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Towards a Canadian Cinema: Future//Present and VIFF 2016

The next generation of Canadian filmmaking talent was revealed in a new program at Vancouver's film festival.
Last year the The Globe & Mail released an article entitled "What is Wrong with the Canadian Film Industry?" that outlined the problems facing our country’s cinema: low box-office numbers, a crisis of English-Canadian identity, an inability to compete with Hollywood entertainments etc., etc. Focused entirely on the industry, the piece fails to mention the resurgence that had been taking root for quite some time. 2015 was an important year for Canadian cinema, but while Room, Hyena Road and Wet Bum ate up the article’s word count, three of the year’s great Canadian films by emerging directors went unnoticed: Isiah Medina’s 88:88, Kurt Walker’s Hit 2 Pass, and Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer.
Equating cinema with ‘content,’ a product to be bought and sold, the article is as much a reflection of the problems with Canadian cinema as an exposition of it. But this insidious mentality has already infected the entire system, from top to bottom: our arts funding agencies, our critics, our film festivals, and perhaps most catastrophically, the general audiences and cinephile community. To balance the scale, programmers and critics lauded mediocre films and perpetuated a stigma against non-Quebecois Canadian cinema. Vancouver is an especially concentrated locale for this phenomenon. Hollywood productions and American television have colonized the region, choking out our art cinema. When Terry McEvoy, programmer of the Vancouver International Film Festival's BC section, was interviewed by the Vancouver Sun in 2015, he was frank about the intentions behind his curatorial choices: “For B.C. Spotlight it has to be a film that will sell tickets and that will satisfy people. It has to be promotable and it has to be a B.C. production with a production company based here and a B.C. director.”
So for many years VIFF's Canadian programming catered to “marketable” films and ignored almost everything outside the mainstream. Vancouver filmmaker and MUBI contributor Will Ross wrote on his blog in 2015, voicing his frustration:
The Canadian programming at VIFF doesn’t do much to inspire pride in me as a filmmaker, because VIFF doesn’t seem to do much to support a challenging local or national cinema. For a long time now, VIFF has seemed to judge regional films by the perceived amount of money that was poured into them, and by how closely they mimic Hollywood films. ‘Production value’ has become a tradition of quality.
There are the rare exceptions like Andrew Huculiak’s Violent, Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant and Alexander Carson’s O, Brazen Age, singular films featured in an otherwise conservative Canadian Images section. But historically speaking, VIFF has continually advocated and promoted mediocre English Canadian moviesuntil 2016. Only one year has passed since Hit 2 Pass, How Heavy this Hammer and 88:88 premiered—none of which were selected by VIFF—but the landscape of Canadian cinema has expanded even further. A generation of talent emerged from coast to coast, and VIFF morphed to accommodate them. This year’s festival still included wannabe Hollywood fare, but the inauguration of Future//Present, a program devoted to emerging independent Canadian filmmakers, laid the foundation for a healthier VIFF and a more vital Canadian cinema.
Isiah Medina’s 88:88, arguably the most important Canadian film of recent years, was excluded from VIFF’s lineup
The eight-film program curated by Adam Cook is unprecedented for VIFF. By excluding the films that one might expect from the BC Spotlight or Canadian Images section, Future//Present smashes stigmas and pre-conceived notions, acting as an apology for past sins and an important step forward for a major film festival still in need of an identity. But this harbinger within VIFF hasn’t materialized in other powerful institutions, especially the largest funding agency for Canadian cinema, Telefilm. Toronto-based filmmaker Matt Johnson, the director of The Dirties and this year’s Operation Avalanche, used the press for his latest film as a noble crusade against the organization. During an interview with the Toronto Now, Johnson explained his frustration:
We have such a massive opportunity in this country where, for whatever reason, the government seems to think that arts endowment is important. And yet that program has basically run amok since the ‘80s and is now such a bizarre, insular little club that basically nobody has access to in any real way. It’s strengthened all the more by the programs that Telefilm winds up funding, the biggest one of course being the Toronto International Film Festival.
