Another Year of Impressive World Cinema in Montreal, But Fest Future Shaky
by Wendy Mitchell
The drama started long before the opening night film unspooled at the 28th Montreal World Film Festival. The month before the festival kicked off, a consulting firm on behalf of cultural ministry SODEC and Telefilm Canada (which partially fund the fest) came out with a report heavily critical of the World Film Festival, reporting that local film professionals "deplore the management's attitude and lack of openness and generosity" and citing poor attendance at screenings, lack of hospitality, and a problem with overall organization. The festival's president, long-time director Serge Losique, announced that the organization would not respond to the criticisms until after this year's event concluded. Just a day after the festival wrapped on Monday, SODEC and Telefilm Canada announced they are taking applications from new parties to form a new Montreal festival. (Losique and regime also didn't respond to that announcement yet.)
Even if the festival organizers were crying on the inside, from the outside, the festival seemed like a well-run, successful event. Over the course of 12 days, the festival played nearly 400 features and shorts from around the globe. Most of the screenings I saw were well attended, although there were a few with embarrassingly small crowds. Star power included visits from Isabelle Adjani (who raised a few eyebrows when she spoke out against Canada's seal hunt as "barbaric") and Penelope Cruz. The public flocked to free outdoor and tent screenings each afternoon and evening. As proof to their loyalty to cinema, some locals even watched outdoor screenings in the rain.
The report may be right that Montreal isn't as vibrant as it could be -- this was my first time at the fest but I couldn't help noticing that there were more older white men at festival events than you see somewhere like Sundance. Even though there is a market here, it's still not a must-attend, even for most industry execs -- the move to later in August for the past two years has made it too close for comfort to the starting date of Toronto and Venice. But, to its credit, Montreal doesn't seem to want to offer the frenzy of Toronto. The bigger premieres may go to Toronto, but Montreal can top Toronto on a number of fronts: screenings here are more relaxed, pass holders can usually walk into any screening easily, and the logistics of the festival are easier to navigate (several well-equipped theaters are within several blocks of the festival HQ, the Hyatt.) Also, despite the large number of screenings and films, Montreal's festival feels like a more intimate event -- it's easy for industry attendees to mingle with one another at the Hyatt lobby, and all the directors were easily accessible at nightly happy hours (where local beer was flowing freely). And, well, Montreal just has a bit more cosmopolitan flair than Toronto (minor case in point: they serve croissants, not popcorn, at the movies).
Jordan Roberts, who directed the Warner Independent project "Around the Bend," starring Josh Lucas, Christopher Walken, and Michael Caine, said he was very happy with his decision to present the film's world premiere in Montreal. He told indieWIRE, "We had the choice of Toronto or Montreal, but I think we made the right choice in coming here... this is a much lower-profile festival by Hollywood standards, but in terms of seeing movies, this is a great festival." Roberts got packed audiences, some good reviews, and he also won the special jury prize, as well as Walken winning the best actor prize here for his restrained performance as a deadbeat dad. (The film shared both of those awards with Chinese film "The Parking Attendant in July.")
The big winner of the event was Eran Riklis' "Hacala Hasurit" (The Syrian Bride), which won the top jury prize, the FIPRESCI prize, the audience award, and the ecumenical prize. French comedy "The Role of Her Life" won the best actress prize for Karin Viard and the screenplay award for Francois Favrat, Julie Lopes-Curval, Jerome Beausejour, and Roger Bohbot. Carlos Saura won the best director award for his drama "The 7th Day." Ghyslaine Côté's "The Five of Us" won for best artistic contribution and the audience award for Canadian film. [A full list of winners is available at www.ffm-montreal.org.]
Compared to the looming question of the festival's future, my other complaints seem minor, such as the lack of an easy-to-read program grid and some nonsensical pairings of shorts and features. Many filmmakers were in attendance here, but they unfortunately weren't allowed to do Q&As after their films -- instead they introduced the films and mingled in theater lobbies afterwards, and several directors held press conferences that were accessible to the public. New York-based documentary filmmaker Allison Berg, in town with "Witches in Exile," told indieWIRE, "I was very surprised that they did not have Q&As after the screenings. This is a lost opportunity for everyone involved -- but especially the audiences as this is what makes a festival standout from other theatre experiences." She did, however praise the festival's wealth of programming and the dedication of the staffers.
The market section of the festival didn't seem to spur much deal-making, though it certainly did prove to be useful as a videotheque and a meeting place for free coffee. "Witches" director Berg said she got some limited interest from distributors from the market, although there were a few international execs she missed by arriving for the second half of the festival. "It's too soon to tell what will pan out," she says. "Overall, I felt it was a combined successful festival and market experience." Other filmmakers said that they didn't even know if their films were in the market or not, and hadn't heard much response if they were.
Of course, the most important measure of any festival is the programming, and in that respect, Montreal was impressive. I saw more than 20 films here, and I could at least partially recommend all but one. The stinker for me was "Non Ti Muovere" (Don't Move), an Italian film directed by and starring Sergio Castellitto, with Penelope Cruz going "serious" by making herself look homely. The plot of the film was implausible and struck me as misogynistic -- a rich surgeon rapes a poor immigrant woman, then goes back to rape her a second time, and afterwards she decides to cook him pasta and they fall in love.
