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Scarborough Film Festival highlights the local stories by going international

UTSC Professor Garry Leonard will host the Scarborough Film Festival's opening night screening of Searching for Nepal, an award-winning documentary about a former Peace Corps volunteer who returns to Nepal following the civil war. (Photo by Ken Jones)

UTSC Professor Garry Leonard explores what makes the Scarborough Film Festival so unique


The Scarborough Film Festival, now in its third year, is a showcase for numerous feature and short films of various genres by some of the best filmmakers in local, Canadian and international cinema.

In addition to being a major sponsor of the festival, U of T Scarborough will be an active participant in other ways. The campus will screen six films while recently hired professor Sara Saljoughi, an expert on pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema, will serve on the festival’s jury.

Professor Garry Leonard, who will introduce the opening night feature and host a Q & A with the director following the film, teaches several film courses as part of the Minor in Literature and Film Studies at UTSC.

Writer Don Campbell spoke with Leonard about what makes the Scarborough Film Festival unique and the joys of exploring the local stories inherent to international films.

What makes this festival unique?  

I think it has to do with location. Scarborough is becoming a place where more and more people want to tell their unique stories. There’s a healthy mix of international and multi-cultural films but the festival also highlights uniquely Scarborough stories. Last year there was a wonderful, small-budget film called Cliffside that tells the story of a server in an independent donut shop in Scarborough. I think the shop went by Imperial Donut or some other magisterial name. It was a great character exploration. The reason I prefer to go to these places for my coffee is because they are full of characters – many of whom deserve to be characters in a movie themselves – rather than Starbucks, where everyone looks the same. These are the stories that should be told because they are so interesting and uniquely human.

So it’s the focus on local stories from around the world that sets this festival apart?

Festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) can be a very intense, overwhelming experience. There’s also a tendency to focus on Hollywood blockbusters. TIFF does a good job of lifting up the hidden gems that deserve greater exposure, but you have to work hard to find them sometimes. The great thing about the Scarborough Film Festival is that it circulates films that wouldn’t otherwise get the exposure that they deserve.

Those in attendance also get to experience truly unique storytelling. These aren’t necessarily Cineplex movies, so attendees get to see film done in a way they’ve perhaps never experienced before. I know many come away thinking ‘wow, I never knew film can also be this.’ I also think with the world being increasingly globalized, culture is also becoming homogenized in many respects. I think film has a new role in bringing awareness of the importance of the local to a wider audience, something this festival does really well.

Why is audience interaction an important part of the festival?

I’m a populist and love to break down barriers that exist between academia and the public. What I love about this festival is the interaction between the filmmakers, the experts and people from the community who come out to enjoy the films. The last thing I want to do is sit in a room with four other experts discussing film. Where’s the relevance in that? The humanities have taken a bit of beating lately from those questioning its relevance. When we come together to talk about what these films mean to us it can help us all to feel a little more grounded.

Is there a particular film you are really looking forward to seeing?

The opening film tonight Searching for Nepal should be very interesting and very timely given the recent tragedy there. It’s about a former Peace Corps volunteer who seeks out his adopted family in Nepal following the civil war. It’s a striking film that transcends cultural borders because it conveys such a powerful message through its imagery. Having the director there will also bring the film to life. I mean we can’t physically take the audience to Nepal but this film does a masterful job of taking them there in other ways.

© University of Toronto Scarborough