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Remembering Noah Cowan

Noah Cowan's headshot in black and white.

Noah Cowan, who died in January at the age of 55 of glioblastoma multiforme (a form of brain cancer), was a passionate and erudite multihyphenate in the world of international cinema. A programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival who went on to become its co-director, as well as inaugural artistic director for the festival organization’s year-round theatre, the Bell Lightbox, he was also a distributor (Cowboy Pictures), nonprofit leader (the Global Film Initiative and SFFILM) and a business consultant and strategist. He was also a writer and critic. For much of this magazine’s first decade, Noah was a contributing editor and our chief festival correspondent. He’d regularly attend Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Rotterdam, returning with capacious, witty dispatches in which opinions on individual films were woven together with larger opinions about the roles these events played in the broader cinematic ecosystem. 

I wrote about Noah in a formal obituary for Filmmaker’s website and more personally for the weekly newsletter. So, as a way of remembering Noah in these pages, I decided to do something different. Reprinted here is his spring 1999 essay, “Form Follows Function,” which has never been online. In the piece, he discusses the role of three winter festivals—Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin—in sustaining, reinforcing and challenging the definition of “American independent film.” The piece being nearly 25 years old, much has changed about these festivals, but Noah’s systems-oriented analysis still illustrates a productive way to think holistically about the various components of the specialty film ecosystem. As for his concluding paragraph, a bit of advice to American independent filmmakers embarking on a round of festival submissions—well, I’d offer that same advice today.

Accompanying this article is another short piece, “Over and Over Again,” that is excerpted from a larger project currently being worked on by BFI executive, producer and critic Lizzie Francke and me. In November and December 2022, we spent 15 hours interviewing Noah about his life in film for what he called “an anti-memorial project”—a publication that will set his views on film, art and culture alongside those of his many friends, colleagues and collaborators. In this excerpt, Noah discusses the origins of his abilities as a curator and why it’s important to rewatch films. 

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