Noah Cowan

Source: Courtesy of TIFF

Noah Cowan

Filmmakers James Schamus, Atom Egoyan and Hirokazu Kore-eda have led tributes from across the industry to Noah Cowan, the influentional former director of Toronto International Film Festival who died last week.

Former TIFF colleagues, long-time business partner John Vanco and key figures from the film industry, festivals and arts institutions also paid tribute to Cowan, who died aged 55 on January 25 in Los Angeles, after an illness.

Veteran US producer Schamus said: “Noah’s resume oddly conceals as much as it reveals. It would be easy to conflate his roles and job titles with his career, but Noah was someone for whom such remarkable professional accomplishments served only as the ground for the actual and tremendous life work he achieved.

“He was not simply one of the most important curators, institution builders, distributors, grantors, and festival heads of our era – although he was all these. And that’s because in each of those jobs he took his institutional and personal prerogatives and mobilized them in the service of countless other careers and communities. He’ll be sorely missed.”

Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda, who won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2018 with Shoplifters, credits Cowan with helping him breakthrough internationally after inviting his film After Life to TIFF in 1998. “Noah was a champion of After Life and I truly believe that had I not met him, and had my film not been invited to Toronto, my career would have been completely different,” he said. “Noah has been not only a great supporter of mine since the beginning, but a respected and dear friend to me as well. Rest in peace, Noah.”

Oscar-nominated director Egoyan, who has been a regular at TIFF for more than 30 years, said: “I first met Noah when I was in my first year at college and he was being babysat by a friend. Though he was too old to be a baby, he grew up to become one of the smartest, wittiest and wisest friends I could ever imagine. This is a huge loss”

Vanco, with whom Cowan co-founded New York-based distributor Cowboy Pictures in 1993, said: “Noah was my best friend and business partner for many years. He provided the vision for us to be creative, to cherish and elevate artists in cinema, and to have fun while doing it.”

Now senior vice president and general manager of New York arthouse theatre IFC Center, Vanco added: I’m grateful for everything he created at Cowboy Pictures, and, especially, for how many people he ultimately inspired to take serious movies seriously, but not too seriously. I’ll miss him forever.”

Lizzie Francke, editor-at-large for the UK’s BFI Film Fund, recalled forging a friendship with Cowan more than 25 years ago and described him as curious, fearless, a great talker and “an even greater doer”.

“I don’t believe I will ever meet anyone so extraordinary again in my lifetime, certainly not in the arts world,” she said. “But I hope that somewhere there is a young kid with an inquisitive mind, a dashing charm, an enthusiastic and gorgeous delight in humanity who will learn to push and pull at the cultural flow, who will challenge and advocate and make us all better people through their sheer brio and enjoyment of what they do. Noah was and remains all that.” (See below for Franke’s full tribute)

TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey looked back on the long association Cowan had with the festival, from starting as a teenage volunteer to becoming the first solo programmer for its Midnight Madness section, co-director of the festival and artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox

“Beyond his resume, Noah still stands for me as a unique, blazing fire in the film world,” said Bailey. “I never met anyone quite like him. He was hilarious, rude, loud, sentimental and deeply informed about the most surprising things. He could talk high art cinema and Japanese trash movies. Hollywood auteurs and Zacharias Kunuk. He had a wide, global range of friends who reflected his dazzling passion for life.

“My sense was always that Noah was born to shake things up. To put his enormous appetite for whatever was new, exciting and cool to the service of our audience. In his years at TIFF, Noah Cowan challenged us to reach higher, to dare to do more. I hope we can continue to nurture some of his spirit.”

Helga Stephenson, another former director of TIFF, said: “Buoyed by his brilliant mind and boundless energy, Noah’s passion for film, his unique connection to filmmakers and audiences lit up the world of international film for a long time. He took to this world in his teens like a duck to water and never looked back. He leaves a very large vacuum.”

Jonathan King, producer of Oscar winners Spotlight and Roma, and co-founder of LA-based Concordia Studio, said: “Noah always embraced film like he embraced life, with the wise insight of someone twice his age combined with the enthusiastic curiosity of a teenager. He had the most discerning taste but there were almost no boundaries to his generosity toward people. Like so many others, I relied on him for both over the years. I will miss his joyful, inspiring presence.”

Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal of Mercury Films was championed by Cowan in 2006 when her documentary Manufactured Landscapes played at TIFF. “Noah Cowan was a force and fixture in the international film world: a connector, a trailblazer and a passionate cinephile, always brimming with ideas and projects. He will be missed,” she said.

US indie film executive Bob Berney, CEO of LA-based marketing and distribution firm Picturehouse, said: “Noah was an amazing supporter, and disrupter, of cinema from around the world and a good friend. I’ve known him since the ‘90s and there are so many wonderful memories from film festivals, cinema events, dinners and parties connecting people across the globe.”

Rajendra Roy, the Celeste Bartos chief curator of film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, recalled: “As I told him this summer at a gathering in his honour, Noah inspired me and terrified me in equal measures. He was so confident, so eloquent and so robustly convinced of his own correctness. He made me work harder to defend my ideas and passions. I will forever be grateful for having had him in my life.”

Chris McDonald, president of Hot Docs, also paid tribute and said: “What a huge loss. Noah was a remarkable friend, savvy colleague and champion of world cinema. He was so generous in sharing his industry knowledge and killer wit. He was beloved by so many and is irreplaceable.”

Noah Cowan - a personal reminiscence

By Lizzie Francke

My friendship with Noah was forged during the Berlin and Rotterdam film festivals of 1997 over a mutual passion for Japanese horror and the revelation of Tsai-ming Liang, whose debut film The River had sent us both into rhapsodies.

New to the festival circuit, I soon learnt that running into Noah outside a screening was always the best happenstance. “We need to talk” along with “You two need to know each other” were the connective lines Noah threw out to bind together his ever-increasing circle of festival buddies. There were also more than a few good meals. Film. Fun. Food (and wine). Festivals to us programmers were glorious symposiums and Noah was always at the top of the table, a few steps ahead of us with his incisive comments and recommendations, and a pure delight in how films fit into and challenge our lives.

That challenge took on great gravity when TIFF 2001 coincided with 9/11. While others floundered and turned their backs on screenings that Friday, Noah, with clear-eyed urgency, reminded us how we needed international cinema more than ever for cross-cultural understanding. It was the seed for what would become the non-profit Global Film Initiative which he founded in 2003, a typical move for Noah – a great talker, he was an even greater doer.

Noah was a huge champion of many films and people, but with it came an extraordinary integrity of approach. Eight years into our friendship, when the first film in which I was involved debuted at an A-list festival and was not a success, rather than the euphemistic “You’ve done it” or empty “congratulations” of others, Noah took time aside from his crammed festival schedule to talk about the film with smart – if sometimes blunt – consideration. If I had already learned much about programming from Noah before, I learnt about executive producing then.

Noah and I bonded first over films but in the last few years it was gallery and museum art rather than cinema that dominated our cultural conversations (as well as English detective novels and their spin-off shows). His appetite to relish and share exciting work stayed with him all the way through to his last weeks.

When I think of Noah, I think about a favourite artist of his, Wolfgang Tillmans, and the title of his recent MoMA exhibition ‘To Look Without Fear’. Full of curiosity, always making connections in that brilliant mind, Noah was dauntless about everything he looked at, whether art or people or the organisations to which he brought his attention.

That fearlessness extended to his acute desire to understand his illness – indeed it was typical of Noah that he sent his friends a power-point presentation about the glioblastoma multiforme when he shared the news of the diagnosis. Ultimately, he was fearless, too, in his approach to death which he looked at with breath-taking alacrity, something he gave his friends to learn from right till the end.

I don’t believe I will ever meet anyone so extraordinary again in my lifetime, certainly not in the arts world, but I hope that somewhere there is a young kid with an inquisitive mind, a dashing charm, an enthusiastic and gorgeous delight in humanity who will learn to push and pull at the cultural flow, who will challenge and advocate and make us all better people through their sheer brio and enjoyment of what they do. Noah was and remains all that.