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Lights, Cameron, action

by Colin Fleming, BA'07


He mingles with the world’s great filmmakers in Los Angeles, Paris, and Beijing, but Cameron Bailey first fell in love with film at Western.

As the artistic director of the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Bailey, BA’87, is a star in his own right; a “dapper globetrotting gent” in the words of Toronto Star film critic Peter Howell. He’s shared fish tacos with Francis Ford Coppola, accompanied former Governor General Michaëlle Jean on a state visit to Brazil, and lectured at the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard.

Yet, for a man who makes his living travelling the world in search of great films, what’s most striking about Bailey is his humility. Always beautifully dressed and immaculately groomed, he exudes a gentle elegance and speaks with a professorial air, but never boasts. In spite of his enormous success, Bailey is, at heart, a softspoken intellectual and family man.

Born in London, England, Bailey grew up in Barbados and later, Canada. He attended Thornlee Secondary, a public high school in Thornhill, Ont. that also counts CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi and children’s author Gordon Korman among its alumni. There, Bailey edited the school newspaper, beginning what he hoped would be a career in journalism. But when he reached his final year, he was at a loss. The first person in his family to pursue post-secondary education, he couldn’t rely on his family for advice. So, he did what most teenagers do – asked his friends.

“We talked it over and I went to the best school that was on the list of places where I knew I’d know people,” Bailey says.

Western had good friends and a good journalism school. It seemed like the best place for him. Turns out, it was.

Bailey arrived at Western as an English major, with very little knowledge of film. Still, he was a natural academic and excelled in his courses. In fact, he was so good one of his history professors accused him of plagiarism. “He thought I wasn’t capable of writing the essay,” Bailey says.

Fortunately, the accusations didn’t stick and Bailey continued to succeed.

In his second year, he took a half course in contemporary cinema with a newly minted PhD from New York University.

“It began with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and it went everywhere but Hollywood from there,” Bailey says. “She was still really excited about turning students on to films. There wasn’t a sense of curriculum that she had taught for years and years. This was all new stuff we were discovering together.”

For Bailey, the course wasn’t merely an introduction, it was a revelation.

“For the first time, I felt that movies could do so much more than what I was used to, which was entertain,” Bailey says.

From there, a new love was born and his focus began to shift.

He started taking film courses and writing about movies for The Gazette, in addition to writing about music and covering rock shows at The Spoke and Call the Office.

“I learned a lot about the craft of writing and articulating ideas about films, and I met a lot of people I’m still in touch with,” Bailey says.

Many of those people, like Bailey, went on to become notable journalists, including the Waterloo Region Record’s Joel Rubinoff, BA’85, and the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt, BA’82.

“When I think about it now, and the age we were at the time, I can’t believe we were given those opportunities to actually … put out a newspaper every week,” Bailey says. “We were smart, we were young as hell, but somehow we figured it out.”

The Gazette was also fundamental in teaching Bailey how to wrestle with controversy and serious public issues.

“It’s that time of your life when you are discovering some of these big ideas for the first time and trying to figure out how to articulate your position,” Bailey says.

These skills have served him well, first as a journalist, and now in his role as TIFF’s artistic director. Even on Twitter (@cameron_tiff), Bailey is in a constant discussion about race, representation and responsibility in film. While in Spain, he wrote to his followers, “Hola Cartagena: Your film festival looks great. Blackface street performers in slave chains for the tourists: less so.” The day before Octavia Spencer nabbed an Oscar for her role as a maid in The Help, Bailey tweeted, “The movies are writing some great roles for black servants.”

“In pop culture, you’re always going to see this kind of thing because it plays out some of the myths and fantasies that exist in the general population,” Bailey says. “So it’s no surprise that movies and TV shows or pop music will reflect what’s out there. But, when those things pop out into popular culture, they need a response. I try to be a part of that.”

He has now been a part of that conversation for more than 20 years.

After graduating from Western, Bailey got a job writing for NOW magazine in Toronto and did some film programming. He also reviewed films for CBC’s Radio One and CTV’s Canada AM, hosted the show Filmmaker on IFC Canada, and presented international cinema on Showcase Revue.

Bailey was no longer just part of the conversation; he was one of its most respected voices.

His work as a journalist and film curator eventually led him to TIFF, where he handpicked important international films, and eventually rose to become the festival’s co-director.

Under his guidance, TIFF has blossomed into one of the world’s most important film festivals. In 1976, its first year, only 35,000 people attended. In 2009, 500,000 people did. Two years earlier, TIME magazine described TIFF as “the most influential film festival” because of how it was “perfectly timed, impeccably organized and unfailingly kind to all varieties of movies.”

Yet even with TIFF’s incredible growth, Bailey remains humble about his role in its success.

“I think it’s partly hard work and partly luck,” Bailey says. “We worked very hard to hone our programming. We were always designed as a public festival so it was important to us that our audience appreciated what we were showing to them.

“Then the luck part is our place in the calendar, and that’s become, in the last five or ten years, a key launch point for awards season.”

When it comes to TIFF 2012 (Sept. 6-16) Bailey is notoriously tightlipped. While in Cannes in May, Bailey tweeted, “I promise to report from the annual convention in France – everything that wouldn’t spoil September or get me sued.” That means that all TIFF fans get are tantalizing Twitter tidbits doled out as Bailey schmoozes with filmmakers in Beverly Hills and hangs out on film shoots in Beijing. Like a good film trailer, it’s enough to stoke our hunger without ruining the surprise.

Outside the demands of TIFF, Bailey treasures time with his wife and 3-year-old son, his “great joy.”

His son recently began watching movies. More specifically, a movie, multiple times: My Neighbor Totoro, a 1988 animated Japanese fantasy about two young girls and forest spirits.

Bailey did this to prepare his son for the big screen – TIFF Lightbox was running a retrospective of Studio Ghibli films, including My Neighbor Totoro.

“[When] he came to watch it…with lights down, and hundreds of people around him, it was this incredible transforming, overwhelming experience,” Bailey says.

“I think I just made a film fan at 3-years-old.”

Bailey talks about screening Precious and the state of arts and culture in Canada here.

This article appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of Alumni Gazette
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