TIFF Then and Now: TropicalFRONT Sits Down with Programmer Diana Sánchez

Photo by George Pimentel / WireImage Getty

Photo by George Pimentel / WireImage Getty

By Josh Gardner

Since joining the programming team at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2001, Diana Sánchez has ushered the best of Latin American cinema to the global stage. From discovering new voices to honoring the masters, Sánchez has made a concerted effort to highlight the diversity and magnitude of talent coming out of the region. We were lucky enough to steal a few minutes with Sánchez during the festival to discuss the past, present, and future of Latin American cinema, and some of her personal highlights from TIFF this year.

As a programmer at TIFF, Sánchez has grown alongside many of the filmmakers who are now considered the region’s biggest talents. “It's interesting, because when I first started as a program assistant, which would have been 2001, I started at the same time that New Argentine Cinema was happening. So I saw Pablo Trapero, Adrián Caetano, Lucrecia Martel—we showed her first feature here in 2001, La Cienega—Lisando Alonso, all of these filmmakers. And it’s so funny because when I tell young filmmakers about that time, I'll never forget Trapero’s Crane World / Mundo grúa. Crane World / Mundo grúa was made on a shoestring budget. Pablo would shoot on weekends with friends from the film school. That’s one of the things that I've really noticed has completely changed... You don’t notice it year to year, but then you notice it when you hear filmmakers talking about these ‘small’ six million dollar budgets. Oh my god! I remember when they were like $20,000 dollars... Sometimes I miss those early days, but you still have that freshness. You see [it in films like] Killing Jesus / Matar a Jesús, Tigre, or Princesitas. You [still] get a lot of these emerging filmmakers with a very particular unique voice—they just have more money to work with.”

Zama by Lucrecia Martel

Zama by Lucrecia Martel

It’s all come full circle this year, as Sánchez is able to screen the latest work by Lucrecia Martel. “I’m really excited about Zama and am so proud to have Martel in the Masters program. I think she just has such a distinct voice, the way she plays with light, with sound. [I find] her soundscapes in the film so powerful and moving. [Zama] is based on a novel and I just love how she turns a novel, a literary adaptation, into this painterly piece. She’s incredible.”

But it was not until her programming duties were complete, that Sánchez noticed a theme among the films started to emerge. “There’s a real provocation with childhood, with families, with families being destructed. In a way, with our current society this makes a lot of sense because it’s a very difficult time. [Yet] it was interesting to see these same themes re-emerging in such different ways, from Motorrad, which is a Brazilian motorcycle kind of thriller, to Veronica which is a Ouija board scary thriller, to A Sort of Family / Una especie de familia, which is about illegal adoption, to Cocote, which is an experimental film. And I guess the fear, the instability of our times, is definitely transmitted through the films. [They] just started to dialogue with one another and they are not the same and they are all approached from such different angles, but there is a recurring theme.”

A Fantastic Woman by Sebastián Lelio

A Fantastic Woman by Sebastián Lelio

Another growing trend Sánchez has noticed is that Latin American filmmakers are making the transition to English-language cinema. Following in the footsteps of Mexican filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, at TIFF this year with The Shape of Water, as well as Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, filmmakers like Matias Piñeiro (Hermia & Helena, TIFF ’16) and Pablo Larraín (Neruda, Jackie, TIFF ’16) have started to work in English. This year, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio came to TIFF with two films, the foreign language Oscar selection from Chile, A Fantastic Woman / Una mujer fantástica, and the UK-set Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. The Spanish filmmaker Fernando Léon de Aranoa also arrived at TIFF with his English language biopic of Pablo Escobar, Loving Pablo, which stars Spaniards Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz.

One of Sánchez's top picks for this year’s festival is Killing Jesus / Matar a Jesús, a riveting thriller that that tells the story of a young woman who befriends her father's killer after a chance encounter at a discotheque. “The filmmaker, whose father was actually assassinated, has always wondered how’d she react if she did ever meet up with her father’s killer. The film comes to this place of compassion that you would never expect and it’s beautiful. I was crying and had goosebumps because of how beautiful it was. This one is really exciting, because there’s something so raw about it, you just feel this rawness when you’re watching it. And when you find out it’s semi-autobiographical, its really quite powerful.”

Killing Jesus by Laura Mora

Killing Jesus by Laura Mora

When asked about the proudest moment of her TIFF career, Sánchez is quick to point to 2009, when she world premiered Alamar, Crab Trap / El vuelco del cangrejo, and The Secret in Their Eyes / El secreto de sus ojos, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film that year. However, she’s still excited about what the future holds for Latin American cinema. “Seeing all these new filmmakers this year was really encouraging. I like this year’s the lack of pretension. There’s something urgent, honest, visceral about all the films and that’s something that speaks well to the future of Latin American cinema. I would wish for Latin American cinema to travel better within Latin America, to have better distribution within the region. And, of course, if it could get more recognition internationally, that’s what I would like.”