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Diana Sanchez, TIFF’s New Senior Director of Film, on Her First Year at TIFF and the Future of Film Festivals

Diana Sanchez (Photo: George Pimentel, Wireimage/Getty for TIFF)

In March Diana Sánchez was promoted to the newly created role of Senior Director of Film for the Toronto International Film Festival. Previously, Sanchez was the Spanish language selector for the Canadian festival. She now oversees the programming strategy for the main festival; TIFF Cinematheque; Film Circuit, the Canadian organization’s nationwide film network; and theatrical programming at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Given the size of that job, it was inevitable that she would have to relinquish her role as Artistic Director of the Panama Film Festival, the festival she helped start in 2011. Under her direction, the Panama Film Festival emerged as the destination of choice for Central American filmmakers. She will, however, remain an advisor on the board to the Panama Film Festival from next year.

I met with Sánchez at the ninth edition of IFF Panama at one of the festival’s many happy hours, although, every hour seemed to be a happy one. This year the section titled Stories from Central America and the Caribbean served to reinforce how Guatemala has become a hotspot for filmmaking in the region. She was excited about taking on the new role at TIFF and slightly tentative. Several months later, as the festival started announcing its selection, we spoke on the phone. The conversation covered a range of topics: film festival programming; diversity; the Toronto International Film Festival selection; and why it’s difficult to foresee what film festivals will look like in five years.

Filmmaker: The new programmers — how has that changed the selection? 
 
Sanchez: We are moving from regional programmers to section heads. So, we have new leaders for almost every section. Michael Lerman and I are leading with the Special Presentations. It’s definitely had a shift because it means we are programming in different ways. It also means people see more films from different territories. The Discovery sections are more polished and have more of a voice, I think.
 
Filmmaker: Do you think that streaming has changed the way you look at the program? Do you look at things and think think they have to be more cinematic than television? 
 
Sanchez: A lot of the streaming companies have brought great titles. Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is an Amazon title, Mati Diop’s Atlantics is Netflix, but I don’t think about that. It’s after we collate what we have programmed into a group that I see that it’s a Netflix production. Afterwards, when we group the films, you notice a bit, but I don’t think it’s affecting the programming artistically. What might be happening is that tastes are shifting. It’s not changing me in conscious ways, but I do find that there is a natural shift that is happening. Remember before when you would say, “it’s a Rotterdam film,” and you would have an idea of what that was, as it was very defined? I think that is changing.
 
Filmmaker: What were your priorities when making the selection this year? 
 
Sanchez: I come from a Spain, Latin America, Afro-Caribbean background, [as well as] Portuguese, and so I’ve already had a real niche. The priorities were to expand the diversity of the program. I think that happened naturally when you look at the programmers; there are different ways of seeing cinema. It’s interesting talking about them and hearing about these different visions. A priority for me was women filmmakers. But it’s the films I love. It’s a conversation I know that everyone is having. We have a film from Kazakhstan by a female director, and it’s fucking cool, and we have a great musical from Chile. There is a lot of diversity in the programme, and that was conscious.
 
Filmmaker: When some hear that, a conscious push for diversity, there is a reaction as they feel that they don’t qualify, or they’re being pushed out, or that their work is not considered on an equal footing. That may sound ironic, from a historical perspective, but there is a reaction and sometimes a rolling of the eyes because of the feeling that diversity means favoritism? 
 
Sanchez: I don’t agree. I would never program a film that I didn’t love, or couldn’t 100 percent stand behind. It’s not about that. I’ve always programmed like this. It’s just my voice; it just wasn’t in fashion for people to talk about it before. I look at my years of programming, and it’s just that we are now speaking directly about it. With TIFF, if you look at our programs for the last few years, there has been a lot of diversity represented. I understand what you mean with “the rolling of the eyes,” and I’m not saying that there is any film selected that is not on its merits. We are judging the films based on their artistry. It’s easier to make the argument that in the past, films were programmed because they were made by well-known male directors. That’s always happened, I think. Having people with different voices programming means people have different sensibilities, and the films that we program, obviously we are trying to find fresh voices and new ways of using cinematic language. But you also have to think about the audience as well — they’re really important.
 
