two black men and something that if you went and walked in to many people who’ve got money to make movies and say you know this is a movie I want to make, they might say, “Oh that’s niche, it’s marginal”. But here it is at the centre of an issue that’s important.
Arrival, Dennis Villeneuve’s film, it’s a film that’s about communication across difference. So it’s important I think in the context of diversity, within the Academy Award nominations, that people are actually paying attention to that. And then Hidden Figures. To me the big story with Hidden Figures is that this is a story about three African-American women who were scientists. But the film was underestimated. You know there’s often this thing where a movie with predominantly black characters comes out, does very well at the box office, millions of people go to see it and then the industry often reacts with surprise and say the film over-performed. Well, Hidden Figures didn’t over-perform; it’s performing. That’s the movie people want to see. And it’s become a very popular film and I think it will continue to do well. The fact that it’s also being recognized by the Academy is a good sign. It tells, I think all of us that people want to see a wider range of stories and this year here they are.
Koliah: Now, those films are from the U.S. How are we doing here in Canada on the diversity front?
Cameron: Look, I think in terms of diversity and representation in our films and our TV shows in Canada, the number one concern has got to be how Indigenous people, Indigenous communities and Indigenous history is represented. This is the thing that Canada needs to pay a lot more attention to and it’s starting to. We’re just wrapping up for Canada’s Top 10 Film Festival here at TIFF. We opened with a film by Zacharias Kunuk called The Searchers which also premiered at the festival. And the most popular film, the film that won the People’s Choice Award at Canada’s Top Ten, a film called Angry Inuk another film by an Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. And these two films, two Inuit films doing as well as they did with an audience for Canadian stories at Canada’s Top Ten. To me that’s a heartening sign. I think we’ll see more of that. I think the industry in Canada is beginning to understand the power, the dramatic power, of Indigenous stories. There’s incredible conflict at the heart of many of these stories; there’s injustice, there’s all of the things that make for powerful cinema. But I think Canada, and I think all of us- I’m not going to blame filmmakers or the industry- all of us have sometimes been too cautious in addressing these stories and we’re now starting to see them come to light. I’m very glad to see that.
Koliah: People are less, I guess, fearful now…
Cameron: Yeah. Look, I honestly I think our culture depends on it. I think it’s a massive stain on the history of the let’s call it the non-indigenous population in Canada, that the violence that has been done, the injustice that’s been done has been ignored for so long. We want to see the stories from indigenous filmmakers and other artists and we’re glad to be able to provide a platform for that wherever we can.
Koliah: Awesome work. I’ve been trying to follow what’s been happening at TIFF for the last little bit there and I’ve been seeing a lot of the Indigenous stories and it’s really good. One of my favourite, it’s not indigenous, but one of my favorite shows as of late is Kim’s Convenience. It’s funny how you can relate to other communities that aren’t like yours but yet so familiar.
Cameron: Yeah, exactly. I mean a lot of the stories, a lot of the humour, it’s very common to anybody who- in the case of Kim’s Convenience- if you come from an immigrant family yourself a lot of those things would pop up too. So yeah, I think it’s not just in the film industry, it’s in TV as well as in different forms of content. More and more people are paying attention to this and it’s a great thing.
Koliah: Very true. So you’ve been in the industry since the 80’s. What changes have you seen since that time?
Cameron: You know, as I get older and older…Some days I do feel older (laughing). But you know, the one thing I’ve learned for sure is that there is not just a single upward path of progress when it comes to diversity. You know, I’ve seen cycles. I’ve seen waves so there have been times when this has been very much front and centre in terms of a cultural debate in this country. In the early 90’s in particular there was a lot going on in terms of representation and ownership of voice and a lot of those issues were very painful to work through. A lot of the cultural institutions were really challenged by artists coming and banging on their door and saying look you know you’re not letting us tell our own stories. And when our stories are told we don’t even get a seat at the table. And so the institutions, the funding agencies et cetera, had to pay attention. And that changed for a while but then that kind of fell off the agenda. Now things I think are much more alive again in terms of those debates. So it’s never going to be a steady march forward to a bright new future. I think the people who are interested in making change have to be aware that there are ebbs and flows. You make change where you can but you don’t ever expect that it’s always going to be in one direction.
Koliah: Okay, well my last question to you is how can we change things?
Koliah: In your opinion, how do we move things forward?
Cameron: It’s a big question. I think it probably depends on who…well, on where each one of us is located. I think you make change where you can. So if you’re not involved in the creation of media and you’re simply consuming it, and engaging with it as an audience member, I think what you can do is expand the range of what you consume. You can seek out work that challenges you; that pushes your limits, that takes you places you’ve never been before, that immerses you in stories and communities and characters that you might not know so well. Just stretch that muscle. I think that’s one of the most important things you can do. I think you always open yourself up to more empathy when you drop right inside the skin of characters who are nothing like yourself. So I think that’s one thing that anybody can do. And then if you do have the privilege of being involved in making work or presenting it, or getting it out to audiences, you can keep this in mind. All the time you can ask yourself this question: “Does what I’m dealing with- what I’m making, what I’m presenting, what I’m funding, what I’m distributing- does it look like the world I see around me? When I walk out of my home, when I walk out of my office?” If you’re living in a big city in Canada, you’re encountering just a vast range of diversity every single day. Is that in your work? I think those are questions you can ask yourself.
Koliah: I’ll have to take that advice myself. My time is almost up here. Anything else you want to leave with our readers? About diversity, any final words?
Cameron: Well, I’m just glad that we’re having these conversations. And for me what’s important is that we keep talking and that we not shut down conversation. I think any perspective on any of this is fine so long as people are ready to listen to other perspectives too. And sometimes people are afraid to even talk and I think that’s the worst thing of all cause then it just shuts down any kind of thing. So I’m glad that you’re doing your part to help get people talking. That’s really the most important thing.
Koliah: Again Cameron, thank you so much.
Cameron: My pleasure. Thank you.