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Noah Cowan, Former TIFF Festival Director, Curator, Critic and Distributor, Dies at 55

Noah Cowan (Photo: E.A/SFFILM)

in Filmmaking
on Jan 26, 2023


Noah Cowan — a curator, critic, festival director and distributor — died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 55, and the cause was Glioblastoma multiforme.

Over his more than 30-year career, Cowan brought his passion and erudition to a number of organizations and endeavors, beginning with the Toronto International Film Festival, where he began as an intern in 1981. After graduating with a philosophy degree at University of Toronto, Cowan in 1989 became a programmer at TIFF, curating films for the Midnight Madness and, later, the Vanguard sections. He would go on to program major national cinema retrospectives on India and Japan for the organization. Later, after leaving his programming role at TIFF, he returned to become the festival’s co-director from 2004 – 2008 and, the following year, became the inaugural artistic director of the Bell Lightbox, the large multiplex and exhibition facility that’s now the center of the festival. There, he curated exhibitions of director David Cronenberg, actor Grace Kelly, and visual artists Yang Fudong and Candice Breitz, as well as major retrospectives related to the history of Chinese cinema and the Indian superstar Raj Kapoor.

Between his years at TIFF, Cowan worked entrepreneurially within the film space, finding ways to advance film distribution by using the observations and insight gleaned from this work as a curator. He formed Cowboy Booking International in 1993, which launched a number of important international and American independent films. Cowan was joined at Cowboy by John Vanco, and the company was later renamed Cowboy Pictures. Among the films it distributed are Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen’s Benjamin Smoke, Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror, Aviva Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut and Tim Kirkman’s Dear Jesse. Cowboy also programmed downtown New York’s The Screening Room and partnered with Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder label to bring back the midnight movie — Cowan’s original TIFF programming mission — for a new generation.

Cowan also throughout the ’90s was this publication’s contributing editor and chief festival correspondent, covering Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and other events in dispatches that combined film criticism with insightful analysis of the proper role of festivals within a changing film landscape. In 2,000 word dispatches, he was expert at conveying critical assessments of not just individual films but of the statements made by their collective presentations. A keen thinker and vivid conversationalist, Cowan’s  opinions would always be delivered with an invigorating, warm laugh, an exclamation designed to startle, to keep you on your toes, and he brought much knowledge as well as camaraderie to Filmmaker‘s first decade.

In 2002, Cowan was the co-founder and Executive Director of the not-for-profit Global Film Initiative, which, in partnership with the Museum of Modern Art, promoted cross-cultural understanding through the distribution and exhibition of film. And in 2014, Cowan became the executive director of SFFILM, San Francisco’s long-running film non-profit and the home of the San Francisco International Film Festival. After five years with the organization, he returned to Los Angeles, where he launched Noah Cowan Consulting, where he provided strategy guidance and artistic input to non-profit, film festival, and venture capital clients around the world.

In the months before his passing, Cowan and friends launched a website, Noah Cowan Film, that has collected his writings across various outlets — including Filmmaker — and disciplines. Cult cinema, LGBTQ+ work, visual art and David Cronenberg are just some of the subheadings under which Cowan’s vibrant, astute and often hilarious voice resounds.

Among the filmmakers and artists whose work Cowan was proud to have championed are Gregg Araki, Catherine Breillat, George Butler, Jem Cohen, David Cronenberg, Guillermo del Toro, Atom Egoyan, David Gordon Green, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Guy Maddin, Lucrecia Martel, Deepa Mehta, Michael Moore, Mani Ratnam, Boots Riley, Isabella Rossellini, Patricia Rozema, James Schamus, and Johnnie To.

Cowan is survived by his husband, John O’Rourke,  parents Nuala FitzGerald Cowan and Edgar Cowan, and brothers Brian FitzGerald and Tim FitzGerald. The family requests that remembrances can be made with contributions to The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Toronto’s Cinematheque.

A more personal tribute to Cowan that discusses as well his work here at Filmmaker will be published in the coming days.

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