Filmmaker: There is this idea of TIFF competing with Telluride and Venice. This year I heard sales agents saying that TIFF was pushing for world premieres. How much of that plays into programming? 
 
Sanchez: That’s not how we are programming. We can’t all show the same films. There are a lot of films out there that are worthy, so you can’t just copy everyone’s program. Everyone has different tastes and sensibilities, and yes you want to show a world premiere, but if I love a film and it’s been elsewhere, I don’t care, I’ll show it. That’s not been my experience, to discount a film because it’s been somewhere else. That does not define at all the way we program at TIFF.
 
Filmmaker: You worked at the Panama Film Festival, what is different programming for Panama than TIFF? 
 
Sanchez: Panama is a smaller festival, of course. You don’t have the same pressure. There your pressure is almost fully about bringing Central American and Caribbean films and filmmakers and putting them in the spotlight. It’s a different way of looking at it. At TIFF, everything is broader, there are more guests, and it’s a very well running festival that speaks not just to the audience, but also the industry. Panama is a much more intimate experience. There is less pressure in Panama. The experience working at a bigger film festival against a smaller film festival is very different. At a smaller film festival, you are doing everything.
 
Filmmaker: How does the programming at the festival mix with your job year-round at the Lightbox? 
 
Sanchez: That is interesting. We are trying to integrate it in a way with the different departments. The director of the Cinematheque — he is also on the programming team. The cinema manager at the Lightbox for new releases is also on the Platforms committee. So it’s a lot of organizing. Right now, I’m so in the thick of TIFF, but it’s going well, and the two jobs fit really well. It’s well prepared. I walked into a very knowledgeable team, so it’s been smoother than I thought.
 
Filmmaker: Has the job of a programmer changed to what it was ten years ago? It seems to have changed because I feel the type of film that the industry makes is different from what it was a decade ago because the industry has changed.
 
Sanchez: When I started, which was more than ten years ago, I had to travel to watch 35mm prints to see the films at cinemas. The streaming link has really changed that part of the job. We watch a lot more films because of the new technology. I remember before because you used to jump through all these hoops to see films, and it was a lot harder to find out about films. Now there are fewer surprises than there used to be. There still are surprises, which is what makes it magical. Today, you are tracking films from a much earlier stage, with all these works in progress, you find out about films way before you used to. That’s a change. But it’s not just the film industry that has changed, the number of film festivals has increased, and the programs and film festivals are getting in on different stages. You have the co-production markets, and then you have the post-production markets, so you hear about films at a much earlier stage.
 
Filmmaker: What you started saying about streaming links and 35mm, I have this belief that streaming links have lessened the impact of film festivals and are in fact killing them because a lot of the business doesn’t need to come to see festivals.
 
Sanchez: That is a good question. Personally, I like seeing films on a screen. Yes, it’s changed things, but I don’t think [streaming links] are killing festivals because before a lot of the films you would not have seen. You would not have made the time to see some of these films before. Now you see more films. I’m assuming this has changed your job a lot. Because I imagine for press and industry, it’s a chance to see more films.
 
Filmmaker:That’s not necessarily a good thing. 
 
Sanchez: Sometimes you might indeed see a film too early because people are sending them out on streaming links and the films are not ready. It has pros and cons. I don’t think it’s all good, or all bad either, it’s just different.
 
Filmmaker: Outside of maybe Sundance, sales agents, producers and distributors don’t need to wait for the festivals to make deals. I feel when going into festivals now, the sales agents or a lot of people will have seen or bought the films before they arrive at the festival if they come. 
 
Sanchez: The business is constantly fluctuating and will continue to change. One of the things I’m curious about is what film festivals will look like in five years. I think a lot of good things can come out of these critical moments and that things start to shift. I’m an optimist.
 
Filmmaker: What does your job entail in the day-to-day? What is the work? 
 
Sanchez: We see a lot of films sent to the office. This year I’m still overseeing Spain, Latin America and so I’m watching a lot of streaming links. It’s a lot of reaching out to stakeholders, talking to the heads of different teams and discussing and making sure that all the films are getting seen. It’s a lot of working with the programmers, and that part I really like. I love watching films, but I love discussing them afterwards even more.
 
Filmmaker: Can you talk about how a couple of films you programmed this year and how they came to you? 
 
