The Canadian films at TIFF this year were especially great, but the festival should have done more to bring them to the attention of critics and audiences.
In a year when Canadian cinema should have been the talk of TIFF, our films barely managed to get coverage. At the time of publication, only three international outlets have covered Mouthpiece (Sight and Sound, The Film Stage, and Variety) when this smart, experimental film about the female experience of patriarchy should have broad appeal. After premiering to strong notices at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, The Fireflies are Gone got almost no international coverage at TIFF, even after it picked up the Best Canadian Feature award. Giant Little Ones, a crowd-pleaser that’s impressively nuanced, fared slightly better, with reviews in the major trades and a few other international publications — but this is a big movie that deserved a bigger platform. Meanwhile, The Grizzlies, which intentionally panders to Hollywood cliches in order to subvert them, wasn’t even reviewed by any of the trades. This lack of buzz is surely why these major, excellent Canadian films have still yet to secure distribution outside of Canada. Mouthpiece doesn’t even have a distributor in Canada.
TIFF bears the onus of ensuring Canadian films see the spotlight, and this year, TIFF failed them. As the leading Canadian film festival — and recipient of significant government funding — TIFF is both ethically and financially responsible for promoting Canadian cinema. In the past, TIFF has helped combat the lack of international interest in Canadian film by programming a couple of particularly interesting Canadian entries into its Platform competition, intended to spotlight auteurist cinema. This got bums in seats for Canadian films that would have otherwise been ignored. When Canadian films won the Platform competition in the past — Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves and HURT both picked up awards — critics scrambled to see them. Notably, no Canadian films were in this year’s competition, although 2018 was one of the strongest years in history for auteurist Canadian cinema.'As the leading Canadian film festival — and recipient of significant government funding — TIFF is both ethically and financially responsible for promoting Canadian cinema.'Click To Tweet
International press and festival attendees often don’t know what to do with Canadian cinema. How different can it be from American cinema, they ask? When filling out their schedules with non-U.S. films, any country other than Canada seems preferable for the “foreign” experience. Of course, nothing will make you more Canadian and aware of our extreme cultural differences than living in the US, but the non-Canadian press at the festival is mostly American and unaware of this. To them, it seems we aren’t quite foreign enough, and yet we’re too small potatoes to figure in the Oscar conversation outside of the foreign language category. It’s a perfect storm for ensuring Canadian films don’t get seen or covered.'International press and festival attendees often don’t know what to do with Canadian cinema. How different can it be from American cinema, they ask?'Click To Tweet
TIFF could use its position as a pre-eminent international film festival to educate attendees about homegrown talent. Sadly, although the festival is still the best annual showcase for new Canadian cinema, it seems Canadian filmmakers only get recognition at home once they’re anointed by tastemakers abroad. TIFF is always ready to welcome friends of the festival like Denys Arcand and Don McKellar, but for new filmmakers, TIFF outsources its gatekeeping to international festivals. Cannes regulars like Xavier Dolan and David Cronenberg can be relied on to pad out TIFF’s CanContent for any given year. Emerging auteurs who eke out a spot in the Cannes lineup (past entries include Mean Dreams, Sarah Prefers to Run, and Tu Dors Nicole) are almost guaranteed a place at the film festival.