The standout film for me was Fatih Akin's "Gegen Die Wand" (Head On), which earlier this year won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. "Head On" follows two Turkish immigrants in Hamburg who meet in a mental hospital and decide to enter into a marriage of convenience. You can probably guess that they start to fall for each other -- but otherwise this film offers continual surprises and offbeat situations. It's eye-opening, sexy, funny, heartbreakingly real, and the kind of film that I can't wait to see again (Strand Releasing has U.S. rights.) Another standout was Nimrod Antal's "Kontroll," a thrilling journey into the underbelly of Budapest -- literally... the entire film was shot below ground in the city's subway system. "Kontroll" blends character study and dark comedy with genre elements (there's a killer on the loose), offering a fresh, unexpected vision of modern city life. And it's worth seeing for the music alone.
One impressive Latin American selection was Jorge Furtado's "O Homem Que Copiava" (The Man Who Copied), which earlier this year won Cinequest's Maverick Spirit award. It was the stylish, well-crafted story of a young guy in Southern Brazil who earns a living making photocopies but needs more cash to impress the cute young shopgirl he spies on. He develops several schemes (only a few legal) to get more cash but things take an unexpected turn when he finds himself with too much money.
I gravitated to a lot of the European offerings, which proved to be mostly impressive. Among the highlights in this section were Hannah Davis and David Conolly's "Mothers & Daughters," a story of Londoners connected by family, friends, and a certain therapist who brings all her patients' problems back to their mothers. Lives start to unravel during a rather eventful dinner party that brings together a young vicar and his wife, two squabbling sisters, a coked-up supermodel, and other assorted guests. The ensemble cast was filled with convincing characters, but one particularly impressive role was a lesbian character who doesn't feel at all like a caricature, rather a fully formed woman who just happened to be a lesbian.
Scottish director Stewart Svaasand's "One Last Chance" was a charmer about a group of friends in a small town in the Scottish Highlands who think they find a way to strike it rich. It may seem at first glance to be in the vein of "The Full Monty" or "Waking Ned Devine," but this film proves to be smarter and more darkly humorous. Jamie Sives, who earlier this year starred in "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself," again proves himself as a captivating leading man in "One Last Chance."
"Forbrydelser" (In Your Hands), another hit from the Berlinale, is Annette K. Olsen's Danish Dogme story about a woman who takes a job as a prison chaplain and turns to a prisoner with supposed healing powers. It was a quietly devastating story. From Slovenia, the black-as-night "Predmestje" (Suburbs) by Vinko Moderndorfer presents a nihilistic commentary on surburban life. A group of frustrated men meet in their local bowling alley to talk about beating their wives and keep tabs on the foreigners moving into the neighborhood. Animal rights groups should have a field day with this one, because one scene seems to show the men shooting an actual dog (several times) for kicks.
Among the few American narratives here, Roberts' "Around the Bend" has already spurred Oscar talk for Christopher Walken, for good reason -- he plays a former heroin addict who tries to reconnect with his family -- this isn't typical smirky Walken, this is broken man Walken, and he's fantastic. It's not a very "edgy" film but it's emotionally rich with some top performances…and it presents the complex dynamics of male relationships that we generally don't see on the big screen.
I also finally saw Mark Milgard's "Dandelion," which screened in Sundance and also captured the indie prize at Karlovy Vary. It's an emotionally devastating tale of a sensitive teenager's troubled home life and his first love. "Dandelion" has strong performances from leads Vincent Kartheiser and Taryn Manning, on-target musical selections, and some gorgeous cinematography from Tim Orr. David Gordon Green should watch his back, because Milgard may be one-upping him in the department of heartrending small-town stories. I'm just shocked this one doesn't have a distributor yet. Another undistributed U.S. indie playing in Montreal was Jordan Hawley's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," a smart, quirky romantic comedy starring the always excellent Paul Schneider as an L.A.-based writer fed up with his love life and the West Coast, who tries to "break up with his own life."
Among the Canadian selections, there was quite a bit of buzz about caper "Seven Times Lucky," directed by Gary B. Yates and starring Kevin Pollak. Another Canadian entry, Christos Sourligas' "Elephant Shoes," was notable because it was shot for just $10,000 (Canadian dollars, no less!). The film presents a pretty realistic look at love, as told through the story of two people that meet on the street in Montreal, go back to his place for a quick romp, and then spends the next 12 hour getting to know each other. The stars, Stacie Morgain Lewis and Greg Shamie, are a real-life couple with a natural connection that comes through on screen.
Docs aren't a big focus for the festival, but the two I screened were well worth it: Allison Berg's eye-opening "Witches in Exile" ventures to Ghana to look at a camp for women deemed to be "witches," who are banished from their hometowns and mostly shunned from their families. Another doc, "Citizen Black," about Conrad Black, the Canadian media mogul who turned his back on his country for a Lordship in England, proved to be particularly timely as Black was in the headlines during the festival for allegedly looting his company Hollinger Inc. for $400 million. "Citizen Black" was wildly entertaining, with clever animated sequences and fake news clips, but the documentarian (Debbie Melnyk) seems to get too personally charmed by her subject, jeopardizing some credibility.
Among the few shorts I saw were Anita Lebeau's "Louise," a charming animated short about a 96-year-old woman in rural Manitoba doing her daily chores, Luis Castro's "Passengers," a rather uninspired look at subway commuters in New York City, and Sotiris Dounoukos' "Mona Lisa," a very artfully made look at the tenuous relationship between a mother and son.