In Praise of Festival Volunteers

NBC Universal and the TIFF organizers deserve some applause. Not because the 2009 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival has been an incredible event thus far, not because the slate of films at the festival is so fantastic. No, there’s something much more deserving of credit than that.

Anyone who has seen a film at TIFF this year will know what I’m talking about. At the beginning of every film screened (publicly or sales & industry), there are a short set of promos that play. One in particular is of specific interest: A filmmaker stands at a podium speaking inaudibly to the half-interested audience with (presumably) his cast next to him. They wave goodbye at the crowd, who bring their hands together in polite applause. Someone else is making their way to the stage now. Someone dressed in all black. There’s white letters written across their t-shirt that read: VOLUNTEER. They modestly wave as the crowd erupts in a thunderous standing ovation. The caption at the end reads something along the lines of: This festival wouldn’t be possible without our volunteers.

This clip comes thanks to NBC Universal, who sponsor the TIFF volunteer programme. When I saw it for the first time, I was grinning ear to ear. It was great to see such public acknowledgment for the unsung heroes of the film festival world. Even greater, however, was that almost every audience I’ve sat amongst has given enthusiastic applause at the spot.

It got me thinking of how many film festivals I’ve attended where there is little to no love for the pro-bono army of workers swarming the venues and streets of major film festivals. Sundance does a particularly great job at making the volunteers feel like they’re appreciated, but they certainly haven’t put their kudos on display in such a fashion as TIFF has.

As this is my first time attending TIFF, I don’t know if the spot is something new, or if they have one every year, but it certainly struck a cord with me, personally. Film festivals wouldn’t exist without the help of dedicated individuals who are eager for experience and hungry to learn. Especially in such a rough economic client, the idea of running a film festival in which every working body is paid an hourly wage is impossible. There are simply too many positions that need to be filled, and not enough money to go around. With sponsorship down across the whole festival circuit, volunteers are more important to the survival of film festivals than ever before.

These people work long hours in largely thankless positions, and on many occasions, endure hardships at the hands of cranky festival goers for reasons that they have no control over. Trust me, I’ve been there.

However, starting at the bottom isn’t the same as bottom of the barrel. Many festival volunteers are among the nicest, most legitimately pleasant people you’re likely to come across. Despite demanding schedules and sore feet, most volunteers are still wearing a smile by the end of their daily shift, and what’s more: many come back year after year!

In my experience, volunteer armies are usually made up of two types of people: Movie lovers, and film students/emerging filmmakers, actors, etc. Both groups are equally deserving of our respect and gratitude. Without movie lovers, there wouldn’t be a need for movies and thus, no need for festivals to showcase them. Film students and up & comers… well, we’ve all been there: working ourselves to the bone during the day and hustling at night to try to network and find people who can help us out on the ground floor.

Sometimes I think we get so busy with our screening schedules in-hand and our daily meetings planned out in our Blackberry, that we forget how much work it actually takes to make sure these things run smoothly.

So, for those of you reading this who are in attendance at TIFF 2009 for the remainder of the week, I propose this: Next time you have a few minutes before a screening, while you’re killing time standing in line, picking up tickets at the box office, or whatever it is you’re doing, take a moment out to thank whoever is helping you. Not in the passive “thanks” that we’ve become so accustomed to giving as we walk away, but a legitimate, sincere thank you. Let them know if they’ve been particularly helpful or pleasant to deal with, let them know they’re doing a good job. Hell, if you have a couple minutes to spare, find a passionate youngster to impart a quick bit of advice.

After all, without our black shirted friends-at-arms, we wouldn’t be here enjoying such a fantastic film festival. And that, my dear reader, would suck.

Thank you, TIFF volunteers. Every one of you.

James Cooper | Development Manager

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