Monday, March 6, 2017

Canadian Cinema – Winter 2017

“Mais laissons les grands de côté, car 2016 a été unne année beaucoup plus intéressante à observer du côté des petits.” – Bruno Dequen

Well I agree! There’s been something exciting going on in Canadian cinema recently: new and exciting directors are emerging in the cinematographic landscape just like how grass and flowers will soon rise from below the dirt and snow to bring out some lightness and color.

The new issue of 24 Images takes stock of some of these developments in the Québécois context through its new dossier Regards pluriels. In it there’s an essay by Bruno Dequen on the future prospects of these smaller films in face of the shrinking attendance of public screenings. There’s a round-table with new voices in Québécois cinema (to accompany their short films on the 24 Images produced DVD) that includes Jean-Guillaume Bastien, Loïc Darses, Alexandre Dostie, Philippe David Gagné, Émilie Mannering and Rafaël Ouellet (not the one who made Gurov and Anna). A conversation between the critics Gérard Grugeau and Philippe Gajan on Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n'ont fait que se creuser un tombeau. Essays and reviews on Olivier Godin’s films, Sylvain L’Espérance’s Combat du bout de la nuit, Anne Émond’s Nelly, Sophie Goyette’s Mes nuits feront écho, Zaynê Akyol’s Gulîstan, terre de roses and Olivier Asselin’s Le Cyclotron (many of which are playing at the Les Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois).

Loïc Darses perhaps best describes the context of this new generation of Québécois directors and their hopefulness in the round-table. Darses writes,
I remember having these discussion when we aspired to be directors while we were still in film school. Even though we admire the films of Denis Côté, Anne Émond and Maxime Giroux we need to distance ourselves from them to exist. It’s a generation that went through certain disenchantment of globalization and that makes films about, among other things, mostly solitude. The problems haven’t disappeared but instead our generation rather transmits hope.
One of the nice surprises in this issue of 24 Images is to see Sophie Goyette’s first full-length feature Mes nuits feront écho, after two great shorts La ronde and Le futur proche, get the appreciation that it deserves. Though small in terms of its production budget, its multiple narratives follows three different characters in three different countries as they search for themselves and try to reconcile with the spirits of their deceased loved ones. There’s a beauty, modesty, hopefulness and ambition to Mes nuits feront écho that’s rare among first features.

Well regarded since its premiere, Ceux qui font les révolutions… needs to be seen in a theater to be properly experienced. It’s fervor and scope in portraying a group of young Québécois activist in the aftermath of the 2012 student protests is both inspiring and chilling. The 24 Images piece on it elaborates on its achievements and flaws, critiquing it for not giving the population of Montréal enough credit (the province throughout its history has shown more revolutionary fervor than any other in the country), not offering any firm political solutions and for being defeatist. Though I liked it more than them for its critical politics and its tactile media form (e.g. graffiting a billboard, throwing a Molotov cocktail into a restaurant) that seems new in this form to Québécois cinema. The insert shots in Ceux qui font les révolutions… of a Montréal of leisure (as discussed by Marcel Jean in 24 Images in the inaugural Montréal et Cinéma feature on La semaine dernière pas loin du pont), which presents the quotidian of the urban social life, are especially damning in the context of the film towards a more general cultural apathy and resistance towards direct action. Denis and Lavoie discuss being inspired by Gilles Groulx.

Émond’s Nelly is both devastating and fantastic. Similar to Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de flore, it’s devastating in its portrayal of youth, drug problems and what’s it like to be torn apart by love. It’s fantastic for its direction of Mylène Mackay, who plays Nelly Arcan, and the complexity of the character and her ability to be transformed into a star. There’s a scene in the film where Nelly is describing her literary fiction, about her previous life as a call girl, to her book publisher and says about it, ‘What’s wrong with some imagination?’ After the bleakness of Les êtres chers, Émond with Nelly aims towards new life experiences and aesthetic extremes. The result is outstanding.

It’s this turn to hope, extreme positions and grand affects that makes these new Québécois films so stimulating.

It’s emblematic for these young filmmakers to actively persist to raise funds to complete their projects and to pursue their vision. Though their multiple funding agencies including  SODEC, Telefilm, NFB among other independent producers provide for them more economic resources than any other province. 

