Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Canada First, Short Cuts Canada and the rest of the Canadian programming line-up

When TIFF did away with the old Perspective Canada programme some time ago, they told us it was because Canadian cinema had come into its own and therefore could be integrated fully into all other programming. When many (including myself) protested that the festival must continue to underwrite and promote Canadian talent, as the only real venue for such widescale distribution exposure available, they consoled us by offering us two specialty mini-programs: Canada First and Short Cuts Canada. It is arguable that the festival has never lost sight of the Canadian short film and that most young filmmakers have found their greatest TIFF break through that format. On the other hand, the success of the feature film in this festival is still open to interpretation. Last year, the Canada First pickings were very low numbers. Though this year's CF will showcase 7 first features (there were truly only seven worth showing?) and 43 shorts, a further 19 films will be added to the Galas, Masters, Special Presentations and other programmes, joining Cronenberg's Dangerous Method and Polley's Take This Waltz, already previously announced. The idea of a fuller integration of the films into the programming seems to be happening, but I am not sure that focussing only on first features works as an idea to nurture domestic talent. I maintain that the Canadian film industry, and international film community, could benefit from a more exclusively showcased roster of Canadian films, in which masters and newcomers shine alongside each other in a clearer portrait of what this country has to offer.

That said, here's what looks promising in Canada First. A quick glance at these titles underlines an eternal truth about Canadian cinema: Quebec is where it's at. This is due in no small way to the greater esteem homegrown movies hold in their host province, and the greater funding resources available therein.

In this regard, Quebec director Anne Émond is a good example of a young filmmaker who cut her teeth in Short Cuts Canada, where her beautiful Sophie Lavoie was chosen one of the year's Top Ten in 2009. She returns with her first feature Nuit #1, a raw look at the one-night stand in all its compelling excitement and its complexity. Similarly, Guy Édoin has been impressing critics and filmgoers alike with his shorts trilogy, shown entirely at TIFF during recent years. He now brings forward Wetlands, a coming-of-age story shot entirely on his own farm in the Eastern townships. Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky take a "lyrical and unsettling" look at seniors and those living with disabilities in Patron Saints. It's described as being "laced with black humour" which could mean it avoids the subtleties of joy and suffering, or delights in them. We'll see which. I am more inclined, however, toward Ivan Grbovic's Romeo Eleven, which also looks at disability in a young man in Montreal's Lebanese community. Finally, Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas offer us another coming-of-age tale, Amy George, this time set in Toronto's Riverdale. Lewis and Thomas are also listed as producers, writers, cinematographers and editors, underlining the 'home grown auteur' aspect of many first films. The two films I have not discussed, Simon Davidson's The Odds and Sheldon Larry's Leave it on the Floor fill out the remainder of the seven films.

Although the Short Cuts Canada programme is impossible to preview in its entirety, there are an unusually high number of promising entries this year. On my "short" list are Nicholas Pye's The Encounter, Matthew Rankin's Tabula Rasa, Sophie Goyette's La Ronde, Mike Maryniuk and John Scoles' The Yodeling Farmer, Alain Fournier's The Weight of Emptiness, Raha Shirazi's Water, Amaud Brisebois and Francis Leclerc's Trotteur, Miranda de Pencier's Throat Song, Mark Slutsky's Sorry, Rabbi, Xstine Cook and Jesse Gouchey's Spirit of the Bluebird, Phillippe Baylaucq's Ora, Mathieu Tremblay's Of Events, Ryan Flowers and Lisa Pham's No Words Came Down, Pedro Pires' Hope, Isaac Cravit's Good Boy, Kako sam Zapalio and Simona Bolivara's The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar and Chelsea McMullan's Derailments.

Of the remaining features filling out the other programming, there are a number of gems.

Again the French- Canadian fare seems the most compelling, with one exception. Guy Maddin is back, with his luminous muse Isabella Rossellini in Keyhole (pictured at top), a film whose narrative defies one-liners and so it should be with this master Canadian filmmaker. This moves into my top ten.

Since 1988, I have called Léa Pool my favourite Canadian filmmaker but it's not often I get to wax about her work as her films are fewer and farther between these days. The wonderful Maman est chez le coiffeur of a few years ago was exciting evidence that this wonderful Swiss-born director still has much to tell us. This year she offers her second documentary, Pink Ribbons (pictured above) which takes on the beast cancer fundraising "industry", and looks at some of its politics. Like the films of Thomas Riedelsheimer, you can count on this not being an average doc. This comes into the Top Fifteen for me.

It's wonderful to have another film by Phillippe Falardeau, whose C'est pas moi, je le jure was one of the critical favourites of the 2008 festival. He returns with Monsieur Lazhar, the story of an Algerian immigrant whose own tragic life story is raised when he is hired to take over a classroom of students grieving their teacher. Jean-Marc Vallée's Cafe de Flore follows a double narrative, one in Paris in 1969 involving the mother of a child with Down Syndrome, the other in contemporary Montreal as a DJ undergoes divorce. We will have to see the film to know how the lives intersect.

In the English language fare, Mike Clattenburg's Afghan Luke tells the story of a Canadian journalist searching out unseemly practices among soldiers fighting in Iraq. Bollywood meets Canada's national sport in Robert Lieberman's Breakaway, as an Indo-Canadian breaks many cultural taboos to become a national hockey player. Randall Cole's 388 Arletta Avenue bears such a descriptive similarity to Michael Haneke's Caché that is hard to imagine how it could be different enough to be interesting. A couple are under surveillance 24 hours a day, leading to manipulative and dangerous game-playing. It's nice to see that Eric Peterson and John Gray's Billy Bishop Goes to War has been brought to the screen from its long theatrical success by Barbara Willis Sweete. The ubiquitous Julian Richings, appearing in at least 3 films in the festival so far, is part of a cast filling out Bruce MacDonald's Hard Core Logo II, which follows up on the first film by pursuing a singer who claims to be channeling the spirit of Joe Dick. Predictably, the Canadian Open Vault selection this year is therefore Hard Core Logo I. I'm not a fan of this genre of movie, but there is no denying MacDonald's contribution to English language Canadian cinema.

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