Devoting a disproportionate amount of its $100 million budget to an old guard of variable or waning quality, filmmakers like Deepha Metha, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Bruce McDonald, Paul Gross and many others who have less trouble financing their work, Telefilm’s focus on generic genre films and co-productions with non-Canadian directors has marginalized anyone outside their narrow parameters. They value cinema based on its level of popular appeal: its likelihood to sell a colonized aesthetic to colonized viewers, to make profit with the help of imperialist, American distributers. Telefilm may be a socialist institution but they’re run like a capitalist corporation.
Don Shebib’s Goin Down the Road (top) followed two men fleeing Cape Breton, but Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf (bottom) looks at the life of a couple trapped on the island.
Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf, a recipient of Telefilm’s microbudget program, which provides $120,000 Canadian to filmmakers making their first feature, is the most accomplished film in Future//Present, and it actively re-calibrates Telefilm’s stiff model. Employing an archetypal set up as a means to refute the simple-minded films it superficially resembles, Werewolf is a story of two Cape Breton ‘junkies’ on the methadone recovery program. The film seems to fit neatly alongside other American indies and festival darlings, but its guise is distinctly Canadian. Werewolf is an update of the East Coast ‘loser’ films established by Don Shebib’s 1970 Goin’ Down The Road, which was also about two Cape Breton down-and-outers. In his book 100 Years of Canadian Cinema, George Melnyk describes this peculiar Canadian archetype:
Instead of the transcendent figures that have come to epitomize the male American role model - the handsome, gallant sheriff fight nasty outlaws, the heroic GI leading his men to victory, the hard-boiled cop or detective who triumphs over crime - Canada has the pathetic and defeated characters of Goin’ Down the Road.”
Taking place 40 years after Shebib’s film, Werewolf appropriates this ‘loser’ archetype to fit within a recognizable form of Canadian cinema and to consciously theorize a new way forward. Desperately holding onto that too-old Canadian myth of westward prosperity, Werewolf's Blaise and Nessa are somewhat similar to Peter and Joey in Goin’ Down the Road: listless young people forgotten by Canada’s centers of power, the big cities like Montreal and Toronto. They wander around Cape Breton, mow lawns for cash, struggle to find housing and work, and dream of another life off the island. While the two protagonists in Goin’ Down The Road are mobile and have a car, McKenzie’s characters are pinned and shackled in an overcast hell, stuck in a place of pain, sorrow, poverty and addiction.
The NFB’s Paul Tomkowikz: Street-railway Switchman celebrates the noble work of a Polish immigrant who works the graveyard shift keeping the railway tracks from jamming and freezing.
But not only is Werewolf divorced from Shebib’s male gaze and gendered archetypes, her film invents a formal language that pushes National Film Board aesthetics to an abstracted impressionism. The history of Canadian cinema may be dire and depressing but it’s not inconsiderable nor inconsequential. Candid Eye, a program televised on the CBC and produced by the NFB in the 50s, pioneered direct cinema and celebrated the lives of the forgotten working class. The film board’s documentarians were some of the first to use the camera as a fly on the wall, providing the appearance of unmediated representation. In the years that followed, this tradition was assimilated into our nation’s narrative features, forever changing the landscape of Canadian film and strongly linking it to realism.
Ashley McKenzie’s subtly formalist Werewolf creates meaning through a series of graphic matches.
Similar to Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer, also shot in calculated close-ups, McKenzie’s film mixes handheld realism with disruptive editing, creating meaning through a series of elaborate graphic matches. The film functions through expressive parallels: a vanilla cone and a methadone dispenser, a gust of smoke and glass separating patients and pharmacists, Blaise pulling the lawnmower in the pouring rain like an image from the Stations of the Cross and Nessa walking away from this cycle of abuse anointed by sunlight. McKenzie makes the co-dependent couple more than a humanized Other by focusing on particular objects and gestures. She reverses the normal paradigm, putting Blaise and Nessa at the forefront, and excommunicating the powerful to offscreen space. An image of two hands, entwined and expressing love, are not identified as those of ‘junkies’ or ‘losers’ but just as hands and an expression of love. Werewolf positions itself in opposition to the bulk of commercial films being produced in Canada and represents a development and update of our national cinema’s commitment to realism.