Sanchez: I programmed this film a few years ago called Campo Grande by Sandra Kogut, and I had not heard from Sandra for a while. She reached out to say she had a new film, Three Summers, and it is just beautiful. It’s in the Contemporary World Cinema program. It’s so interesting what is happening in Brazil, as I’m finding the films from Brazil are so good this year. They are tackling political questions. Three Summers has Regina Casé in it, who was in Second Mother and it’s about her work in this condo on a beachfront area and how her employer goes to jail for fraud and how she is almost implicated. It talks places over three summers, and it speaks to the political correction that is going on in Brazil. All the employees take out boats for tourists, and they start pointing out things, like which houses have people in jail, or under house arrest. It’s very funny. It’s lovely. So that one I was excited to see because it’s someone I programmed a few years ago. 
 
Filmmaker: Was there any title you had to do a lot of negotiations to get? How do you get a studio or bigger-budget film? 
 
Sanchez: All of them involved negotiations, but people want to give you the films in Toronto. I’m looking at the list and thinking “I got these films and it was not so onerous.” With Panama, especially in the first couple of years, [I was] begging people to show the films. Here that is not the case. It’s more discussing positioning and things like that, [which] take longer, but it’s not really as onerous. I’m very excited about Wasp Network by Assayas. People are looking to the past to discuss the political situation today, and I think that is very interesting. 
 
Filmmaker: Do film festivals need to evolve from where they are today? What makes them good and what needs to be improved? 
 
Sanchez: There are a few things. One of the things is that they are meeting places, it’s a communal experience. It inspires people to make films. You need these spaces where you can inspire the finding of finance to get your next film [produced]. And I think that it’s important to have this in-cinema experience. We don’t survive on just films alone. What people love about festivals is the event aspect. 
 
Filmmaker: There seems to be a realisation at TIFF that quality over quantity matters. 
 
Sanchez: That is definitely true, but you can have a high-quality curated festival, and you do events around that. It doesn’t go the other way around. The quality of events emerges from the quality of the films.
 
Filmmaker: How many films did you watch this year? 
 
Sanchez: I don’t know. I don’t like to count. I don’t even like to know what films I’m going to see. I can sometimes see four films in a day and those minutes you can waste finding out about what you are going to see, but I like going with a completely open mind. 
 
Filmmaker: Who puts the films in front of you? 
 
Sanchez: That would be the programming team. I could look the films up! But I don’t. 
 
Filmmaker:Filmmaker: So, the programming team makes a pre-selection? 
 
Sanchez: It’s more the booking. We request the films, so I do know in general what I’m going to see, but as I’m going through the day it’s, “Oh, I got a screening now.” I go from one film to another — it’s that kind of fast-pace. 
 
Filmmaker: Virtual reality, augmented reality and these different formats — is that part of the future of film festivals or are they for separate festivals? 
 
Sanchez: I don’t know. I guess until the technology is different, I think of it from a pure organization and administrative piece, and that all depends. I’m not sure. 
 
Filmmaker: Looking back at your decade at the Panama Film Festival, what did you gain from that experience? 
 
Sanchez: What I gained is that I learned how to build a festival from scratch, creating and training a programming team. Creating a guest office team and working with a group of people to start something from zero was one of the most satisfying experiences that I had. There were lots of highlights. I got to live in the rain forest for a year-and-a-half. I miss it. I was talking to someone on the phone from the festival the other day, and they said they were out on a boat and a whale came up to the ship and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m so jealous.” That is probably not the kind of highlight you meant. We helped push a lot of films in the region and introduce them. 
 
After we spoke, Diana Sanchez sent the following email:

I wanted to follow up on our conversation because I think the question of consciously thinking about diversity when we program is important.
 
There’s a lot of noise going on around you when you work in programming, a lot of people advocating for certain films and filmmakers. When I said that we make a conscious effort to program films from a diverse perspective, I meant that we take a step back and make sure that we are giving space to films from certain regions or filmmakers that haven’t traditionally been advocated for. 
 
As I work with a very diverse group of programmers this happens quite naturally. But it’s key to be intentional in our approach.
 
So, no — not an eye-rolling affair at all!!!

 

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