Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TIFF14: Quebec, USA?

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in
Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild
Before previewing the very exciting programming already announced, I seem to be getting my feet wet this year by offering some reflection on trends! A full preview of the announced films is coming - so check back soon.

At the first programming presser, a media journalist asked Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey what they made of Canadian filmmakers who have chosen to make their world premieres at Cannes instead of Toronto. Handling responded rightly that this has been going on for years and is a sign of each filmmaker's growing international reputation. 

But the question and the answer beg a second question, which has nothing to do with Cannes. There is an interesting ongoing trend - one that Handling himself also referred to with pride - the increasing movement of Québecois filmmakers into international productions removed from Canadian money and talent. But is it a good thing as he says? Does this mean that they are simply growing as artists and increasing the world's appreciation of them? If it can be so for Cronenberg and Egoyan, who enjoy international popularity, surely it is a cultural slight to not wish the same for the many gifted filmmakers of la belle province.

Julianne Moore in David Cronenberg's
Maps to the Stars
I'm not so sure. I tend to look on it with some concern, since part of the great joy of having home-grown talent is seeing our best do what they do  --- at home. And Québec in my mind currently offers the very best in the country. A part of me is saddened to see some filmmakers gain fame and then vanish to the US. I say this, despite that I love the movies they make there. Last year, Festival double-hitter Jean-Marc Vallée wowed us with the subtle and complex Dallas Buyers Club, one of my favourites of TIFF 2013 and of the whole year in cinema. This year he returns with an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, about a woman who walks the Pacific Coast Trail to help herself overcome her own demons. Dallas Buyers Club was nominated for Oscars and Wild already has Oscar buzz. Who isn't proud of that?

Reese Witherspoon and Arnold Oceng in
Philippe Falardeau's The Good Lie
Witherspoon's other film in this year's fest also happens to be directed by the other Québecois director working in the US. Philippe Falardeau, whose last film was the exquisite Monsieur Lazhar, has made The Good Lie, about an American woman who helps four Sudanese refugees find their way on American soil. One of the strongest aspects of Monsieur Lazhar was the direction of ensemble work and the trailer gives every reason to hope for it here too. But news that wunderkind Xavier Dolan is set to do an American feature in Los Angeles, as his next entrée after the stunning Mommy, which debuted at Cannes.... seems to confirm this trend and leaves me a bit sad.

I know that this is really mostly about my own sense of nationalism, of wanting Canada to be seen in the works of Canadian filmmakers. And I know that to some extent this is unreasonable. For years Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig has been making films in the United Kingdom (witness Bad Education and this year's The Riot Club premiering at TIFF, which examines 'posh' power at England's top schools) without us losing track of the fact that she's Danish. And I note that Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet has come to New York to make Learning to Drive with Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. Two strong contenders for me. David Cronenberg, whose Maps to the Stars was one of the Canadian films that premiered at Cannes will see his movie screened as a Gala at TIFF, and Canadian Vallée's Wild will also screen as a gala. These decisions seem strategic, but why couldn't Maps or Wild have been the opening night screener? And what exactly is the distinction between an International Premiere and a World Premiere….?  (For a discussion of the premiere exclusivity controversy, see my previous post today.) I have lamented the recent trend to non-Canadian films opening TIFF. I wrote here in previous years that the decision to let Canadians simply stand on their own in other  programmes is a bit short-sighted. While the filmmakers discussed here crossover well, not all would, and why not give a smaller but significant Canadian film that coveted opening spot? Canadian film needs to continue to have an identity -- filmmakers don't just belong to a global pool. Understanding what makes Canadian filmmakers Canadian has to do with the way they approach the stories they tell. And yes, Sarah Polley is a fantastic example.

Obviously, Canadians leaving their home turf to make films in the US or abroad make wonderful films. It would be ridiculous to discredit that. English Canada's Atom Egoyan has often set stories outside of Canada to make his films. But in the case of Egoyan, his reputation is solidly as a Canadian filmmaker. He made many films at home before venturing away. David Cronenberg is renowned for nearly always shooting in Toronto. Will Vallée and Falardeau and last year's Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) be understood as Canadian or Québecois if they continue to make films outside of Canada? Or will their names simply fade into the multi-cultural haze of any filmmaker making a movie anywhere in the world. The unique vision and voice of Québecois cinema is such because the province's filmmakers turn their lenses on their own world. While I wish them all the success in the world, I hope they will all still make movies close to home. Québec becomes more visible culturally to the rest of Canada when that happens and we learn so much about this essential part of our identity. I am hoping that Vallée and Falardeau and Villeneuve will continue to make movies about Québec and Canada in Canada, so that we can learn from their rich, multi-layered voices. And so that making movies about our own country can continue to be compelling inspiration for future aspiring artists.