Hello Destroyer demystifies Canada’s idealized representations of our national pastime.
Kevan Funk’s Hello Destroyer, a film that articulates its own Canadianess aggressively, is in many ways Werewolf’s polar opposite: it’s from the West Coast, directed by a man, and is more thematically rigorous and less improvisational in nature. But like Werewolf, Funk’s feature debut adopts a recognizable form and expands upon it, subverting and twisting to separate itself from the institutionalized model. McKenzie joked in conversation with Funk in an interview for TIFF that “Hello Destroyer is your [Funk's] answer to Fubar and Werewolf is my answer to Trailer Park Boys.” Funk and McKenzie, whether explicitly like the former or implicitly like the latter, are formulating Canadian cinema’s identity by articulating our cinematic and non-cinematic histories.
A scene from Michael Dowse’s hockey-comedy Goon, which is the rare Canadian film to receive American distribution.
Connected to the Future//Present movement despite its slot in a separate section of the festival, Hello Destroyer is perhaps the clearest example of the backlash from emerging filmmakers’ against the institutional mode of filmmaking in Canada. Hello Destroyer is overtly about Canadian identity and cinematic representations of it, and it might just be the most Canadian film ever made: a ‘hockey movie’ set in a small British Columbia town with the snowy backdrops looming behind almost everything. While speaking to Lawrence Garcia for the Notebook, Funk articulates his film within the history of Canadian cinema:
Hockey movies are super interesting in that they’re associated with being very Canadian, but most of them—the majority of them—are goofy comedies that say very little about either Canada or the sport of hockey itself. So again, even though Hello Destroyer wasn’t a film about hockey per se—certainly more the setting than the subject, having that locker room culture be reflective of an actual reality was very important to me, because I don't think that it’s represented properly in most work.
If the film is a protest, its defiance is engraved into the formal construction and narrative structure. Following Tyson Burr, a fourth line brawler for a junior hockey team in Prince George, Hello Destroyer chronicles his isolation within an institution that promotes violence. For a Canadian viewer, it’s impossible not to see the parallel between Tyson and Todd Bertuzzi, who infamously sucker punched Steve Moore and inflicted a life-altering injury on the Colorado Avalanche player. But hockey is merely an entry point into a story that connects personal and national history, male violence and its roots in colonialism. Funk willfully deviates from the expectations of a Canadian film about hockey, and the film is grueling by design, unflinching in its gaze of Tyson’s descent. Hello Destroyer is devoid of heroic clichés and championship-game antics. Aside from a depressing bear league game, there is no hockey following the first forty minutes or so. The film is about the fallout after the spotlight, how powerful institutions push individuals from view, and how systematic oppression invisibly determines the outcome of Tyson’s life. Those mistaking Funk’s film for Michael Dowse’s Goon are in for quite the surprise.
The Lockpicker is torn between convention and subversion.
Randall Okita’s Telefilm-funded feature debut, The Lockpicker, is noticeably divided between the commissioned film and the director’s interests. Hashi is an introverted and observant high-schooler who is devastated following the death of one of his classmates. Pressure mounts within the silent young man as he witnesses bullying and other adolescent injustices. He’ll explode. It’s only a matter of time.
A frustrating mélange of internalized montage and obvious, contrived plotting, Okita’s evolution and devolution into feature filmmaking is perhaps the result of inexperience in a longer format, but considering that any feature length version of his ambitious cinema-sculptures would be a difficult sell en masse, it isn’t unlikely that he modified his vision to work within Telefilm’s structure. While Funk and McKenzie utilized the constraints imposed by  the organization’s ‘content’-driven model in order to interact with the past and present of Canadian cinema, Okita feels subsumed by it, unable to carve out his own identity within a system where films are only Canadian in setting and not in sensibility. The Lockpicker is two films in one, divided between a familiar coming of age story and an avant-garde expression of isolation and loneliness. While the film’s most powerful moments internalize the narrative, evoking feelings through abstraction, the plotting materializes and externalizes these emotions within a contrived framework.
A still from An Evening, the second short in Sofia Bohdanowicz quietly harrowing A Prayer trilogy.
