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July 25, 2007
The Canadian Cinema

One of the aspects about TIFF I admire most is the fact that the programmers and organizers have never lost sight of the vision of Bill Marshall: this festival was created to honor cinema from around the world, but also to promote and showcase Canadian films.

Being a filmmaker in Canada is a difficult process, which is why we lose so many to the United States where they have figured out for several years now how to make films and allow artists to have their visions. With no major studios up here, our artists are stuck having to go through the government for funding, and even then the budgets are ridiculously low. That great films are made for the funds they receive is a testament to the gifts of these fine artists.

Once the film is made the next challenge, probably the greater one is getting the film seen. Beyond the festival, there are very few venues for Canadian cinema in this entire country. The legendary Carlton Cinema on College Street has always been a godsend to Canadian filmmakers, providing a small theatre for the films to be screened to those interested. Of course that is the major problem, getting Canadians to see Canadian films.

I love my country, and I’m proud to be a Canadian, however I admit whole heartedly the greatest films in the world come from the United States. Having grown up on American films, obsessed with them after watching Charlton Heston part the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments” in a re-release in the early seventies, I consumed movies. The first Canadian film I remember making any sort of impact on me was “Goin’ Down the Road” in 1970, now regarded as a major breakthrough for Canada’s industry in that a film had been made by Canadians, for Canadians and was about Canadians. The director of the film, Don Shebib, had gone to school with Francis Ford Coppola and Carroll Ballard, but rather than remain in Los Angeles he returned to Canada to be a pioneer in our industry. He became as much, but he is also a bitter, tired man angry about how his life turned out and the success he sees Canadian directors, producers and writers having these days.


Through the seventies and much of the eighties, there was precious little to celebrate in Canadian cinema, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974) and “The Silent Partner” (1978) two happy exceptions. Only in the eighties did things begin to look up, as Canada began to make interesting, often exciting films about something, usually character based pieces, sometimes importing American or British actors to lend their box office power to the project. This gave us such films as “The Changeling,” a terrific ghost story with George C. Scott, and “Tribute,” based on the hit play with an over-the-top, though Oscar-nominated performance from Jack Lemmon.
In 1981 a co-production with France, “Atlantic City” won rave reviews around the world and in December of that year collected top prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, best film and best actor for Burt Lancaster, as well as the New York Film Critics, who honored Lancaster for the finest performance of his career.

The small film then was nominated for four Academy Awards including best picture and it seemed, finally, the Canadian film industry had the break it so needed.

Not quite. When the highest grossing film in this country’s history is for several years the dumb teen film “Porky’s,” you know something is wrong.

Though audiences did not go, films got better through the eighties, drawing more and more attention from the Academy south of the border. Quebec director-writer Denys Arcand’s films “The Decline of the American Empire” (1987) and “Jesus of Montreal” (1990) were both nominated for best foreign language film before he finally won the Oscar for his superb “The Barbarian Invasions.” After success in Los Angeles, David Cronenberg came home to make “Dead Ringers” in 1988 and found himself the darling of critics.

The tiny Festival of Festivals, the annual fall film festival in Toronto, was renamed The Toronto International Film Festival in the early nineties, and along with the prominence of the festival came better Canadian films.
“Ararat” (2000), “Felicia’s Journey” (1999), “Last Night” (1998), “The Red Violin” (1998), “Kissed” (1997), “The Hanging Garden” (1997), Oscar-nominated “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), “Crash” (1995), “Exotica” (1994), “Atanajurat” (2002), “Night Zoo” (1988) and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (1995) are just some of the films that have been screened at the festival before being discussed by critics around the planet.


Yet still we struggle with getting Canadian viewers of Canadian films. It is quite sad because the finest film of 1997 in my opinion was Atom Egoyan’s haunting “The Sweet Hereafter,” and in 2002 it was the stunning Inuit epic “Atanajurat,” a miracle of a film shot in the frozen north. Just last year the finest film I saw at the festival was Sarah Polley’s powerful drama “Away from Her,” currently earning rave reviews in theatres and on target for some Oscar attention at the very least for actress Julie Christie, but if there is any justice, Polley as well.

This year the festival once again has done a wonderful job of finding the finest in Canadian cinema for audiences to feast upon. Major directors Denys Arcand and David Cronenberg will bring their new films to the festival for Gala Presentations. Arcand has directed a new picture entitled “Days of Darkness” about a writer who wrestles with the frustrations of his boring life by escaping into a fantasy world where he is everything he dreams of being. The new Cronenberg film, already striking interest around the globe, is “Eastern Promises,” once again bringing the director together with Viggo Mortenson, each of them having performed miracles on “A History of Violence” in 2005, which should have earned each some Oscar attention.

Gonzo director Guy Maddin brings to the fest his most personal film yet, “My Winnipeg,” about his hometown in the province of Manitoba. What is interesting here is that Maddin, never one to bend to any convention, will provide live narration while his film is screening.

Roger Spottiswoode, who has directed one of the greatest political films ever made, “Under Fire,” brings to us his new film “Shake Hands with the Devil,” the story of Lt. General Romeo Dallaire’s turmoil in watching the genocide in Rwanda and being powerless to help. Recent Genie Award winner Roy Dupis is well cast as Dallaird.


“Silk” is Francois Girard’s first film since his triumph “The Red Violin” in 1998, which won an Academy Award for best musical score. This time he explores what occurs when a forbidden love for a nobleman’s concubine threatens to tear the lives of the characters apart. Keira Knightley is cast in this film, no doubt looking for a stretch after the latest Pirates film failed to challenge her as an actor.

One of the greatest and best known Canadian novels gets the transition to film in “The Stone Angel,” directed by Kari Skogland. Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn has the plum role of Hagrid, which for me is reason enough to see the film. Ellen Page of “Hard Candy” co-stars.

There will also be a special screening in the Canadian Open Vault series of the classic Canadian film “Les Bons Debarras,” rarely seen since dominating the Genie Awards in 1982, and one of the greatest films to emerge from Quebec.

More announcements are available on the festival website.


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