Yet TIFF has repeatedly ignored some of the country’s best emerging talents. Instead of championing these deserving domestic auteurs, TIFF won’t even program them. Philippe Lesage’s narrative debut, The Demons, was one of the best films of the year and on Canada’s Top Ten of 2016, but it was notably absent from that year’s festival. His new film, Genesis, was’t programmed by TIFF this year, either. Great films like Rebecca Addelman’s feature debut, Paper Year, were almost entirely ignored by Canadian festivals; TIFF had premiered her impressive short The Smoke, which makes the absence of Paper Year from its lineup even more conspicuous and mystifying.'It seems Canadian filmmakers only get recognition at home once they’re anointed by tastemakers abroad.'Click To Tweet
TIFF’s reluctance to feature new Canadian voices intersects painfully with another pattern: TIFF’s obsession with premieres. It’s a vicious cycle — TIFF ignores some of the best Canadian cinema that screens elsewhere because it considers those films other festivals’ seconds. If TIFF had a more active process for discovering new Canadian talent, TIFF might secure first screenings of new Canadian directors’ features. But like a lot of Canadian institutions, TIFF doesn’t really trust itself, relying instead on international vetting to herald new Canadian voices as worthy. As such, most Canadian films TIFF gets will probably have screened somewhere else first; even notable Quebecois auteurs like Philippe Falardeau and Anne Émond still regularly screen their films at the Locarno Film Festival in the summer. The result is that features by new Canadian filmmakers slip through the cracks — a fate that befell Anote’s Ark and First Stripes this year. When attendees question why this or that much-discussed Canadian film was missing from its programming, TIFF’s reputation as the launchpad for Canadian cinema takes a hit. That reputation is both a point of pride and a source of all levels of government funding.'When attendees question why this or that much-discussed Canadian film was missing from its programming, TIFF’s reputation as the launchpad for Canadian cinema takes a hit.'Click To Tweet
Although more and more American critics flock to the festival, intent on covering Oscar entries, make no mistake: if TIFF wanted to spotlight Canadian cinema, it could. Canadian distributors may limit the number of public screenings a Canadian film can have, but that shouldn’t stop TIFF from offering extra Press and Industry screenings throughout the festival to give the films time to build momentum and word-of-mouth buzz. TIFF could also schedule Canadian films to reach a wider audience. Because TIFF is such a big festival, there’s always lots of counter-programming, but TIFF has deliberately set aside time slots so smaller films won’t be overwhelmed: e.g., your choices in this three-hour period are only Discovery films — TIFF’s programme for emerging auteurs. It could do the same to highlight Canadian films. Programming is a balancing act — fill just one or two slots with Canadian films, and less enlightened festival-goers might consider those times ‘skippable’, pushing Canadian cinema back to the ghetto it started in. But if TIFF made a concerted effort to program Canadian films like it programs Discovery films, in multiple blocks across the festival, more people would take a chance and see them.'Programming is a balancing act — fill just one or two slots with Canadian films, and festival-goers might consider those times 'skippable', pushing Canadian cinema back to the ghetto it started in.'Click To Tweet
Moreover, TIFF could help boost existing Canadian coverage of films to an international audience. CBC may be widely read in Canada, but it’s not going to be the first source for festival news for American and international journalists by default. Featuring outstanding coverage of Canadian films on the festival’s website and social media could go a long way toward putting these Canadian films on people’s radar.
Finally, TIFF’s accreditation strategy should make room for critics who engage with all the festival has to offer. For the first time, this year TIFF made a real effort to expand its accreditation list to include a more diverse critical base. It’s disappointing to see that this hasn’t helped more niche Canadian films to get more coverage. Mostly, it’s meant that a more diverse range of voices have weighed in on the blockbuster films of the festival, while less and less space is devoted to the small films that really need the push. It’s important for these diverse critical voices to be heard, but we also need critics willing to see and champion smaller films before they get completely lost in the shuffle.'TIFF could help boost existing Canadian coverage of films to an international audience.'Click To Tweet
Expanding accreditation was an important first step for TIFF; we can tell stories of how hard it was for us to get accredited when we first applied, even though our mandate is specifically to cover films that need the coverage (Canadian films, foreign films, films directed by women). Seventh Row has often been the only outlet to publish on these films at past festivals. Other outlets need to step up. In turn, TIFF should make it clear that covering these films may be a pathway to accreditation.'It’s important for diverse critical voices to be heard, but we also need critics willing to see and champion smaller films before they get completely lost in the shuffle.'Click To Tweet
By designing its schedule and promotional strategy with these goals in mind, TIFF could anoint the next generation of Canadian auteurs and spotlight our own national cinema — something TIFF should be proud to support. If Cannes can regularly ensure its Official Competition includes at least three French films, TIFF can and should do more to visibly promote Canadian cinema. The Canadian selections at TIFF this year prove that Canadian films are ready to compete on the world stage. What’s the point of being one of the world’s most important film festivals if TIFF can’t even provide a great launchpad for Canadian cinema?