Five Questions for Noah Cowan

Posted: July 14, 2011 - 11:00 , by Laura Comerford

Fun fact about the TIFF Bell Lightbox: its Artistic Director started out as a box-office volunteer. As a teenager, Noah Cowan volunteered for the relatively young “Festival of Festivals”, now the Toronto International Film Festival. Since those humble beginnings, he has started Midnight Madness, founded the Global Film Initiative, curated major retrospectives on Indian and Japanese cinema, started a production company, been a film critic, Co-Directed TIFF and became Artistic Director of TIFF Bell Lightbox- but not exactly in that order.

On Sunday July 17 at 1pm, Noah visits the ROM to give a personalized tour of the ICC’s Bollywood Cinema Showcards: Indian Film Art from the 1950s to the 1980s exhibition, bringing the experience of multiple Bollywood-centred projects, including TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Raj Kapoor Retrospective as well as My Name is Raj, a project done in collaboration with Luminato, to shed unique light on the art on display.

In the lead up to Noah’s “Fresh Perspectives” Tour, we asked him five questions about Indian cinema, film watching and cinema’s social potential.

What is your favorite Raj Kapoor film and why?

Probably Awaara, like millions of people around the world. The film just conveys this propulsive sense of the possible, a delight with the inventiveness of cinema and its ability to speak triumphantly about the social issues of the day. From a critical perspective, the legendary dream sequence towards the end is a constant reference point and one of cinema’s key defining moments. When people ask about the successful inclusion of psychological mythmaking in visual art, I point them in the direction of Awaara. And then there’s the crackle and tension between Kapoor and Nargis – it is so moving, so romantic. There’s really very little not to love about the film.

When were you first introduced to Indian cinema? What do you think distinguishes it?

Indian cinema has played an enormous role in my personal development as a critic and programmer. Like many Torontonians, my first experience of Hindi cinema occurred while changing channels on the TV. I was instantly hooked. The first major retrospective I programmed was called India Now! in 1993 at the Toronto International Film Festival, which exposed Mani Rathnam to non-South Asian audiences. While in New York, programming a theatre, I had the opportunity to champion Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist which got A.O. Scott’s first rave review in The New York Times. And now TIFF is making Raj Kapoor’s extraordinary canon available on new prints in North America for the first time in 30 years. Indian cinema continues to intersect with my professional life in these really interesting ways.

Hindi cinema, or “Bollywood”, is incredibly important for anyone with even a passing interest in the medium. It’s the only global filmmaking tradition that is commercially-minded, with an unbroken history and utterly distinct from Hollywood. Hindi cinema has of course borrowed a great deal from the Americans but these ideas get fed into a separate aesthetic paradigm. The “masala” film – which includes everything from slapstick comedy to gunfight to musical numbers and coy romance – is a different idea of cinema than the hard-and-fast genre distinctions of Hollywood or the codes of European art film, which function as a kind of opposition to Hollywood but uses the same basic language.

Hindi cinemas has also shaped filmmaking outside of India. Raj Kapoor especially was equally popular in the Soviet Union, the Middle East and East Asia as he was at home and one sees these Indian film concepts interwoven into the cinemas of these regions.

How different or similar is it for you watching a film as a critic, as the Co-Director of TIFF, as artistic director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, as a producer and as a regular film buff?

It’s tough to say at this point. My husband and I often go to the multiplex to see Hollywood films and we have a great time but I think I still look at them critically. You just can’t help it!

Are there any universals when it comes to reviewing or critiquing films? Do you apply the same standards for different genres or different industrial centres, specifically Hollywood, Bollywood or Canadian cinema (which unfortunately lacks such a catchy title)?

I know – Canollywood doesn’t quite do it, right? I actually think applying similar overarching critical standards is important when dealing with any sort of cinema and, by extension, any work of visual art. Does the filmmaker effectively and clearly convey their intent? Does the visual language of the work intersect appropriately with the story? Does the filmmaker bring an awareness of the history of the medium to their work? Does the film inspire passion in the viewer? These are the key questions for all art and any “Wood” should be judged against them.

Throughout your working life you seem to show a devotion to cinema’s potential for social good, culminating in the creation of the Global Film Initiative. How do you see the relationship between cinema and society today?

Film inspires like few other media. It transports you to a place where you can imagine yourself and your world in a different way. That’s powerful and even therapeutic and so the power of film deserves enormous respect. We can make that experience an even more profound one when we connect the cinema-going experience to a social good or even just a passionate desire in an individual. I am not a fan of “message movies” especially but I have personally seen experiences happen to a classroom of kids when they are exposed to a simple story of day-to-day existence in Sri Lanka or Senegal through film. It’s life changing – these young people feel connected to the world in a way they never were before.