Just days after TIFF issued its first big line-up announcement, the festival’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, traveled to Los Angeles to co-host a series of events in celebration of Canadian film with Film Independent at LACMA. The program kicked off with a conversation with Canadian-born actor Taylor Kitsch, followed by screenings of three Canadian films: “Felix and Meira,” “In Her Place” and “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.”
In discussing the events at LACMA with Indiewire, Bailey, who has been with TIFF for the better part of twenty-five years, provided a decisive survey of Canadian cinema of the past, present and future — distinctive insight as the festival prepares to celebrate its fortieth anniversary this September.
For anyone who might not be familiar with Canada’s Top Ten, could you briefly explain how the list is curated?
We invite a panel of people, who know a lot about Canadian films, to vote on their top features and shorts of the year and in December we announce them. In January we begin screening them at the Lightbox in Toronto and then we tour them in Canada as well. We play typically Vancouver, Montreal, Emerson, Edmonton, Calgary, cities like that — and this year we did something new in Vancouver [because] we also did an onstage conversation with Sandra Oh, a Canadian actress of course, which was something fun and new to do.
We’ve been thinking about ways to go beyond Canada’s borders because they [Canada’s Top 10] don’t all get picked up for distribution [in the United States]. So in our top 10 list for this year, we had films like Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” and David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” which did get released in the States. But [since] not all of them do and we think they are all good films, [we chose to show] Maxime Giroux’s “Felix and Meira” and Albert Shin’s “In Her Place” [for the screening series at LACMA], which haven’t had a release yet [in the United States] but are very high quality independent films that we think the film community here will want to see them.
How does “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” fit into the mix?
Every 10 years, TIFF does this poll of the top Canadian films [of all time] and for the last two or three polls, a film called “Mon once Antoine” has topped the poll. This year for the first time, it’s a new film at the top — kind of similar to what happened with the Sight and Sound poll, where “Citizen Kane” was on top for decades and then suddenly, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” came out on top in the last one. This time for our Canadian poll it was film called “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,” by an Inuit filmmaker called Zacharias Kunuk, who is working in the far north of Canada. It’s kind of a traditional tale, really strong filmmaker capped by a very memorable scene of the protagonist running naked across the frozen ice in the far north of Canada. It’s quite a remarkable film and not what you might expect from a story set in a very kind of traditional community, among the Inuit.
TIFF is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, could you talk about how you think Canadian cinema has evolved and what it says about both the present moment and its future?
I’ve been with TIFF, in one form or another for most of the last 25 years. I first began working with TIFF in 1990 and in terms of Canadian cinema, there has been a complete evolution. We’re not where we were in 1976 at all. Canadian cinema was really borne in documentaries — and that is partly because fiction feature filmmaking really wasn’t open to Canadians for a long time because Hollywood studios dominated the film industry and exhibition in Canada, didn’t allow Canadian films to get screen time in Canada and as a result, Canadian filmmakers and film institutions went to documentary instead. And excelled there as NFB [National Film Board of Canada] documentaries are still doing very well around the world. Sarah Polley’s doc was made through the National Film Board, “Stories We Tell.”
So that is what Canadian film used to be, very strong verite documentaries for the most part, that often took on political or social issues. Things really began to change, I think, in the early to mid 80s with filmmakers like Atom Egoyan and then later on Patricia Rozema and Guy Maddin; who weren’t coming from a documentary tradition at all. They were either film school educated or they were working from fiction, from fantasy. In Guy Maddin’s case especially, his movies are so immersed in other people’s movies and not at all in the so-called real world. That gave, I think, Canadian cinema an entirely new register to play in, which was exciting and led to some strong films that weren’t trying to reflect real life, but rather trying to get insight into human behavior through fiction.
I think the next big step forward has been what has been Quebec and Montreal in particular over the last few years, with these really strong, dramatic filmmakers — people like Jean-Marc Vallee, Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan — whose films are full of emotion and dramatic incidences and conflict and they’re not quite as observational as Canadian cinema used to be. If you compare the verite documentaries, which are kind of looking on to the world and trying to show injustice in many ways; or Atom Egoyan’s films, which were looking at human behavior from a little bit of a distance, a kind of Harold Pinter distance; and then you compare Xavier Dolan’s films, which just plunge you into human conflict, emotion, love, passion and sex, it’s a different approach to filmmaking. And it turns out that that has been quite successful as well. I would say Albert Shin’s “In Her Place” is much more of the Egoyan school in terms of his approach to the style of filmmaking, whereas Maxine Giroux’s “Felix and Meira” is much more a part of what’s been coming out of Quebec lately. So you are seeing different schools of Canadian film reflected through the films in the [LACMA program].
Dolan has accomplished a great deal in such a short period of time — having debuted his first film in Cannes just five years ago and now, this past May, served on the festival’s main competition jury. What has it been like watching his career develop?
It’s been exhilarating to watch Xavier Dolan over the last five features. He’s not yet 30 years old and he’s already established himself as one of the most exciting filmmakers working internationally. He’s a prodigy. He lives and breathes cinema, he’s always looking to challenge the rules, to reinvent his own film language; and he feels the freedom to do that as maybe so few artists do. You get a sense when you are watching his movies that he is completely liberated from convention, and that is maybe the most exciting thing. But, at the same time, I think he is also bringing discipline.
I remember talking to him a little bit about “Mommy,” and he said that he was imposing a new kind of rigor on his own filmmaking than he did in his previous films, where he had just wanted to try everything that he could. I think maybe he was a little bit of a wilder filmmaker and now he’s focusing and channeling that wildness and that energy into something that is even more affecting.
I’m not the first to compare him to Pedro Almodovar, but you saw the same thing with Almodovar from the time he started out with his early Super 8 films — they were totally wild and anarchic. Then you began to see a new kind of aesthetic discipline imposed, and his mature films, “Talk to Her” and films of that era, have the same kind of invention, but to me, much more powerful because of the rigor that is brought to them. I think we’re going to see great films for many, many years from Xavier Dolan.
And you know he’s not the only one — you can say similar things about Denis Villeneuve and Jean Marc Vallee, who have similar kind of energy in their work and who are, I think, really just hitting their stride in terms of mature filmmaking. It’s exciting, I think we’re going to see such strong work from all three of them for years to come.