When I was a kid, I loved films so much — my family would say that I lived and breathed movies. I didn’t think much of that description at the time. Personally, I thought it was an exaggeration. Now those words come to mind after speaking with Kiva Reardon. She’s a Programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival and the founding editor of cléo, a journal of film and feminism. Reardon lives and breathes movies because cinema has actually shaped the course of her life. In this interview from last fall, we talk about her passion for film, what it’s like working at TIFF, and whitewashing in Hollywood.
TorontoVerve: When did you first become passionate about film?
Kiva Reardon: I grew up around movies because my dad worked at Telefilm, so all my scrap paper were old scripts, but I watched a weird curation of films. I wasn’t allowed to watch commercial TV, so I could only watch PBS or TVO. As a kid, watching Saturday Night at the Movies with Elwy Yost played a big part in developing my film knowledge. Obviously, I had a steady diet of Disney stuff growing up, but I also watched a lot of black and white classics. In terms of critical thinking, it was in my undergrad — I had this class with Professor Ned Schantz and we had to give weekly responses to films that we watched. He taught a lot about feminist film theory and I discovered that film was more than just the boys’ club that it is. Another professor, Alanna Thain, introduced me to French New Wave cinema and that’s how I first saw Cléo 5 à 7 and got to know the brilliant work of director Agnes Varda. I learned that feminism and film has a place together, and that’s how my love of film really began.
TV: You’ve tweeted your top seven favourite films — one of them being Titanic, directed by Kathryn Bigelow’s ex-husband. I’m curious to know what your guilty pleasure is, the film that you’re almost ashamed to tell people you love, but you have an affection for?
KR: I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. I like to subscribe to [American filmmaker] Susan Sontag’s thought of no highs and lows. I think dismissing popular culture and popular films can be really dangerous because they may seem innocuous, but some are works of art and even when they’re not they can say so much about the culture that they’re reflecting. This also gets into the idea of canon. What is good and isn’t good? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Specifically, who writes these canons? Mainly, straight white guys — which basically rigs the system. So, if you have a knowledge of female filmmakers, queer filmmakers, African or Asian filmmakers, some people won’t give them the same culture capital. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s nice niche knowledge.” No, it’s not. You’re just seeing it through the prism of something white and male. Like Shonda Rhimes' Scandal. I love that show, but is it a guilty pleasure because it’s a soap on TV? No. I think it has incredible writing, incredible thought and characters, so we should take it seriously. That’s a long-winded answer to say, “Yes, I love Titanic.” [Laughs] I was 10 years old when it came out and my mom took me to see it three times. I was so obsessed with it. A big thanks to my mom who’ll never get those nine hours of her life back.
KR: It depends on the time of year. For the first part, I’m watching a lot of films every week at home — not seeing human beings or much sunlight. I’m writing notes that say, “Yes, this works.” Or, “No, it doesn’t work for these reasons.” After that period’s done, it shifts more into planning, execution, communication and writing notes for the programme book. And when the Festival comes, I’m barely in the office because I’m running around with dignity and grace for about 10 days [laughs].
TV: What are you looking for when you watch a film?
KR: For me, I’m always looking for images that are striking and that are strung together in a way that is emotionally and intellectually compelling. What I’ve learned about programming versus my work in film criticism is that they come from the same vein of thinking about films critically. But the great thing about programming is envisioning other audiences. There’s something nice about thinking how a film can be shared with other people.
TV: There’s a growing trend in Hollywood to have diversity represented both in front and behind the camera. Studios are hiring women directors to tell stories about women, and black directors are hired to tell stories about black people. What are your thoughts about this new trend, and the ire that it’s getting from some people in and out of the film industry?
