by Dan Lalande

 “A friend of mine alerted me about a short-term contract position at some place called the Canadian Film Institute (CFI). I applied, got the job and entered this small, woefully underfunded, incredibly dynamic institution dedicated to all forms of the moving image.”

That’s how Tom McSorley, formerly a freelance technical writer and editor, slowly but surely became a fixture at the CFI. From there, the New Brunswick native (who endured a nomadic childhood) became assistant programmer and eventually, executive director, a position w duties he fulfills today with the same rock-solid work ethic and unbridled enthusiasm by which he rose through the ranks.

Most people would be surprised to know that the Ottawa-based CFI (headquartered in the Arts Court building on Daly Avenue) has been around since 1935, making it the second oldest film institute in the world. Thanks to Tom’s tutelage, it’s still honouring its original mandate, bringing international cinema to Canadian audiences that would otherwise have to settle for the bombastic spoils of Hollywood. The non-profit, non-governmental CFI accomplishes this through screenings, festivals, publications and artist talks. As chief curator/programmer, Tom has been the all-important hand behind the selection of the films and the maintenance of related outreach activities.

Since the mid-1970s, the CFI has staged festivals highlighting a variety of international cultures. These events include the European Union Film Festival, the European Union Short Film Festival and the CFI’s most recent point of pride, the International Film Festival of Ottawa, which is celebrating its fourth edition this year.

Both European festivals and The International Film Festival of Ottawa are showcases that span two to three weeks. They feature films, selected by the discriminating Tom and his talented team of CFI programmers, that would otherwise go unseen in Canada, let alone Ottawa. The IFFO also stages a symposium aimed at educating and inspiring members of the local filmmaking industry, keeping them up to speed on aesthetic and technological trends and exploring the Canadian and international effort to exhibit and promote homegrown and global cinema.

While each of those events enjoys devoted audiences, another CFI project, the Ottawa International Animation Festival, has undergone explosive growth. Explains Tom, “Since its founding in 1976, the OIAF has grown with the animation industry itself.  With the arrival of computer animation in the early 1980s, specialty TV and, later, the internet, the relatively small and artisanal moving image art form has exploded into a massive international industry. The OAIF has kept pace by moving from a biennial festival to an annual one and by introducing new categories to accommodate new forms of animation.”  The next edition of the festival will be staged in September.

As you can detect from his descriptive prowess, when it comes to film, Tom knows his stuff. Not bad for an English major from Carleton University who held no ambitions to infiltrate the industry. Today, he not only oversees the CFI but also reviews movies on local CBC Radio.

“I started my radio career as a theatre critic in 1987. I started reviewing films regularly on Ottawa Morning in November 2005. The most enjoyable aspect is the freedom to cover as wide a range of contemporary film as I want: the crassest, most cynical commercial garbage, the weirdest cult stuff and the artiest of art house cinema.”

Many of those films were made by the wide assortment of artists Tom has interviewed over the years. Names range from domestic deities like Atom Egoyan and Mina Shum to international artists such as Australia’s Paul Cox and Cuba’s Luis Alberto Garcia. “The preparation process starts with seeing their work, thinking about it, reading up on it,” outlines the infinitely curious reviewer. “After all that, it’s being in the incredibly fortunate position to engage them in conversation.” That, according to him, is the easy part—and the most fun. “You’d have to be a complete dullard to not find these extraordinary practising artists fascinating. It’s joyful work!”

The other perks of the job aren’t bad either. Tom regularly attends the Cannes Film Festival, has had a book published and is the lead behind the CFI’s own line of film-related publications. His ultimate contribution, though, is the invaluable imprint he has left on the CFI.

“In its finest moments, the CFI has been a positive agent of cultural exchange, nourishment and enlightenment. Since it began almost nine decades ago, it’s been and continues to be an important contributor to the understanding and appreciation of Canadian and global cinema through which we can gain a better understanding of the complexity of the world.”