Volunteer – Was ist das?

TIFF ended more than a week ago and I’m still digesting all the craziness that took place. Thanks to Gina, our Volunteer coordinator, I got a chance to be a volunteer at this huge event. The word “volunteer” would easily make it into the Top-10 list of words I heard most since I came to Toronto. At first I did not really know what that exactly is. Now that I know I still can’t think of any proper word to describe this kind of word in German. There are words to describe a voluntary, unpaid job. But a volunteer over here seems to be more. The festival itself turned the whole city into a cinematic arena. Downtown was packed by people wearing festival badges, special bags and t-shirts, fancy black cars chauffeuring celebrities, journalists with cameras breaking their ways through endless long lineups and crowds waiting to cast a glance on their idol. In the middle of this, volunteers formed their own community. People seem to go from festival to festival just to see their volunteer friends again.

I had shifts in four different venues. The ones with a single screen had giant line ups (I saw one lineup circling an entire block) but they are easier to manage. Venues like the TIFF Bell Lightbox or AMC where you have lots of screens and only a very limited amount of lobby space can cause people to get lost and confused easily. Sometimes the line for a film on the 4th floor of the Lightbox starts in front of the cinema doors, continuing on the 2nd floor and ending in the lobby. Guests are floating through the building like cars on bewildering highways. Quite often the volunteers are some sorts of traffic lights that guide the guests through the jungle of lineups.

Besides that, the tasks are quite simple and counting people, tearing tickets and handing out ballots would hardly be someone’s dream job. But an unexpected question by a guest, a small problem or just a friendly smile can change the most boring situation into quite the adventure. And before you know it, time just flew right by. By the way, smiles are an object of bartering. Give a smile, you’ll get one back. Try it.

I’ve been surprised by something on every shift. I met a German director who was surprised that a volunteer speaks his language. I had to protect a door for Rachel Weisz (that she did not use in the end, but still – it was fun). Bono from U2 passed by me and I had to deal with both friendly and angry guests. At first, I was a bit afraid of my first encounter with an angry guest, but TIFF offers a very effective chain of command. As a volunteer you don’t have to deal with those guests, you simply forward that problem to a person that is more trained than you are. That leaves you without any stress and lets you enjoy all the good things about the festival atmosphere. Can’t get any better.

Now that I have discovered this new world of volunteering, I have to do it again. Gina warned me that it’s quite addictive. I’m afraid she’s right. Once I’m back in Germany I have to keep my eyes open. Having never heard of this word before makes me wonder how they even manage festivals in Germany without this community of volunteers. Berlinale, Fantasy Filmfest, Hamburg Filmfest: how are you able to create a festival without giving the impression that your festival won’t work without volunteers? Why do you hide voluntary work opportunities somewhere deep in your website, instead of putting it on the front page? Why don’t you have a trailer that thank the volunteers?  Is your advertising for voluntary work so bad that I’ve never heard of it, or are you actually paying all the people in the theatres? I don’t know. But I learned that volunteers that get treated well, will become committed. And committed volunteers contribute a lot to a festivals atmosphere. I’m glad I had the chance to experience this. Thanks Gina.