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Volunteers are the backbone of most major cultural organizations like the Toronto International Film Festival; it simply cannot function without them. TIFF has one of the largest volunteer databases in the world for an annual event, numbering around 3,500 strong. Many of these volunteers have been involved with the festival for years, often having more experience than many of the staff. Judith MacLean is one such volunteer, who after 22 years, continues to be an enthusiastic TIFF volunteer.

Judith became involved with TIFF in the early ’90s, volunteering to assist a friend at the late Uptown Theatre. She only did a couple of shifts, but “really enjoyed the experience and excitement at the Uptown, and decided it was something I wanted to do. The following year, I called and asked to volunteer at the Uptown for the festival. That was my official start, which I think was 1993. I had done a lot of volunteer work in various Arts organizations in Toronto — the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company — and thought the film festival would be a fun way to get involved. I have so many great memories from the Uptown. One of my favourite is sitting on the stairs of the Uptown with Lynn Redgrave, talking about her visit to Toronto and the movie she was in, Gods and Monsters, in 1998.”

I called and asked to volunteer at the Uptown for the festival. That was my official start, which I think was 1993. I have so many great memories from the Uptown. One of my favourite is sitting on the stairs of the Uptown with Lynn Redgrave, talking about her visit to Toronto and the movie she was in, Gods and Monsters, in 1998.

In the past two decades, Judith has seen many changes to the process of volunteering with TIFF. When she started, volunteers signed up by phoning the volunteer office. The assignment of venues and the scheduling of shifts were done via mail-in request forms. “Now, of course, everything is done via email and the Volunteer Hub. It is so easy to communicate now because everyone has email — you can decide on pre-shifts, volunteer for the festival all year or just do special events. Everything you need to know about volunteering is at your fingertips. I was also really excited about the start of the Captain’s program, although it has changed significantly since its inception. We didn’t have headsets initially, so there was a lot of running back and forth at the venue to communicate between volunteers and venue staff.”

“In 2006, I had finished a captain shift at the Isabel Bader and was thinking about rushing Copying Beethoven. It turned out that there was to be a red carpet for the movie and I was asked by the Outside Rep to help out. Ed Harris, who portrayed Beethoven, was arriving for the movie, along with his wife. Of course I volunteered and not only helped out, but spent some time talking to Amy Madigan about Toronto and taking her to a place away from the crowd where she could have a cigarette.”

TIFF veteran volunteer Judith MacLean

Judith MacLean has been a TIFF volunteer for over 20 years, witnessing many of the changes at the festival.

Judith has also had a front row seat to the changes of the entire festival over the years. She started volunteering with TIFF just as the festival was becoming one of the most important on the international film festival circuit. “It has become bigger, and I think better, and so much more organized. Now, patrons can order their tickets online, there is a centralized ticket location and the publicity leading up to the festival is so much more relevant and informative for everyone who is interested in seeing films and the talent involved with them. The TIFF Bell Lightbox is an amazing venue and a much needed addition to the festival. I think it has really pulled everything together. The festival is more centralized in the entertainment district, which makes getting around to the different venues easier. The Festival Street is also a great idea and really gives the public an opportunity to experience the fun around the festival.” [King Street West was closed to traffic for the first four days of the festival in 2014 and turned into a pedestrian walkway with activities and sponsor activation from University Avenue to Peter Street. Festival Street will be an event again in 2015.]

What is it that keeps Judith coming back to volunteer at the festival year after year? “I come back every year to see the friends I have made and get involved with the excitement of the festival. I really enjoy working with the staff in the Volunteer Office and I get to renew acquaintances with venue staff that I have known and worked with for a long time. I plan events around my volunteering with TIFF. I look forward to seeing films that I may not get a chance to see otherwise and enjoy the whole atmosphere on Festival Street.” MacLean feels that the festival keeps getting better and better for patrons and volunteers. “So many volunteers come back year after year — TIFF must be doing something right. I notice improvements every year, as the office staff become more experienced with the process of recruiting volunteers.”

In 2006, I had finished a captain shift at the Isabel Bader and was thinking about rushing Copying Beethoven. It turned out that there was to be a red carpet for the movie and I was asked by the Outside Rep to help out. Of course I volunteered and not only helped out, but spent some time talking to Amy Madigan about Toronto and taking her to a place away from the crowd where she could have a cigarette.

It’s the connections she’s made with other volunteers and the staff, as well as the great memories she has amassed over the years, which makes the festival so amazing for Judith. In addition to the main festival, she also volunteers with TIFF Kids (formerly Sprocketts). “I had a lot of fun as a volunteer for Sprocketts. One of the best times I had was at the Ryerson, when Lassie walked the red carpet. It was amazing to see the dog going up to children who were standing and waiting to see her, because some of them were not able to see the movie. As an animal lover, that was a lot of fun. Plus, I got to see the movie.”

As TIFF celebrates its 40th anniversary, it’s important to remember that it’s volunteers like Judith that have been instrumental to its success. They support the festival staff and help keep it running smoothly. As Judith said, if people like her are willing to donate their time to the festival year in and year out, TIFF’s volunteer program must be doing something right.