Interview with the Programmer: TIFF & Hot Doc’s Dorota Lech
Toronto has a lot of of incredible film festivals. Of course, the two best known are The Toronto International Film Festival, the crème de la crème, and Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival, which happens every spring.
Dorota Lech is a Programming Associate and the TIFF Doc Conference Programmer. She is also the Industry Programmer at Hot Docs. She is native of Poland and spoke to Ekran on what it’s like to work in programming, her all time favourite Polish films, and her film recommendations for TIFF 2017.
Ekran: People outside of the film festival scene might read your job title and not know exactly what is that you do at TIFF. How long have you been working at TIFF, can you give me a brief description of your role and what exactly your job entails?
DL: I’ve worked at TIFF since 2013 and am the Programming Associate for documentaries. I scout for films by attending various markets at different festivals including Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, IDFA, etc., screen the international documentary submissions that we receive from around the world, and make recommendations to my boss Thom Powers. I also program the TIFF Documentary Conference, now in its 9th year. Past speakers include Raoul Peck, Jonathan Demme, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Naomi Klein, Ramin Bahrani, Alanis Obomsawin, Asif Kapadia, and Michael Moore.
In addition, I scout for fiction films from parts of Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia alongside Dimitri Eipides.
Ekran: Is working for TIFF something that you have to consistently work on throughout the year or is it a contracted job and you are busy with other gigs when you aren’t working on TIFF? What else do you work on? What are you doing for TIFF throughout the year? How do you go about curating and finding films for the festival?
DL: My job at TIFF is seasonal (May – October). My other work is producing the Hot Docs Forum, a financing and co-production event, at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, which also happens to be based in Toronto. That said, working in programming entails staying on top of films year round – so luckily this is something I enjoy doing in my private time and is a genuine interest for me.
Ekran: Did you always know you wanted to be a film festival programmer / curator? How did it come to be?
DL: I initially studied Philosophy and International Development at the University of Guelph and then went on to do a double M.A. in Political Science and Gender Studies at McGill. For my thesis I wrote about Poland’s accession into the European Union with regards to human trafficking legislation and did primary research in Warsaw.
Film was always a passion and a sort of escape from reality and then after sometime I supposed that I just escaped entirely!
My first job was working as a producer in Berlin. When I returned to Canada I started teaching stop motion at the NFB and then got my job producing the Hot Docs Forum at Hot Docs. I was really on the lookout for programming jobs and serendipitously my job at TIFF came on the market.
Ekran: Where are you from in Poland? How has your Polish roots influenced your life as a film lover?
DL: I was born in Lubin, which is a small town in Lower Silesia not too far from Wroclaw. My parents left Poland for Montreal when I was five so I’ve spent most of my life in Canada. Now I split my year between Toronto and Los Angeles.
Ekran: What are some of your favourite Polish films and why?
DL: My favourite Polish films are:
DECALOGUE dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, POSSESSION dir. Andrzej Żuławski, and ASHES AND DIAMONDS dir. Andrzej Wajda. I love them for different reasons but each is a classic. From recent years, my favourites include Agnieszka Holland’s BURNING BUSH, Paweł Pawlikowski’s IDA, and Marcin Wrona’s DEMON.
I hope Poland continues its tradition of creating beautiful cinema! I worry for artists and intellectuals under this terrible fascist regime… on the other hand, as you just heard, most of my favourite Polish films were made under terrible and repressive regimes so maybe there will be a new wave of modern classics soon…
Beyond Words (Dir. Urszula Antoniak)
Ekran: What are your picks for the top 3 films should we be excited to see at TIFF 2017?
DL: BEYOND WORDS dir. Urszula Antoniak (Poland)
Although we’ve had a lot to choose from in past years, Beyond Words is the only feature length Polish title this year. Luckily it’s a great one!
Shot in luminous black and white, this poignant film from Urszula Antoniak is distinguished in a number of ways. It tells a personal story against the backdrop of the current European refugee migrant crisis;, it delves deeply into the dynamics of a father-son relationship;, and it does all both this with a meticulous style of marked by studied compositions employing a distinct, deliberate rhythm.
Beyond Words centres around on a handsome, young lawyer working for a firm that takes on refugee cases. Even Though he “looks German” and speaks the language fluently, Michael (Jakub Gierszal) is himself a Polish immigrant.
As Michael reflects on whether he wants to take on the refugee-status case of a black poet who insists on being seen as a free man as opposed to a refugee, his long-lost father — whom he has never seen and presumed dead —, arrives on his doorstep.
I won’t say more about the storyline but think the film will bring a lot of important discussions forward.
SULEIMAN MOUNTAIN dir. Elizaveta Stishova (Kyrgyzstan – Russia)
Russia had a major influence on Central Asian cinema having established national studios in then Soviet territories like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. While the territories have since been liberated, modern partnerships and Russian co-productions are not unheard of. This film is a special example of a Kyrgyz film and story directed (and co-produced) by a Russian team. It is the debut feature of Russian director Elizaveta Stishova, who establishes herself a master of texturizing comedy and drama.
Worshiped over millennia, Kyrgyzstan’s Mount Sulayman is a midpoint on the ancient Silk Road. It is said to be the burial ground of its namesake, the Prophet Solomon, and believed to bring health to future children of women who ascend the shrine and crawl across its holy rock.
Suleiman Mountain (Dir. Elizaveta Stishova)
When his son Ulyut is suddenly thrust back into his world, Karabas, a charismatic con artist takes to the road with his two wives, swindling everyone they encounter along the way. But Ulyut has a strong conscience and once confronted, Karabas must choose between a life of scheming or fatherhood. In a drama that could be torn from the pages of Dostoyevsky, we follow a rogue family that circles this ancient sight in search of healing. Audiences will find themselves along for the claustrophobic and sometimes paranoid journey where every turn is unknown and every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
I was incredibly moved by this film and cannot wait to share it with Toronto audiences.
THE OTHER SIDE OF EVERYTHING dir. Mila Turaljic (Serbia)
In her first film, Cinema Komunisto, Mila Turajlic traced the rise and fall of her native Yugoslavia though a history of its cinema. It was imbued with nostalgia for what Tito’s experiment might have been, while also chronicling its excesses and absurdities. Her new film follows the trajectory of Serbia through the personal perspective of her mother, Srbijanka.
From communism to Milosevic to today’s resurgent nationalists, Srbijanka has been a voice of resistance. As a title, The Other Side of Everything has multiple meanings. It refers to the other side of a doorway in the apartment where Srbijanka grew up and still lives. Like many large apartments under communism, her home was divided in 1945 to accommodate multiple families. A double doorway in her living room has remained locked since. For Mila, what lies on the other side is a mystery.
I think there will be a big appetite for this title from our Eastern European audiences. The film touches on many issues that have crossed between our borders and cultures and offers a really interesting perspective now that what happened is often considered forgotten history. The film also offers an insight into everyday heroes that although were perhaps never written about or covered in foreign media, were integral to resistance during difficult years.
The Other Side of Everything (Dir. Mila Turaljic)