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The power of cinema

Piers Handling, director and CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival, speaks to the graduates at Queen's University after receiving an honorary degree on Monday, June 6.


Piers Handling (Arts’71) is rather blunt about his Queen’s experience: “It changed my life.”

On Monday, the director and CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) returned to the university to receive an honorary degree.

Handling first arrived at Queen’s in 1967 to study history but by the time he graduated in 1971, he knew that he had found his calling in film.

“I saw a couple of films that changed my life, literally, my career path. I was so excited by the discovery,” he says, shortly before the start of the convocation ceremony at Grant Hall. “When I graduated I actually tried to use my history degree for about six months but fell into a film job almost immediately. And I knew that that was going to be in a serious way my career path.”

Those two films were Week End and Pierrot le fou, by director Jean-Luc Godard. Previously for him, he says, films were a diversion, mere entertainment. But these two, viewed within a week of each other, opened a whole new world.

“Those films made me realize how exciting cinema could be in terms of a form of personal expression. I had seen a lot of films but I had never taken film seriously,” Handling says.

He would also be influenced by Peter Harcourt, the cornerstone of the film studies program at Queen’s, as well as Robin Wood. Handling continued with his studies, graduating in 1971, but “hung around” the film studies department. He would immerse himself in films and this led him to his career path.

Harcourt would help Handling get his first job, with the Canadian Film Institute, and he would then move to the nascent film festival in Toronto in 1982. In 1994, he would become the CEO and director and oversee TIFF’s evolution into one of the biggest and most influential film festivals in the world.

However, he says, his successful career journey never would have happened if he hadn’t come to Queen’s.

“Queen’s gave me a sense of opportunity but I think the most important thing is I fell in love with cinema here and I’m not sure I would have fallen in love with cinema anywhere else,” he says. “It was just the climate here, the environment here. My friends were in drama, my friends were in film. I was attracted to them. I don’t know if that alchemy would have existed in another university.”

In addressing the new graduates, Handling drew from his recent experience where he spent two weeks working in refugee camps along the border between Greece and Macedonia. It was chaotic and overwhelming with thousands of people holding onto the hope of a better life for themselves and their families. Volunteers came from around the world to help out and, through their efforts, were making a difference even if it was not apparent at first.

“It gave me a great sense of the power of individual action, at a time when so many of us feel not empowered. Problems like a refugee crisis or global warming seem to be insurmountable and how can we, as an individual, make a difference,” Handling says. “You begin to realize after a while that individual action made a difference, that the camps couldn’t run without the volunteers. The message is you can actually make a difference.”