Dorota Lech is a Polish-born, Toronto and Los Angeles-based film programmer and independent curator. Since 2013, she has worked for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where she is the Lead Programmer of the “Discovery” section and an International Programmer for Central and Eastern Europe. She also produces the Hot Docs Forum, a pitching event aimed at garnering co-financing for international documentaries, at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival. She also programs at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Dorota previously held positions at the National Film Board of Canada and the World Congress of Science & Factual Producers. She holds a double MA in Political Science and Gender Studies from McGill University and is a contributor to “Vanity Fair.”
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
How did you get into Film?
Dorota Lech: I didn’t study Cinema at all – I didn’t even consider it an option. It seemed like something only rich people can do! I studied International Development and Economics in undergrad and also have a Master’s in Political Science and Women’s Studies. I had been accepted to do a PhD at a fancy American school but the thought of paying that kind of money for education really disgusted me and to be completely honest, after University, I was so burnt out and disillusioned that I decided to move back to Europe, to Berlin, to be a kindergarten teacher. I did this for some years and getting into film was a total fluke after I rented an apartment owned by film directors. They had been using it as an editing studio during the daytime and were my neighbors, so I was just speaking to them about film and how to get into the arts because I didn’t think this would ever be possible for someone like me. You always hear that these careers are inaccessible and poorly paid – which is true – and my parents always told me: “We’re immigrants. You’re on your own when we die! Which could be any day!” I’m not joking – this is so Eastern European! And it’s only the three of us in Canada, so I really took this to heart. As a result, I was looking for jobs in Government or politics or something that I thought was stable, but then, I met these artists and it just felt my world. Slowly, I started working for their production company for some years and helping them on sets because they were making documentaries for television in Germany. I then moved back to Canada with this experience as a kindergarten teacher and in film and was qualified for a job at the National Film Board, which was to teach children basic stop motion animation. From there, I applied for a job a Hot Docs, which was a dream come true, and eventually made my way to this job at TIFF. I guess it’s a strange sequence that you can’t recreate, but it all informed itself. It’s only my first year running “Discovery.”
So how did you start working at TIFF?
D.L.: By applying online! I was just so lucky to be chosen as the Programming Associate for documentaries. I worked with Thom Powers for six years, which entailed watching a lot of submissions, writing reviews, and then presenting films, working with him on the selection, connecting with directors, doing research…
How did you become lead programmer in a whole other section?
D.L.: For the last four or five years, I was working alongside Andrei Tanasescu and Dimitri Eipides on part of the Central and Eastern European selection. Also, probably because I’m from Poland, I was also working with Piers Handling on programming Polish cinema, which was a special interest of his. So, when Cameron Bailey decided to restructure the festival, he said that he was considering me for the position of running “Discovery,” I think because so many of the films I had helped Dimitri scout were first-time and second-time directors. This is just something that has always interested me – maybe because people are the most grateful and the most excited and I just love this energy. At the time, I was working on territories that are “newer” for the North American market like Georgia, Kazakhstan, and other places that don’t have a lot of filmmakers, so you do have to find talent or else you’re showing the same filmmakers every year, more or less. I like to think that Cameron saw my passion for this and that helped him choose me for this role…
Can you talk about the relationships you have developed with the filmmakers you helped bring here? You’re invested in their whole journey from the selection process to actually presenting the film… You live it with them completely, both virtually at first and then in reality…
D.L.: It takes months. Either you find out that someone is making a film and talk to them until they’re ready to submit or it’s submitted on the website and you receive it that way. In either case, the relationship with the director starts months before the festival and I feel like they’re people I already know well because you end up knowing so many of their psychologies like what they are nervous about, what they’re excited about, and especially their expectations for the festival because this is such a big one! We spend a long time talking about what the directors expect, what they want in order to be realistic, and to also give them the best experience and help them do business because, ultimately, this is an industry, so we want the films to go on…
But, the best story is this one: I programmed a film called Son-Mother by Mahnaz Mohammadi, an Iranian film, and we’d been working for months on getting her visa. It was so stressful, and one and a half days before the festival, she received a call that they would approve the visa if she went to Turkey first. So, she literally packed a bag, got on the last flight to Ankara that night in Teheran, flew to Ankara, got the stamp, flew to Istanbul, flew to Warsaw, flew to Toronto – this is all within a few hours’ notice – landed in Toronto one and a half hours before her screening, got into a taxi, and came straight to the cinema and arrived ten minutes before the world premiere of her film, which was completely sold out! Crazy! I had five minutes to speak with her before and we were just shaking! She had the craziest three days to get here and then you see the audience’s reaction and how people can’t believe that she made this film – we told them the story, of course, because it’s so exciting, and it’s such a beautiful feeling. I have a feeling that I’ll know her forever because it’s something that we shared, that’s more than just film – it’s one of those things in life where you’re like: “How is it possible that all these pieces came together and now we’re standing here?!” It’s too much!
