Where is Canadian cinema going? What is its purpose? And what can we say about how the country is being reflected back at us through this year’s TIFF15 crop of Canadian films?
For a time, Canadian cinema was synonymous with David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand, and patriotic caricatures (usually about sports) like Score: A Hockey Musical and Men With Brooms. In an informal Twitter poll, I asked my followers what Canadian films were essential to forming their cultural identity, and most struggled to think of one that qualified. There’s plenty of music, TV shows, and even books, that meet this criterion for Canadian content, but cinema has never really held that place for many of us. It’s probably not unrelated to the fact that actually seeing Canadian films in a cinema is increasingly hard: they’ll often play for just one week, if at all, with very little fanfare.
TIFF has been working hard in the last decade to change that by putting Canadian cinema on the map. First, they merged the Canadian Firsts section, a showcase for first time filmmakers, with the similar showcase for world cinema, the Discovery section, so that our filmmakers would be on equal footing with their international peers. It made it much more difficult to just ignore these first features because they weren’t separated from the pack. The result seemed to be that Canadian filmmakers were actually getting their films watched. And in turn, TIFF 2013 was the year of star power in Canadian films: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in The F Word, Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy, and Hugh Jackman in Prisoners.
Even Cannes was forced to take notice: In 2014, Canada had three films in the Official Competition. The only country with more films competing was France. With the premiere of his fifth film Mommy, Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan became not just the toast of Cannes but a worldwide sensation as the enfant terrible of cinema. People almost forgot that Egoyan’s film was the year’s critical punching bag, even though it was not that bad. By the time TIFF rolled around, Canadian films were necessarily on the agenda of most festival attendees. Darren Aronofsky was tweeting praise for the FLQ film Corbo, while the Montreal film about a hasidic Jewish woman, Felix and Meira was not only praised, but picked up for U.S. Distribution.
So where is Canadian cinema going? What is its purpose? And what can we say about how the country is being reflected back at us through this year’s selections at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival? Three major patterns seems to have emerged. We’ve proved ourselves as a world leader in avant garde cinema, starting with Guy Maddin’s bizarro The Forbidden Room, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance. The Canadian aesthetic has emerged as the antithesis of the Sundance aesthetic — more European than American — with formal discipline and beautiful compositions valued highly. The Canadian landscape, especially, has been photographed with care. Finally, Canadian cinema is starting to be about telling stories about under-represented, under-discussed minorities in unabashedly Canadian ways.
Perhaps the first sign that Canadian film is becoming a leader in the avant garde was the sheer number of our country’s films selected in this year’s Locarno Film Festival. Before playing TIFF, Isiah Medina’s experimental film, 88:88, had its world premiere at the Swiss festival. Meanwhile, the Toronto-set The Waiting Room and the Québécois films Our Loved Ones and My Internship in Canada were all Locarno selections, as well. This year’s Wavelengths section of TIFF — the experimental, new forms section — is dominated by Canadian films, including the NFB documentary Invention, which captures Toronto as a living city, and Mexican-Canadian filmmaker Nicolás Pereda’s plot-free work, Minotauro.
The work of cinematographers like Yves Bélanger (Wild, Cairo Time) and André Turpin (Mommy) has been lauded internationally, but they’re hardly household names. But these cinematographers have been instrumental in leading an important revolution – helped, I’m sure, by new digital technologies. Films by Canadian directors, and crucially, films by emerging filmmakers, are looking great. They don’t look like they were shot on a shoestring budget, even if they were. There’s a lot of attention to detail and to beauty, and we’re finally getting great documents of the grandeur of the Canadian landscape as parts of other, compelling stories. At TIFF this year, cinematographer Maya Bankovic makes the fall colours pop in Kire Paputts’ The Rainbow Kid while James Kinistino (Fire Song) and Mathieu Laverdière (Our Loved Ones) have captured the wonders of nature in rural Canada.
But it’s not all just beauty for beauty’s sake (except perhaps in Ville-Marie). It’s about a reverence for the landscape of our country and its importance in our cultural history and present. These films don’t shy away from their settings, and it’s clear that, in many cases, they couldn’t have been set anywhere else. The actors are Canadian with thick Canadian accents, and the characters even speak the names of the places they’re in: you needn’t have a shot of the CN Tower for it to be clearly a Toronto film. By getting specific, the filmmakers find universality. It’s partly why most of the Canadian films set outside Quebec feature diverse casts: it’s what Canada, a country of immigrants, looks like, no matter what The F Word might suggest about Toronto.
The immigrant experience or the experience of being “other” in Canada is a major focus of many of this year’s films. Igor Drljaca’s The Waiting Room is about a Sarajevo-born immigrant struggling to find work in Toronto. Mina Shum’s documentary Ninth Floor tackles just how hostile Canada was towards black immigrants in the ‘60s, and still is, despite how much we like to claim we welcome everyone with open arms. Although How Heavy This Hammer isn’t explicitly about the immigration experience, the foreign accent of its lead character (Erwin Van Cotthem), who is so detached from the world that he’s lost himself in video games, reveals his origins.
Indigenous people and people with disability are by no means foreigners in this country, but they can sometimes feel alienated from a society dominated by the white and able-bodied. Toronto-based filmmaker Adam Garnet-Jones’ Fire Song is the first Canadian film about a two-spirited character — an indigenous teenager who is also gay — and it deals quite openly with the realities of depression, suicide, and drug abuse on the Ontario reserve where it’s set. But it also captures the reasons people stay: the community, the scenery, and the culture. Also from Toronto is Kire Paputts whose film, The Rainbow Kid, is centered around a young man with Down Syndrome. It deals with the realities of disability without ever being exclusively about the disability. It’s about a quest to help his mother. Eugene (Dylan Harman) has a rich inner life even as he’s forced to deal with his physical limitations in situations that would be arduous for the able-bodied.
Anglo-cinema is still largely in its infancy, growing and developing more and more quickly. The more seasoned Québécois cinema remains its own entity with its own preoccupations. In some ways, our national cinema is actually the combined cinema of two nations. French Canada makes films without even considering an anglophone audience, and their subjects tend to be more straightforward dramas, about families, relationships, and privilege. Meanwhile, anglophone cinema has prioritized improving on screen diversity, so that Canadian cinema better reflects our culture. In both cases, plenty of solid work is being made by nascent talent. Here’s hoping the films find the audiences they deserve both at this year’s festival, across Canada, and even abroad.