A new book Le cinéma québécois par ceux qui le font full of interviews with Érik Canuel, Catherine Martin, Charles-Olivier Michaud, Noël Mitrani, Kim Nguyen and Rafaël Ouellet shows how an older generation can be a bit too complacent in the system while they complain about not being appreciated enough. (Though a new title in the same L'instant même series Le Cinéma Québécois au féminin sounds a lot more interesting). A more positive example of an older generation director is someone like Jean-Marc Vallée, and to a lesser extent Denis Villeneuve, who made the right decision for their career so that they could best expand their canvas by continuing to make the movies that they envision by going to Hollywood. Big Little Lies is just the newest and most glorious illustration of someone like Vallée’s skill.

All of this discourse, production and screening opportunities, with 24 Images at the center of it all continues to make Québécois cinema one of the best in the country. We’d be so lucky to have an equivalent of 24 Images, that's so invested in the art of cinema of its own city, here in Toronto. Though it’s surprising how there isn’t necessarily a crossover of it to the other provinces (see: poll). Other Canadian cities competing with Montréal for the best city for young Canadian filmmakers include Toronto (probably its biggest competitor), Vancouver and Cape Breton. But I’d also be curious to discover more from other Canadian cities.

Though there’s been recent films set near the Atlantic Coast (Closet Monster, Weirdos), it’s perhaps due to Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf that there’s a revitalized interest in the filmmaking of the Maritimes. Werewolf, similar to Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant, revitalizes a somewhat bland community by focusing on its youthful delinquency: the story of a young Methadone-addicted couple that eventually separates. It’s hard to properly get at what makes Werewolf so interesting. Some comparisons: Goin' Down the Road meets conceptual art? The Nova Scotian equivalent of East Hastings Pharmacy and Tower? Buffalo '66 meets the Dardenne brothers? But perhaps most productively is to see Werewolf as a personal film for McKenzie about witnessing the problems of her community first hand and of having friends ripped away due to circumstances. It’s also worth noting another Halifax filmmaker Heather Young whose two short films Fish and Howard and Jean also testify to the social problems and loneliness afflicting their surroundings. Young’s Fish is especially striking for following a single mother over a few years after she gives birth to twins and it continues in Youngs tender manner to express the loneliness that most people experience.

From Vancouver the two most anticipated new films are Neil Bahadur’s directorial debut From Nine to Nine and Kurt Walker’s follow up to Hit 2 Pass, S01E03. I’d be curious to see how they look when they’re all done.

But perhaps the biggest news from Vancouver is the success of Kevan Funk’s first feature, after the two earlier short films Yellowhead and Destroyer, Hello Destroyer, which is now only getting its theatrical release starting on March 10th. In a singular gritty style of medium shots and close-ups, full of shadows and set in modest urban environments and harsh nature settings, Hello Destroyer closely follows an up-and-coming hockey player (Jared Abrahamson) as his dream slowly gets crushed. It’s especially critical of institutional practices that foster excessive masculinity and that hypocritically turns away from its victims when they are needed.

If there’s a pessimism to Funk’s filmmaking as characters are slowly crushed by their surroundings, an optimism can be found in one new Toronto work: the Zapruder Films produced nirvanna the band the show (currently now on Viceland). It’s Matt Johnson’s ability to dream and to imagine actually winning that makes his work so uplifting.

But there’s also a lot more exciting events and new projects in the works going on in Toronto. This March: Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer is now on iTunes, Funk's film on the 10th, the Canadian Screen Awards (where Johnson, Funk and Johnny Ma are nominated) on March 12th, Efehan Elbi and Aleksey Matviyenko’s Rainfall is having its Toronto premiere at the Canadian Film Fest on March 21st, and Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Never Eat Alone is getting a theatrical and some of her short films are playing on the March 25th. Here’s hoping that Lev Lewis’s The Intestine, Daniel Warth and Miles Barstead’s Dim the Fluorescents, Joyce Wong's Wexford Plaza, Rebeccah Love’s Acres and Claudia Hébert's Le Déni soon have their Toronto premiere. There are also some new projects in either development or near-completion including those by filmmakers such as Fantavious Fritz, Mitch Greenberg, Antoine Bourges and Isiah Medina. Here’s to better times!

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