This article was originally published in 2012
To begin to understand Toronto International Film Festival director and CEO Piers Handling is to know him first as a man of intriguing paradoxes. An avid historian of Canadian film, Handling is also a tireless promoter of emerging contemporary film. Lionized for helping create a stage for the best in international film, Handling’s eye was simultaneously fixed on the needs of domestic filmmakers. David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Peter Mettler, Bruce McDonald, and Guy Madden: all enjoyed Handling’s support even as their early work escaped the notice of mainstream film critics. “Canadian filmmakers really lacked a critical context,” Handling explains. “They lacked people who appreciated or even knew their work.”
Looking back on his 18 years as a TIFF director, no one is more surprised by how his life turned out than Handling himself. But for a talented pianist mother and his exposure to the arts at Queen’s University in the late ’60s, Handling might have gone on to write large academic tomes.
Instead, he found himself increasingly hanging around the university’s film department. Within two years of graduation he’d “fallen in love with film,” a love that only deepened when he became head of the publications division of the Canadian Film Institute in 1971.
It was at the institute where Handling met someone with a passion for film equal to his own and who shared a desire to elevate Toronto’s then fledgling Festival of Festivals (as TIFF was then known) into something to rival the best in the U.K., the U.S. or France. “He was persistent,” former festival director Wayne Clarkson says of the man who would eventually take over the festival in 1994. For inspiration, “everybody looks to the head of the organization and the festival and it took patience to move that dream forward. Piers is the real thing. He has the vision. He has the passion.”
One of the first things Handling did was to highlight the work of unknown foreign language filmmakers. Within days of the festival first opening in 1976, the names of niche filmmakers like Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki and Poland’s Krysztof Kielowski were on the lips of the world’s film industry. And it has grown and keeps on growing; this year’s festival will show 372 films from 72 countries for example, up from 337 films from 68 countries in 2011.
A major step, even this pales beside Handling’s greatest achievement – the TIFF Bell Lightbox & Festival Tower, a massive five-screen cinema and cultural complex (and condo) opened in 2010 at the corner of King and John Streets in downtown Toronto. Coupled with year-round programming, the Bell Lightbox’s economic impact is expected to grow to $200 million annually by the end of 2012. Says Clarkson, “That building – the cinema tech, the library, the exhibition centre – that’s Piers Handling.”
Outside of these achievements Handling says very little has actually changed about the festival experience itself. The enthusiasm that he hears when talking to festivalgoers today is the same as what he felt when buying a ticket himself years ago.
Yet perhaps the biggest changes have occurred in Handling himself. The organization’s “corporate face” with a year-round operation and massive film complex to run, he has had to give up some “personal joys,” such as actual programming, “to create a larger space for other things,” including making the Lightbox “the most important film institution in the world.”
“When you want to create a larger organization with more impact that does more things…you realize you have to make certain sacrifices for that dream to be realized. I could have stayed in the same place, but that’s really not my nature.”
Headshot: Nigel Dickson
Main photo: Quentin Tarantino, Helga Stephenson and Piers Handling at TIFF in 1992. Photo courtesy of Nir Baraket