CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Cameron Bailey shares his story of growing up as the only Black student in his class, the balance between fitting in and maintaining culture, and the power of film to create empathy, provide alternate perspectives and celebrate diversity.

Black History Month is an opportunity to both recognize the achievements of Black people around the world and to identify ways to continue working towards equity. It is a time dedicated to education, creating deeper understanding, strengthening allies and fostering a more inclusive environment for a group of people that often feel unheard, unseen and undervalued. More than a celebration, it is an opportunity to spark meaningful discussions about racial equity and social justice.

Every year, RBC holds a company-wide event to recognize Black History Month. Recently, thousands of employees joined from across the globe to hear from TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey, who shares his unique insights and experiences leading one of Canada’s most powerful and iconic brands.

The unique perspective of “an outsider”

The Toronto International Film Festival is the world’s largest public film festivals and one of Canada’s premier cultural brands. Under Bailey’s leadership and strategic direction, the festival has consistently grown in size and significance every year. Bailey attributes part of his professional success to the distinct perspective he has cultivated as “an outsider,” including his ability to understand people, to discover films that will resonate with audiences and to persuade the many stakeholders he deals with through his role.

“I think that being an outsider almost my whole life helps me to read people, because I’m not just projecting myself out in the world. My antennae are up all the time and I’m always trying to understand the unspoken cues that are telling me what’s really going on with this person. What’s the tone in the room? How is it shifting, depending on what they’re saying or not saying? That’s what I’m always looking for.”

Bailey was born in London, England, and moved to Barbados with his family at age four before migrating to Canada in the 1970s. “It was rough,” he says, of being the only Black kid in the classroom. “There were days when I was chased around the schoolyard called all kinds of names that people don’t say anymore. But I learned a lot. I learned what I needed to know to fit in, but to also hold my culture. And that balance is something that I have made sure that I maintain my whole life.”

Bailey also found his way through the challenges of racial discrimination through two things he discovered in university. One was writing – he started at the student newspaper while at the University of Western Ontario – and the other was cinema, when he first saw a film that wasn’t a Hollywood production. “It was my first introduction to movies that were about ideas and bigger concepts beyond stimulation,” he says. That exposure inspired Bailey to start writing about film, which ultimately led to his first job at TIFF where he began as one of the people selecting films for the festival.

Tiff’s mission: To transform the way people see the world through film

Currently in its 49th year, TIFF started out as a festival dedicated to bringing the best of films from other festivals to Toronto. During those years, the festival (which was originally called the Festival of Festivals), was gradually building the public audience in Toronto. Today, that audience has become one of the most influential film audiences in the world.

“We’re lucky that Toronto is the kind of city with a really cosmopolitan, curious population that has an audience with great taste,” says Bailey. Typically, TIFF screens films from approximately 70 different countries every year. “It works because we have an audience that wants to see films from 70 different countries – because often they have their own roots in different parts of the world,” Bailey explains.

Celebrating diversity in film is a cornerstone of TIFF and one that extends far beyond the countries from which they select films. Bailey explains that diversity and access, when it comes to the movies, is about who is in the films, who is seeing the films, and the stories they are telling. “It’s all about belonging,” he says, sharing that TIFF just named their biggest cinema the Viola Desmond Cinema at TIFF Lightbox in honour of the courageous young woman who challenged the rules of racial segregation in a 1946 Nova Scotia movie theatre. Refusing to leave a whites-only section, Desmond helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada. “Viola Desmond wanted to be an equal part of a movie audience,” says Bailey. “She couldn’t sit where she wanted to, and back then, there were very few films available that she could watch and see somebody who looked like her on screen.”

With films telling the stories of people and places from across the globe, there is meaningful representation throughout the festival. “Now, not every movie has to reflect every person’s experience – that’s not possible,” Bailey concedes. “But for so long, all of us were trained to see a straight white man as the hero of a movie. When you have a different protagonist, a different centre of the story, you get different kinds of stories. I think we all benefit when we grow, when we can watch that range of stories – and that’s part of what we try to do at TIFF.”

TIFF’s mission is to transform the way people see the world through film. “Film is a powerful medium that can challenge perspectives and help audiences envision a more just and equitable society. It can be a platform for people that might not otherwise have a voice. Film can also give people opportunities to grow and expand their empathy to people they don’t see as similar to themselves,” says Bailey. When people see stories of others who live in a different part of the world, or lived in a different time that they’ll never be a part of, or just have a different life experience and different priorities, Bailey believes we can all expand our empathy. “And I think that can lead to a better world.”

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