Of Future//Present’s world premieres, Sofia Bohdanowicz is the greatest discovery. Without any wide recognition, the Toronto-based filmmaker has built a distinct and impressive body of work. She is, as section programmer Adam Cook once described her, Canada’s Chantal Akerman, who works on the margins with no support from Telefilm and little help from Canadian festivals. From inside a national cinema that privileges men, Bohdanowicz’s films celebrate the un-represented matriarchy. Considering the invisible misogyny throughout Telefilm, an organization that relegates female filmmakers into gendered positions, Bohdanowicz’s films are opposed to the institutional form that critics celebrate, curators program and Telefilm funds. According to an article in the Toronto Now discussing the funding body’s lack of female representation, between 2013-2014 women directed a mere 4 percent of all films that received an investment above 1 million dollars (the alarmingly few indigenous filmmakers supported by the agency is also disconcerting, but deserves its own space in a separate article). Working at the lower levels isn’t much easier for women, and although Bohdanowicz’s cinema doesn’t directly deal with this issue in particular, it does so implicitly by revealing the patriarchal system that deletes women from families and Canadian histories. In an interview with the Notebook, Bohdanowicz elaborates on this idea:
Because I think that the histories of elderly women can sometimes be ignored, not listened to, sidelined. It’s not very often that you have elderly women featured as main characters in films. I was very much raised and influenced by both of those women in my life, so I feel like telling their stories is kind of like telling my story as well… I think that my work will always have to do with families and our histories—how we relate to one another, those emotional relationships, and the significance of them.
Her three short films from 2013, A Prayer, An Evening and Another Prayer preceded her debut feature Never Eat Alone in the Future//Present section. For the shorts, Bohdanowicz first shot her final visit with her paternal grandmother before she passed away. Following her grandmother’s death the director made the other two films in the trilogy. An Evening captures the relics inside her grandmother’s homes with evocative specificity, as if the elderly woman’s hands had just been there, placing these objects in acute positions before parting into the memories of those she left behind. Another Prayer, the final film in the trilogy, turns the matriarch’s domestic space into a family museum, projecting the memory of the woman in the first film over top of the spaces she once occupied. Bohdanowicz eternalizes her grandmother’s place within the family.
A still from Never Eat Alone, the film that won Sofia Bohdanowicz the Best Emerging Canadian Director award at VIFF 2016.
Her first feature, Never Eat Alone, expands the scope of the Prayer trilogy and contrasts the historical and contemporary representations of a matriarch. Casting her maternal grandmother in the lead role and using Deragh Campbell as the director's surrogate, Bohdanowicz’s documentary-fiction hybrid charts the rhythms of an elderly woman’s life, the connection and divide between women across generations. Bohdanowicz frames the film with a real CBC broadcast that her grandmother performed in. A representation of women constructed by government-backed images, the sequences from the live drama are humorously archaic as an absurdly macho man chases Bohdanowicz’s grandmother and spanks her with overly-exaggerated motions. Never Eat Alone is attuned to the slow progress of women’s position within a patriarchal system. We’ve certainly come a long way.
If there is in fact a problem with Canadian cinema, it has little to do with the amount of good films being made, rather with how they’re funded, exhibited, and evaluated. The majority of the films in this movement are made independently from Telefilm support and shot on a modest budget. Since many of Canada’s best directorial debuts react to a system and attitude that favors consumable cinema, they are naturally avant-garde or subversive. While the previous tradition of quality was based on “production value,” the emerging filmmakers’ are rugged and difficult, both in their style and their ideas. Whether it be the two representations of the grandma in Never Eat Alone, the structural conceit of Hello Destroyer, the revisionism in Werewolf, the sculptural montages in The Lockpicker, the update of NFB realist aesthetics in How Heavy this Hammer, the development of a new visual vocabulary in 88:88, or the reflections on how colonialism haunts contemporary spaces in Hit 2 Pass, these films consciously formulate a Canadian identity within a tradition of Canadian cinema—or in opposition to it. Distinct from Hollywood conventions or Telefilm constraints, English Canadian cinema appears to be finding its identity—whatever that may be—in a lack of it.

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