KR: People often get angry about quotas, and I don’t think quotas are the solution, but they’re definitely a stepping stone. They’re also a way for someone to get their foot in the door when it’s really hard to get your foot in the door — especially if you are a woman or person of colour working in film, where you don’t have the same network or nepotism to rely on. Frankly, there are racist, sexist and unconscious biases out there. Someone might look at me and say, “Oh, she knows about women’s stuff because that’s what she is.” I also know a lot of things other than my own lived experience. Because of my gender, I don’t have the privilege of being a generalist. White guys are seen as the norm and, of course, they must know everything about everything. That can be most frustrating. Quotas aren’t the ultimate solution, but they are a way of levelling the playing fields. And, hopefully women won’t just be relegated to telling women stories and people of colour telling people of colour stories. One of the most frustrating things that my female filmmaker friends tell me is, “If I get another question about what it’s like to be a female filmmaker…you know what, bro? Ask me about my work.” That will inevitably come up because that’s a reality of their life, but it detracts from what they’re making and also frames them and their work within that box. I’m not a woman film critic or a woman film programmer. I just do those things, and I happen to be a woman.
TV: Do you get that often? People wanting to hear just your female perspective on things?
KR: Yeah, I’ve told some editors, “Hey, you’re only assigning me women stuff.” Which is nice, obviously, because those are the voices that I want to champion, but it can also be frustrating. It narrows what I write about because there are fewer movies made by women. I’m all about more voices writing and talking about film. Magazine editors are largely male, largely white--and I’m speaking as a white person, which gives me a huge amount of privilege. Although I may complain about a gender issues, I’m still white, and that gives me a huge leg up.
TV: Diversity in film was a huge spotlight at this year’s TIFF. The Festival featured notable films like Moonlight, Queen of Katwe, Loving, Barry, A United Kingdom, I Am Not Your Negro — not to mention, Lagos. Nigeria was the recognized city in the “City to City” programme. That’s quite impressive for a major film festival. It seems rather timely after two years of #OscarSoWhite. How much of this was coincidence or intentional?
KR: You can absolutely ignore those conversations and pretend that programming happens in this perfect world where politics don’t matter. But, if you’re not asking yourself, “Why is this programme all white?”, then you’re just not seeing the big picture. You’re not thinking of how you may immediately dismiss something because of race, gender and ableism. I think that the more we talk about it, the more people will become aware of the biases that we have. We live in a world that’s largely racist and patriarchal. Biases are ingrained in us and unless we talk about them, we won’t end up challenging them. I think that TIFF really wants to be a part of that conversation and bring about change. Having Lagos in the “City to City” programme last year was incredible. Nollywood is one of the biggest powerhouses of film. It’s up there with Hollywood and Bollywood. The films may look different, the stories are told differently, there are different shooting styles and different production levels. But if we only use Hollywood or European cinema as benchmarks of what “good” is, then the game is always weighted towards what already has been deemed as acceptable, as opposed to thinking about seeing things differently. It’s great that a festival can be a platform for other kinds of films. Some of these [Nollywood] films might not have been seen in Canada [on the big screen] otherwise. That’s a big responsibility, as it has the potential to be really life altering for filmmakers and audiences.
TV: Although diversity in film is on the rise, sometimes with every step forward, there are two steps backwards. I’m referring to whitewashing in Hollywood, such as the casting of Scarlett Johannson as an Asian in Ghost in the Shell. What are your thoughts about whitewashing?
KR: And Doctor Strange with Tilda Swinton. The Doctor Strange team came out and said, “Whoops, sorry.” But that’s not enough when they already made this whitewashed movie. There’s this idea of white neutrality, which is: “You can be anything.” No, you can’t. And that idea stems from the argument that, “Well, those actors of colour don’t exist.” Or, “Those writers of colour don’t exist.” They do, but if you’re a casting director--or even an editor of a film publication--you might just need to put in a little more work to find these voices. And, you might need to put in more work to help them come up, as opposed to picking someone who’s always benefited from their race, economics, class or gender.
TV: I remember Samuel L. Jackson once saying, “They’re always looking for the next Tom Cruise, but not the next Denzel Washington.”
KR: Totally. As a white person, I think about the kinds of privileges that I benefit from. The harder, and way more crucial, step is moving from the liberal platitudes of recognition to actually making a change in the real world. It’s harder because that’s the moment when you start having difficult conversations with yourself, and other people. It worries me to think that these woke liberal arts enclaves don’t want to take that next step of actively making a change.
TV: What do you think of the Academy’s recent effort to increase diversity within its membership? Do you think it’ll make a difference?
KR: Yes, but I don’t think it’ll be overnight. I think Cheryl Boone Isaacs [the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] gets it and is making crucial structural changes. I don’t think that it’ll be like suddenly the Oscars are this perfect representation of all the different voices around the world. But it’s a start. I’m keen to see where we will be at in five, 10 and 20 years.
