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Toronto International Film Festival renames cinema for activist Viola Desmond


The Toronto International Film Festival is renaming its largest cinema after civil rights activist Viola Desmond and will launch an initiative to support Black women creators in her honour.

TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey made the announcement at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Tuesday evening at a special event celebrating the legacy of Desmond and her sister, activist Wanda Robson, who died earlier this year.

Bailey said TIFF is pledging to raise $2 million over the next five years to provide support to Black women creators, develop programming for Black audiences, and amplify Desmond's and Robson's stories.

The figure will contribute to a number of elements from connecting women to mentor figures to establishing programs and opportunities to travel abroad to be trained by those advanced in their careers.

"It's not always a matter of putting dollars in somebody's hand," said Bailey. "It's a matter of actually giving them opportunities and training to be able to tell their own story."

For Bailey, it's as much about helping today's generation of Black women creators as it is about carrying on the legacy of two pioneers.

"My whole professional life has been movies and I'm incredibly moved that Viola Desmond's act of resistance took place in a movie theatre 76 years ago," said Bailey. "That quiet kind of Canadian racism that Black people have had to deal with is something that I think Viola Desmond called attention to with her act of just saying no."

On Nov. 8, 1946, nearly a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama, Desmond was dragged out of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., by officers, arrested, thrown in jail for 12 hours and fined. It would be 63 years before Nova Scotia would issue Desmond, a businesswoman who died in 1965, a posthumous apology and pardon.

This level of acknowledgment was only made possible due to Robson, from North Sydney, N.S., who played an integral part in raising public awareness around the legacy of her sister's civil rights imprint in Canada.

Gordon Neal, the nephew of Desmond and son of Robson, said that it was "insightful" for TIFF to honour Desmond and his mother in order to send a clear message.

"We should recognize that this should never happen again and honour the work that Viola did to clear her name," he said. "She never got cleared until my mother at 74 years old, went back to university to get a degree and told the story."

While Neal said he's warmed by the attention his mother has attracted, he said his mother -- who died at the age of 95 in February -- left some big shoes to fill.

Like Desmond, she was "an amazing force of nature," he said, reached by phone in Toronto ahead of the Viola Desmond Cinema announcement.

"Her whole life, she told us that the most important thing for anybody, particularly children, is education," said Neal. "I've seen her telling Viola Desmond's story, and she'll start talking to the adults and gravitate right to the kids. She was insistent upon guiding children to finishing their education."

In that same spirit, Neal acknowledges the lack of Black women in directorial and producer roles and hopes that beyond the name change, this move will provide enough momentum toward adding more Black women within the film industry through financial support and guidance.

"It's a great honour and recognition of what she went through and the struggle we continue to go through as Black individuals in this world," said Neal, who is a part of the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justiceat Cape Breton University.

"The Desmond family, Robson family and all of us connected are very proud to be a part of this legacy. Hopefully, Black and female filmmakers in the industry will thrive and grow."

While the official reveal of the renamed cinema will take place next year, TIFF marked Viola Desmond Day on Tuesday in anticipation of the event with the designation of two side-by-side front-row seats in the soon-to-be-renamed Cinema 1, in honour of Robson and Desmond. Upon installation, they will become permanent fixtures that anyone can sit in.

In an event that was sold out, TIFF planned to welcome and honour the Desmond and Robson families with displayed art and music byDJ Mel Boogie. Celebrations also included Kelly Fyffe-Marshall's debut feature, "When Morning Comes," which premiered at TIFF 2022, preceded by a conversation about legacy and the future of Black creators in the industry.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2022. Top Stories

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