At TIFF, almost all of the best films I saw were Canadian — and that’s not grading on a curve.
Canadian cinema is having an extremely exciting moment. Even before this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, four of the best films of the year were Canadian: two documentaries (Anote’s Ark and First Stripes) and two female-directed dramas (Meditation Park and Paper Year). At TIFF, almost all of the best films I saw were Canadian — and that’s not grading on a curve.
These are genuinely great films that are among the best of the year, films I’ll be revisiting for years to come. Patricia Rozema’s dissection of the female psyche, Mouthpiece, and Keith Behrman’s nuanced coming-of-ager Giant Little Ones made me laugh and cry heaps. Sebastien Pilote’s The Fireflies are Gone reminded me what it was like to be a teenager. And Maxime Giroux’s The Great Darkened Days made me laugh — and feel incredibly creeped out — about the rising forces of fascism in the world (and specifically, the US).
The doc Anthropocene took me around the world to see how humans have been shaping and destroying the earth. Darlene Naponse’s Falls Around Her took me back to nature, reminded me of its beauty and peacefulness — and how industry is constantly destroying it bit by bit. The Grizzlies reminded me of the incredible resilience and spirit of young people in the face of trauma and tragedy. And I greatly admired Splinters and Roads in February, both centred around female protagonists.
It’s not unprecedented for TIFF to boast two or three great Canadian films. What differentiates this year is that there so many good Canadian films, that these were among the very best films of the festival, and they were proudly and overtly Canadian. For too long, Canadian films have avoided that label in the hopes of finding an American audience — in the same way that Degrassi became less Torontonian once it secured US funding. But without a real sense of place, these Canadian efforts tended to be barely palatable exports that played like lower-budget versions of bad American films; I’m looking at you, Public Schooled (2017) and Mean Dreams (2016).
Old Genres and New Forms
This year’s crop of films continued the now established tradition of including offbeat coming-of-age stories; these have become staples of Canadian cinema, perhaps because so many of our current filmmakers are young and emerging (in past years: Tu Dors Nicole, Closet Monster, Our Loved Ones). But they avoid Hollywood cliches by being grounded in very specific aspects of Canadian culture, from immigration to the LGBTQ community. Giant Little Ones manages to address gender and sexual fluidity, homophobia, sexual assault, parental divorce, and bullying. Most impressively, it does so while giving us a buoyant, joyous, and nuanced film.
The Fireflies are Gone parallels Juno and The Edge of Seventeen by centering a bright and unmoored teenage girl, but it’s grounded in the specificity of life in Saguenay: the changing political and social landscape, and the way this beautiful town can feel like a dead end. Splinters and Roads in February are both coming home dramas, one about grief and the mother-daughter relationship filtered through a queer lens, and one about the homesickness of the immigration experience which leaves you in between two homes.
In past years, male auteurs have dominated Canada’s output of experimental cinema, be it Guy Maddin’s explorations with silent film or Blake Williams’ innovative 3D in Prototype. This year, the most formally daring Canadian film, Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece, was not just written and directed by women, but about the female experience of living under the patriarchy — boasting a crew of women in most major creative roles.
Based on the play of the same name by co-stars Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, in which the pair play two sides of the protagonist Cassandra, it’s an entirely cinematic experience. Nostbakken and Sadava sometimes synchronize their movements, always dress similarly, and often have an ongoing dialogue with each other. Rozema’s woozy and dreamlike aesthetic, right down to Nostbakken’s original sung score, constantly reminds us that we’re really tapping into Cassandra’s view of the world. We feel disoriented when and because Cassandra does, unsure of who she is and who she wants to be. The film is utterly original, often funny, and extremely affecting.
