Noah Cowan and the Genesis of GFI

On the eve of 9/11′s tenth anniversary, GFI’s co-founder recalls the impetus, purpose and passion behind the Initiative

Noah Cowan, co-founder of the Global Film Initiative

It is my enormous pleasure to add my voice to the growing tributes to the Global Film Initiative this year and its vital work on behalf of developing world filmmakers and audiences across North America. I would also like to offer my profound congratulations to Susan Weeks Coulter for her unstinting belief in and support of this very special and unique project; a project which could not be closer to my own heart.

It is most humbling to witness an idea, hatched by Susan and me, that has, over the years, inspired so many people. It all started over a cup of tea in China, as so many worthy things do these days…

I had been working as a film distributor and programmer for a number of years and had developed a vague feeling that more could be done to connect developing world filmmakers and their incredible stories to American audiences, both young and old. On a programming trip in Beijing, I met the electric force otherwise known as Susan Weeks Coulter. She too had been thinking along these lines. We had been discussing events of the day and at a certain point, she leaned in and asked me something like, “In this environment of violence, suspicion, and even undisguised hatred, there must be a way we can try to re-establish mutual respect between Americans and the rest of the world…to address the inadequate and often inaccurate representations of peoples, cultures, religions and even geography?”

And when she mentioned something about the universality, efficiency, and healing power of art, and particularly film, I did not need to hear anything more. Words tumbled over one another, the afternoon stretched into the evening and the germ of an idea was created.

The destruction of the World Trade Center buildings and the wave of incomprehension, fear, and undirected loathing that followed, galvanized us into action and in a rather dizzying six months later, the basic structure of the Global Film Initiative, including its name, had been born. We believed then, as we do today, that if people can see these films, absorb their stories, take in the performance and photography that conveys the depth and complexity of culture largely unknown in North America, then more of us would reject simplistic and ignorant formulations about the places, the people, and the amazing lives being lived in the developing world.

Major, fearless partners stepped up to join in this effort; MoMA, The Walker in Minneapolis, MFA Boston and seven other institutions from around the country were brought on board, as partners, to implement various programs. They believed, as we did, that there was great value to showcasing and supporting films of artistic merit from under-served nations and that the education of high school students and the exposure of public audiences, to these films, might help bridge some of the misunderstandings and distrust. And, we were launched.

It seems incredible how quickly it all came together. And some eight years after I left the project in Susan’s eminently capable hands, it is inspiring to see how it has thrived. Clearly this was an idea meant for our time.

For all the directors who have benefited from receiving cash grants to complete their films, more than 100, representing 46 nations, for all the public institutions who now have an outstanding developing world programme, for the communities across the country who now have access to affordable international films, for all the teachers who understood the importance of exposing their students to this material and especially for the tens of thousands of young people who have benefitted from seeing a part of the world that might otherwise have escaped them, thank you Global Film for making the world a better place.

–Noah Cowan, 9/6/11

Noah Cowan is the artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival. Mr. Cowan co-founded Cowboy Productions and Code Red Films, and was a co-founder of the Global Film Initiative, before rejoining the Film Festival in Toronto, where he started his career in film more than 15 years ago.

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