That is such a beautiful story and I am so glad she made it! So can you talk about “Discovery,” the success of the section so far and what you expect from this year?
D.L The section as it’s called “Discovery” is from 1996, but only this year did it have a lead programmer, meaning curatorial oversight, so to speak. Before, it was World, International, and North American premieres and now it’s just World and International premieres.
This is a massive festival where films are sold and will play all over the world, but the coolest thing about this section is that it’s a place where many master directors really started their international careers and that was the start of my vision. I examined the history of films like Ildikó Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century in 1989 that started as a first film at TIFF; Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinetta started in “Discovery” in 2005; Christopher Nolan’s first film, Following, in 1998; Valeska Grisebach, Maren Ade, Lav Diaz, Alfonso Cuarón, Jafar Panahi, Michael Haneke, Barry Jenkins, Julie Dash… They all started in “Discovery” and these weren’t the films that press and industry were buzzing about in the moments. No one knew who these directors were… huge visionaries! I don’t know if the cinemas were full when they showed their first film – I wasn’t there for most of them – but they now have these massive international masterful careers! So, the idea is to look for vision and filmmakers that will grow into the world’s artists. Specifically the word “world” is important to me because I need the section to be international. We have thirty-seven titles this year representing thirty-five countries and that’s really, really important to me because I want it to be a program that shows cinema from around the world. It can be genre; it can be doc hybrid; it can be horror; it can be drama, comedy, anything… We’re looking for vision and I believe that these are filmmakers you’ll see making films going forward.
Can you talk about this year’s selection, what were the highlights, according to you? What is your best discovery so far?
D.L.: I don’t necessarily want to go by sales, but there was a really exciting sale that happened during the festival for Filippo Maneghetti’s Two of Us. This was a special moment – and Barbara Sukowa, whom I’m obsessed with, was here. Antoneta Kastrati’s film Zana, the first film TIFF has ever shown from Kosovo (it’s an Albanian-Kosovo production) is here and came with all the cast and crew. Also, the cinematographer is her sister and it’s a story informed by losing their mother and sister in the Kosovo war, so when you have these moments of life intersecting with cinema, it’s just so beautiful.
Then, there are other films like Chiara Malta’s Simple Women that is such a cool film because it’s punk rock and a real cinephile nerd’s “wet dream”! To see a director choose this kind of filmmaking and topic as their first feature and get to show that to Toronto audiences, I think it expands people’s ideas of cinema and expands our ideas of cinematic language.
There’s also Lina from Lima directed by María Paz González from Chile. I went to see how the cinema looked on Opening Night because it showed at 9pm and it was full of people celebrating her as a filmmaker and celebrating this beautiful out of the box movie that you really won’t see in most places. It’s a half-musical, half-drama, just like life and art coming together. Those are the success stories that really stand out to me. So much about “Discovery” has to do with the filmmakers who have worked on their first or second film for years and years, realizing that they’re not alone and that there’s an audience for it and I’m not joking, almost everybody cries – almost every single filmmaker when they realize what has just happened, has a vulnerable and totally beautiful moment of perhaps realizing they’re not alone. I love it.
It is! What do you look for when you select a film and what is a good film, according to you?
D.L.: I think a lot of it has to do with your feelings and your instinct because all Cinema is subjective and there are films that are cult masterpieces and have won numerous awards that I just don’t like and I’m sure it’s the same for you and for everyone else. So, what I do look for and what I try to take within the constraints of the category is filmmakers are being bold and adventurous and out of the box – not to say that you can’t have a standard narrative – but we want to see some directorial vision and some early auteurship of sorts in these films. If I’m surprised or if I see something really special happening on-screen that I either haven’t seen before or that I know was probably really challenging to achieve for your first film when you don’t have money, I get impressed! And, of course, stories matter. Everything, as in life, is subjective. We are really an audience-first festival and because we live here year round and we know what people are seeing in cinemas, we do care about who’s coming. Of course, the industry is filling the cinemas also, especially the P&Is, but we have three public screenings of almost every film. We want the people to be involved.
How are they involved and how are the “Discovery” films received by the audience? How do you manage to keep it appealing to them in the midst of all the big titles and the Oscar buzz?
D.L.: I don’t watch the Oscars; I don’t engage with them, so maybe I’m already keeping my brain safe from these discussions! But in terms of how we get people involved, I think it happens in two ways:
1) “Discovery” has a lot of films from countries that are not often represented in big festivals. So, for example, Kosovo, Slovenia, Cuba, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Turkey, Greece, etc. We have films that really bring in communities. I can tell you, for the Greek film, Entwined, which we showed three times, most of the discussions were in Greek, so the director had to translate for me and for the audience members who aren’t speaking Greek! It’s not only that Greek people are only going to Greek films, but they are so excited that at this big festival, there’s a film in their language, from their country, maybe from a place they know, but haven’t seen in a long time. It’s beautiful! It’s the same with the Kosovo film and with the Polish films. Just to hear something in your own language when you’re an immigrant, it’s moving. This way, I think, we really have a lot of support.
