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culture

TIFF Takes on Higher Learning

Post-secondary students get chance to learn from cinema greats.

Filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi. Geoff Gunn/Courtesy of TIFF.

The TIFF Bell Lightbox is, of course, a hub of Toronto’s movie-watching, festival-hosting community: it features retrospectives and exhibitions, and hosts film luminaries for Q&As. It’s home to Toronto’s film festival and international premieres. But the Lightbox doesn’t simply want to cater to the interests of established cinephiles—it’s also aiming to encourage and cultivate new film lovers by making it possible for students to interact with film, its makers, and theorists.

“We want to build a community of lifelong learners,” says Keith Bennie, manager of adult learning at TIFF, “and we want to inspire discussion, provide a space to converse.” That’s why they organize events specifically for students through Higher Learning, a program launched in 2010 (with a master class by David Cronenberg and his editor, Ron Sanders) that gives Canadian post-secondary students and faculty the opportunity to engage critically with all aspects of visual culture and to connect with the wider professional arts community.

The Higher Learning series is the reason that roughly three to five times each semester, students and instructors find themselves watching everything from Chinese silent cinema to documentaries about pastries, and debating issues related to philosophy, politics, and social issues with filmmakers and critics. Admission is free, and the event takes place in one of TIFF’s smaller, more intimate cinemas—all the better for participants to muster up courage to ask their film idols a question.

On June 13, for example, the series hosted eminent Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi for a talk about the spiritual and cultural idiosyncrasies that define Eastern Europe—and how they’re manifested in its cinema. Zanussi’s argued that “Eastern Europe” is more of a mindset than a geographical or political unit. Accompanied by screenings of clips from his films and filled with personal stories about growing up in the Eastern Bloc, Zanussi’s talk gave participants a distinct perspective on the current crisis in Ukraine and on the unique spirit of Eastern European film.

In addition to inspiring a deep appreciation for film, Higher Learning is intended to form connections among emerging and established filmmakers, students from over 40 colleges and universities, and cinephiles. “It’s amazing to see Tim Burton give critiques to animation film students, or archivists discuss the politics behind film archiving,” notes Theresa Scandiffio, director of adult learning. Students and educators from across Canada can then access online material, such as videos of past events and filmographies and bibliographies from the TIFF Film Reference Library, through a digital hub—which is also available to the public.

“We start a relationship with [students] that does not end when they graduate,” says Scandiffio. “Past participants take on internships or continue coming to events outside of the Higher Learning program.” Scandiffio refers to Soviet Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, who wanted to (so to speak) “put firecrackers under people’s seats.” She continues: “That’s what I want to do with film. How do we mobilize people into social action?”

As a complement to its “Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman” (running from August 7 to 31), TIFF will host a master class with Vilmos Zsigmond, an award-winning cinematographer who has worked with Robert Altman and Steven Spielberg, on Friday, August 8.

Higher Learning events are free, and open to Canadian college and university students, as well as to faculty members and administrators. Students and educators can contact the Higher Learning department at hlf@tiff.net to reserve tickets in advance, and sign up for its listserv to receive information about upcoming events.

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