There is a rich filmmaking tradition among Canada’s First Nations, but until recently, TIFF tended to showcase only one such feature film annually and a handful of short films. Aside from the latest films by documentarian Alanis Obomsawin, who has been a mainstay of the festival for decades, the narrative films ranged in quality. I admired 2014’s Fire Song, a story about a Two Spirited teenager dealing with a suicide epidemic in his community, more for what it was trying to do than what it did. Master filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk’s 2016 The Searchers remake, Maliglutit was a gorgeous piece of culturally specific filmmaking, but it told an outdated, sexist story.
This year, Indigenous programming at TIFF has moved past tokenism, and there’s a wide variety of films and filmmaking styles on display. Two films are directed by Indigenous filmmakers: Edge of the Knife tells a pre-colonialism story of the Haida Gwaii community, which was also part of a language revitalization project; and Falls Around Her, a quiet drama about a middle-aged musician who rediscovers her centre by moving back up north to her grandmother’s cabin on the reservation.
Miranda de Pencier’s The Grizzlies, the story of the real Kugluktuk Lacrosse Team established in the 1990s, is a moving and entertaining film that sheds light on the mental health issues that plague the north. Though written and directed by a white director, and starring a white actor (Ben Schnetzer), the film still feels deeply rooted in Inuit culture, helped in part by the soundtrack of original songs by local throat singers. de Pencier’s southern roots do show — largely in how she shoots the land (a little carelessly) and makes use of sports movie stereotypes in an effort to subvert them — but this is a fun and sensitive film that celebrates Inuit resilience in the face of ongoing trauma and tragedy.
Bafflingly, TIFF also programmed Through Black Spruce, based on the book by Joseph Boyden — a white man who became notorious for pretending to be Indigenous. The film is directed by a white man, Don McKellar, and his status as a friend of the festival (and frequent jury member) is probably what guaranteed the film a slot in the festival. Though it does feature Indigenous talent onscreen — this is Tantoo Cardinal’s third film at this year’s festival — it’s a backward choice even as TIFF embraces a multitude of grassroots Indigenous voices.
Politically charged cinema
This year’s Canadian films are deeply politically engaged, even when politics isn’t the overt subject. In fact, none of these films are didactic, despite taking on complex and topical subjects. Québécois films Great Darkened Days grapples with the rise of the right, particularly in the US, and the moral vacuum that’s created. It’s a darkly comic, nightmarish journey through the American west, both stylized and over-the-top, and yet creepy because the characters’ behaviour is too familiar. The Fireflies are Gone may be a coming-of-age story, but the protagonist’s father and step-father are at opposite ends of her town’s political divide as her community becomes increasingly right wing.
Both Falls Around Her and Mouthpiece are works about complex women — a feminist statement unto themselves — while the former addresses the ongoing legacy of colonialism and the latter the pernicious nature of the patriarchy. Both Anthropocene and Falls Around Her are calls to arms to fight environmental destruction, though neither feel preachy. With its queer characters, Splinters and Giant Little Ones continue to bring LGBTQ experiences to the mainstream, while both Giant Little Ones and The Grizzlies address mental health issues.
I came away from these films not only proud and reinvigorated about the future of Canadian cinema, but desperate to travel the country that I’d seen captured so beautifully. I wanted to visit the autumnal rural Nova Scotia of Splinters, the wintry Northern Ontario wilderness of Falls Around Her, the BC forests shown in all their glory (and destruction) in Anthropocene— and even Sault Ste. Marie which Giant Little Ones rendered not just quaint but scenic and rich.
TIFF is one of the premiere showcases for international cinema, and it’s exciting to see Canadian films distinguish themselves as among the very best the festival has to offer. So it’s disappointing that TIFF continues to program these films as though they’re an obligation. Few of these films were covered by international outlets other than the trade publications, in large part because they that can’t break through the Oscar buzz without a bit of help. TIFF can and should schedule great Canadian films like the event cinema they deserve to be. Otherwise, not only are Canadians unlikely to discover all that our national cinema has to offer, but the films won’t find an audience abroad, either. What’s the point of hosting the festival of festivals if TIFF doesn’t spotlight the cinema it purports to support?