2) There’s a solid community of cinephiles in Toronto. I know of people who take the week or more off work for TIFF, like a vacation, just so they can watch movies because it’s the biggest cultural event that happens in my city every year. Or, they come to films after work every night. Or, in between shifts at work. I hear this all the time. It’s so cool. I think if you can afford it and you can afford to do this with your job, that’s a really nice aspect of living here.
Can you talk about the female filmmakers in the “Discovery” section?
D.L.: Sure! “Discovery” is 54% directed by women. I have to say however that we don’t really program by quotas. It’s not so that Cameron or Diana [Sánchez] ever said: “Listen, it has to be this way.” We’re choosing the best films from what we saw from the debut directors and more than half happen to be directed by women. Do I know what the statistics will be next year? No, I really don’t. But for this year, more than half are films by women. And it’s something that, of course, we’re terribly, terribly proud of! But I also think, for me, that’s how I see the world. Maybe I’m lucky because I live in Toronto, but this is just normal from my perspective. I think it’s impressive, of course, because life on the planet for a woman is generally a nightmare, but more than half the people on the planet are women and now, more than half in this section are women… It’s not such a shock to me! I know that the film industry has huge challenges for filmmakers that are female, especially from certain countries, but we’ve been really lucky this year to have a balanced section.
Exactly! In that sense, there has been a lot of talk about women in film for the past two years almost. How do you feel about this discussion? Where do you position yourself within it?
D.L.: I was telling you, my Master’s was in Women’s Studies, so this is just my politics; I think about intersection and race and gender and sexuality a lot, so it’s a discussion that I guess, in a way, has surprised me that it took so long to happen in the film industry. I do get worried about it being tokenized and think this is why I was so defensive when I said there are no quotas in my program. I don’t want anyone to think that half the section is made up of women because of this discussion or because of what’s happening in the world. It really isn’t! Those were the best films and that is how we program. I’m probably an extra sensitive person on this topic because when you do study gender, you encounter some pretty annoying people and it also informs the way I interact with the world and the way that I write. And I get different reactions in North American than I do in Europe, of course. This would be another type of discussion in Russia! But my point of view is that I’m glad it’s changing and I hope that it will happen everywhere, not just in North America and in parts of Northern Europe…
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
D.L.: That’s such a hard one! My favorite film of all time is Ildikó Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century, and it’s really not because it premiered in “Discovery.” Actually, to be completely honest, when I started this job, I didn’t know it had premiered in “Discovery.” I know Ildikó because she came here last year for On Body and Soul and I knew the film played at TIFF, but I didn’t know the history of it really starting here. And, I love Barbara Loden’s Wanda a lot; Vera Chytilová’s Daisies – incredible! Rachel Athina Tsangari’s Attenberg – she’s actually, on our Platform jury this year, so that’s super cool. This year, on Opening Night, I was so honoured to present Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Wow, that was incredible! It was the longest standing ovation I’ve ever seen in Toronto. Sciamma and her actresses really had to ask everyone to sit down so we could actually have a conversation. This is one of my favorite films as well.
Can you talk about your work as a writer and a curator for other institutions and film festivals?
D.L.: I’m trying to write more. The most that I’ve written this year would be the programming notes for all my films, which isn’t much, but this is my goal after the festival, to really sit down and see what’s possible. It’s different when you’re a curator. I’ll never be a critic. I don’t think it’s congruent with my job, but I do think that putting things into historical and cultural contexts is really interesting for me so, for example, I would feel comfortable writing about Easter European Cinema just because it’s what I understand the most, so I may look for opportunities in this realm. But, otherwise, I’m running the Hot Docs Forum which is a financing part of Hot Docs, a twenty-one projects pitch to film funds, commissioners, private investors and various people in the film industry to get financed to go into production or to go into post-production. I do this the other half of the year and then, I’m also programming a little bit at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia – I do their selection of Canadian and Polish films. And now I’m getting anxious thinking about how there’s no time to write!
What is in store for “Discovery”?
D.L.: I suppose that I’ll have to sit down with my bosses after the festival to make sure they were happy with me! But almost every single screening I’ve presented has been more than sold out, so I already know that there’s an appetite for “Discovery” in Toronto. Hopefully, they still want me to be part of it, but I think this section will remain strong because I really do believe this festival, which is taking the opportunity to showcase new directors even with red carpets, galas, and awards happening all around, is really special. To be clear, I have nothing against these glitzy events – it’s amazing that it happens here as well – but the fact that we do both, I think, is so beautiful and I just happen to be more interested in the other side. But you need something for everyone, I guess…
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Photo credits: ©TIFF