Widow of TIFF Founder Recounts Festival’s Beginnings

“It’s bittersweet,” concedes Sari Ruda, reflecting on this time of year.

As the red carpets begin to roll out and the champagne corks pop, Ruda can’t help but be nostalgic. The widow of Toronto International Film Festival co-founder Bill Marshall – one of three visionaries who curated a small event that would soon become a giant player in the movie celebrity ecosystem – she channels her deceased well husband. He and his friend Dusty Cohl organized the event, she said, “over a scotch and a cigar at 22, the famous bar here at the Windsor Arms, lunch at Hy’s in Yorkville and cocktails on the terrace. of the Majestic hotel in Cannes. .”

Ruda wasn’t there at the time (“I was still back in the UK, I was educated,” she says), but she’s heard the stories enough times to reiterate that the inaugural event of 1976 (then called the Festival of Festivals) was underpinned by a mission to be truly international. Something that continues to sustain TIFF today, as evidenced by a piece of napkin on which Bill jotted down his multi-culti fundamentals – a napkin that is now in the TIFF archives. Henk van der Kolk, an architect, had the logistical know-how of this trio and, as Marshall often said, he “kept the trains running on time”.

Five years have passed since we lost Marshall — the city, in the process, losing one of its quintessential characters — and Ruda has some stories. Like this: “A much-loved Canadian, whose work spans over six decades, has lost his briefcase, which was filled mostly with lots of cocaine, but also money and a passport. Bill had to locate and retrieve it before the media caught wind of the hideout.

Or this one, around the time they lured Francis Ford Coppola to the festival in the early 1980s: “Bill asked the team to throw a party to end all parties, with different venues on the theme of Coppola’s films. When Coppola entered the final room, she was dressed in “Apocalypse Now” – and outside the window at the top of the Westin Harbor Castle Hotel, two Black Hawk helicopters hovered above Queen’s Quay. Coppola told Bill it was the best party he had ever been to.

Off-screen excitement

“I was woman number four,” Ruda says matter-of-factly, before recounting how she met Marshall at an event in the former SkyDome ballroom. She was immediately seduced by her Scottish brogue and those sparkling Richard Burton eyes. Later, the party moved to Kit Kat, the happy place that once stood on King West. And the rest? Story.

They worked together and they played together. “I think we ping-ponged each other so well that he was always a big-picture guy,” she says. “I was more the type to do things, but also to be creative. I would take his ideas and make them happen.

“We had a very easy and effortless relationship,” she continues. “It was sometimes volatile but never personal. We got married one summer night in 1997 at the RCYC – where one of my best friends, JP Challet, took over the kitchen and produced a wonderful feast.

The maverick Marshall would go on to spearhead countless initiatives in town, such as the McLuhan Festival. His gift, says Ruda, came down to this: “Bill was so brilliant that he came up with a new idea that was so obvious when you heard it and yet so unique that you would be sure as soon as you heard it existed. already. “

Pay homage

Grief is its own dance, Ruda says. “I’m very lucky,” she says. “I know a lot of people who give up the ghost when they lose someone they love. It took me a while to get to a place of sanity, of stability. As some friends tell me, ‘You are so much better than last year or two years ago.’ I didn’t even realize how screwed up I was until almost a year after Bill passed away and TIFF held a memorial for him.

Busy these days pursuing her own film projects, while working as Director of Creative Entertainment Industries at the Canadian Council on Africa, Ruda can’t wait to raise a glass to her man at TIFF’s All Stars Luncheon, which takes place is taking place this year in Amal. A mix of filmmakers, society types and media and political heavyweights, the party was started by Bill and remains a tribute to him.

“Bill called it the All Stars because everyone who was invited was some kind of star,” Ruda explains. “It was his wry sense of humor.”


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