TV: I wasn’t so upset with the second #OscarSoWhite. How can you blame the Academy for not awarding people of colour when there weren’t many great roles for people of colour? The only way to fix the problem would be to hire more people of colour in studio executive roles or to buy more scripts written by people of colour.
KR: That’s why I love Ava DuVernay and her film company, ARRAY. Or even someone like Jessica Chastain, who has an all-female production company. These women are using their power and clout to make sure that other stories get made. I don’t know if it’s a solution, but it’s definitely the antidote to just getting another Iron Man movie. I’ve been in meetings where there are so many guys. It’s not necessarily toxic, but you just become aware, “Oh, I’m the only chick at the table again.” That’s the distinction between diversity and inclusivity. You can talk about diversity in quotas, but inclusivity is, “I feel at home here.” It’s about not feeling like “the other”.
TV: When was the last time you felt like “the other?” How did you handle it?
KR: Someone today asked me if I was a co-worker’s wife—after I finished an onstage Q&A! That happens all the time. “Oh, are you their girlfriend? Are you their plus one?” No, I’m their co-worker. I work here. Or, they’ll think I’m someone’s Personal Assistant. Not that there’s anything wrong with being someone’s wife, girlfriend or Assistant, but I’m not those things.
TV: It’s good to call it out whenever that happens; otherwise, people won’t change.
KR: I was having a talk about whiteness with my friend yesterday and how doing the work as a white person means talking to other white people and calling it out. Racism exists in white communities, and so if white people call it out more that’s maybe when change will start to occur. I think about this with rape culture, too. If you’re a guy and hanging out with a bunch of guys who are using sexist or transphobic language, you should be saying, “Hey, bro, don’t say that.” When you hear it from someone who you share a space with all the time, that’s probably when you’re more likely going to start thinking about it and change your own behaviour.
TV: Especially with locker room talk.
KR: Yeah, which is a term I also hate because I was a jock growing up, and I spent a lot of time in locker rooms —locker rooms are not just for men! [Laughs] That phrase just re-inscribes the idea that sports are for men. That drives me insane.
TV: I really like your photo with legendary director Agnes Varda (taken by photographer Matt Barnes). Your face is quite expressive — serene. Makes me wonder, what are you thinking about? What are you thinking about in that photo?
KR: I was definitely thinking that I need to get a copy of this, so I can show my grandchildren, one day. [Laughs] And also, I was having an out-of-body experience when I was watching it happen. I was also very aware of what I was doing with my hands. I was watching her being photographed all day and she would always be doing something cool with her hands. She has this real confidence and strength in front of the camera, and I was like, “How do I look cool?” So, I just grabbed the chair in front of me and thought that might work. That photo is framed and sitting on my bookshelf now.
TV: What does her work mean to you?
KR: She talked about stories that I cared about. If she could be like this outspoken feminist in the film world, then maybe there’s some wiggle room for me to try to do same.
TV: You Instagrammed a photo of her sleeping on a couch. What’s the story behind that photo?
KR: Agnes cares a lot about the next generation of filmmakers. She’s 88, and when she’s around young people her energy level and aura change. And not in a cannibalistic way. She really wants to support and learn about young people. She was very honoured that this [naming of the TIFF filmmaker lounge after her] was happening. Happy that young people were seeing her films, but she was also a little embarrassed. We had this huge mural of her on the wall [in the lounge]. She gave a little speech and said, “I’m really happy, and when I’m really happy, I always take a five-minute nap.” So, she took a five-minute nap and we shot it.
TV: Did she know that her photo was being taken?
KR: Yeah, she was performing her happy sleep for us. Agnes is the smartest person in the world. She walks into any room and she’s the sharpest mind there. She knows what’s up.
TV: TIFF has a program for young people called Next Wave. What are your thoughts about young people and how they regard cinema?
KR: The folks in that programme are super smart. There’s a wide range of things that they want to do. Some want to direct. Some want to write. Some want to be film critics. They’re really energetic and inspirational. I love running into them around the Festival. They’re always filled with so much energy and enthusiasm. It’s infectious.