SPOTLIGHT October 2020: Joana Vicente, TIFF-Maker, Indie Producer and Film Activist

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awfjspotlightsmallsmallJoana Vicente’s first year as co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival was a triumph. The transplanted New Yorker oversaw a TIFF that had all the bases covered: superb films, A-list movie stars in attendance, initiatives in place to level the playing field for filmmakers (and journalists) and all the razzle dazzle required to make the festival a magnet for industry, audience and tourism dollars. Her second TIFF happened in a pandemic. It too was a triumph.

Vicente and co-head Cameron Bailey managed to pull together a TIFF 2020 that moved audiences into drive-in theatres and onto an online viewing platform. Fewer films, smaller audiences, less staff, a closed U.S.— Canada border and stringent health protocols notwithstanding, the festival still got big buzz from film lovers, still saw plenty of sales action and still filled its role as Oscar predictor with an Audience Award for Chloe Zhou’s Nomadland.

“We did it!” said Vicente, who was happy but exhausted when she spoke to AWFJ at the end of TIFF. “My brain is like mush, but this is really a special moment.”

A TRUE INDIE VISIONARY

Vicente’s credits are staggering. She is an Academy Award nominated producer with over 40 features to her credit from such directors as Jim Jarmusch, Brian De Palma, Steven Soderbergh, Zoe Cassavetes, Miguel Arteta, Hal Hartley, Nicole Holofcener, Alex Gibney, and Todd Solondz.

She is known for championing independent film and filmmakers. Before coming to Toronto, Vicente served as Executive Director of the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP), oldest and largest organization for indie filmmakers in the U.S. At IFP she co-founded the Made In NY Media Centre, a collaborative workspace in Brooklyn where artists and entrepreneurs find resources, mentorship and educational opportunities.

Vicente helped transform independent film production and distribution through her role in the digital revolution. With her husband/business partner Jason Kliot, she founded Open City Films in 1993 to advance independent visions in film, and five years later co-founded pioneering digital production company Blow Up, the first digital production company in the U.S. In 2003, she and Kliot partnered with Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner to create HDNetFilms. Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room was one of their first projects and it was Oscar nominated; so was Vicente’s most recent production, Nadine Labaki’s 2018 film, Capernaum (2018).

A LIFE LONG PASSION FOR FILM

Her own film education began in childhood. The daughter of architects, Vicente was born in the Portuguese colony of Macao and raised in Mozambique. She was introduced to the films of Antonioni, Pasolini and Fellini by her father, who loved Italian cinema; she says she also loved musicals as a child.

“Film was always incredibly important to me. I was very young when there was revolution in Portugal, and it was a time of upheaval. There was a lot of turbulence and at the same time my parents divorced. Everything was kind of falling apart around me and films were my way to escape.”

At university in Lisbon, where she studied philosophy, Vicente worked as an assistant to Portuguese producer Paulo Branco. She also worked in the political realm, but by the late ‘80s she had turned her attention fully to film. She met her husband when he was working on a film in Portugal and they began producing and directing short films and other projects together. Their first feature credit as producers came in 1995 on Todd Solondz’ Welcome To The Dollhouse.

“We were always passionate about independent film. We called our production company Open City Films, really in honor of Rossellini,” said Vicente. “Their movement of bringing the camera to the streets, working with small crews and telling meaningful stories —that really motivated us.”

CONSTANTLY PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

Supporting independent film meant discovering new voices and filmmakers who pushed the envelope, she said, “Whether it was aesthetically or socially or politically. It was important to find regional, unique, meaningful storytellers.”

Digital technology, she added, is all part of the same story, “Making it that much easier for independent films to be shot, produced and eventually to be distributed and reach audiences. It made it more available, more affordable. We were really excited by that — that we could make films more cheaply, and have more control of how we make them, and work with smaller crews and give space for the actors to really act, and not have only a couple of takes because film is so expensive. All of a sudden you can just roll and do it again and again.”

Whether producing or helping the ecosystem of independent filmmaking thrive, she said, “What’s always been at the heart of everything I’ve done is giving voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. That’s what motivates me.”

CHAMPIONING DIVERSE VOICES AT TIFF

Those who otherwise wouldn’t be heard have always had a place at TIFF and Vicente continues the work of Share Her Journey, a five year initiative to create gender parity and increase the representation of women in the industry. At TIFF 2020, 45 percent of films screened were directed, co-directed or created by women. (And almost half — 48% — are BIpoc directed, co-directed or created.) Share Her Journey is for gender parity overall, not just at the festival, and it’s about helping women get better career opportunities.

On her own time, Vicente has always walked the walk, but takes no special credit for it. “That’s something that I kind of fitted naturally into my life. We always had women in key positions in our production company, we always hired women in key positions in our films, we worked with women filmmakers and it’s always been part of my mission to make sure that we are creating an environment where we are moving the needle. We have a fabulous leadership team at TIFF, our senior management team, and the majority are women. We have women in all of the key positions. But you know, gender doesn’t really come up when women work with women. It’s natural to us.”

PERSONAL ACCOMPLISHMENTS, AS SHE SEES THEM

  • (Despite her many accomplishments, Vicente tends to hide her light under a bushel; asked about her proudest achievement, she says without hesitation, “My kids.”)
  • Pressed to list career achievements, Vicente said, “I am proud that I’ve has been able to support the things I care about — to discover and help filmmakers get their stories made, get those films connecting with audiences.”
  • She is proud of her work with IFP, especially helping create the NY Media Centre and working with the city, “To create a new platform for storytellers and entrepreneurs and technologists to come together and collaborate.”
  • And she is proud of TIFF. “I always loved coming to TIFF,” said Vicente, who was often at the festival in her role as a producer, “and then to have the opportunity to co-lead the organization with Cameron Bailey, that’s definitely been one of my proudest moments.”

TIFF-RIFFIC WILL TO OVERCOME

Vicente brought all her film and business acumen to the job of TIFF 2020, a massive annual undertaking that suddenly had to adjust to COVID-19. Unlike other events that were cancelled during the pandemic, TIFF went forward with carefully distanced theatre screenings, drive-ins and a digital viewing platform that ended up — silver lining — taking the festival coast to coast in Canada.

“The rug was pulled out from under us this year, and we wondered how we could put together a festival that’s going to matter in a time like this. And in a time when we can’t bring people together to share the incredible theatrical experience. How can we do it, when we have to really reimagine everything? To have been able to lead the team through this period of uncertainty, and have people take up the challenge and be creative about finding a new approach, getting people to collaborate — I feel incredibly proud of that process, of the team, and of the fact that we were able to put this festival together. It’s up there as one of our biggest achievements.”

WHY WE CHOSE HER

Joana Vicente believes in the transformative power of film and promotes the medium as an avenue of communication and understanding — even as she works to dismantle economic, racial and gender barriers in filmmaking. She is an educator, mentor and leader in the film industry and an in-demand pubic speaker who sits on many advisory boards (including including the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema—Brooklyn College); she has been honored as one of Variety’s Gotham 60: Most Influential New Yorkers in Entertainment and Media, listed twice in Variety’s Women’s Impact Report and is a recipient of the Made in New York Award for her many contributions to the city’s media and entertainment industries. We look forward to seeing what she does with TIFF and its year round programs when the COVID-19 challenge is conquered.awfjspotlightsmallsmall

Liz Braun

Liz Braun

Liz Braun is a film critic for the Sun Media newspaper chain in Canada.