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It’s Alive! It’s Alive!

Montreal World Film Festival
Serge Losique on stage at the Imperial Theatre in Montreal in August 2017. Photo © 2017 by Maurie Alioff. Used with permission.

It’s Alive It’s Alive
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher

(August 28, 2017 – Toronto, on) If you’ve been a regular reader of Northernstars over the past decade or so, you may recall that each year around this time we do a rundown of what to expect at the larger film festivals as we enter the so-called Film Festival Season. There really isn’t a season it’s just that because in Canada all the big cities hold their festivals in rapid succession toward the end of the year.

In years past we have always used the Montreal World Film Festival (WFF) as the starting point. This year that changes. Why? Our headline, It’s Alive! It’s Alive! says it all to anyone who knows anything about what’s been going on in Montreal for years.

The indomitable Serge Losique (pictured last week) founded the WFF in 1977. It is one of Canada’s oldest international film festivals, at its peak star-studded and neck and neck with TIFF. In 2004 funding became an issue and by 2014, the WFF lost all of the $2 million it used to receive from the Canadian, Quebec and Montreal governments, including about $1 million from Telefilm Canada and the Quebec agency SODEC. The festival’s lawyer, Claude-Armand Sheppard, once commented, “I don’t think I’ve witnessed in the last 40 years a situation where there’s such a determined will on the part of a government agency to destroy a cultural institution.”

Losique marched forward, bravely if a little wobbly for the next decade. There were rumours that he had at one point mortgaged his home to keep the festival going. Just last year and a few days before the festival’s opening most of its employees resigned. In a letter to the Journal de Montreal, they stated “the financial uncertainty of the festival and the inability to firm up infrastructure reservations or to honour agreements” were among the issues that drove them to their decision. The 40th edition opened with a screening of Embrasse-moi comme tu m’aimes, from director André Forcier, but a major venue, the Cineplex Forum, pulled out, and many visiting filmmakers had nowhere to show their movies. Or a place to stay.

This year things got so bad that Hydro Québec shut off the power to Losique’s Imperial Theatre – where competition screenings and others are held – due to unpaid bills. Defiant as always, he claimed the festival would go on even if he had to bring in generators. What happened instead was, in short, a miracle.

Just two days before the festival’s scheduled start Pierre Karl Péladeau and the business empire he controls, Québecor, stepped in to save the Imperial from a financial situation that threatened its continued existence as a major cultural landmark and venue.

Québecor is investing about $5 million in the Imperial, taking on the majority of the theatre’s debt and bringing a some semblance of security for this year and the years ahead.

“I’ve known Serge Losique for many years, decades even,” said PKP, as he is known. The man who led the Parti Québecois for less than a year before stepping down went on to say. “Québecor is very involved in culture, and the Imperial is a cultural site. I think companies have a vocation and an obligation, moral and ethical, to protect our heritage.” .” As Le Devoir’s Odile Tremblay put it, Losique is like a cat with many lives.

And so WFF is off and running…well staggering, its thin schedule printed on a few sheets of paper and taped to the windows of the Imperial and in the Cinema du parc, which has offered two of its screens. The Dollar Cinema is the WFF’s third venue.

Opening with Karen Shakhnazarov’s beautifully lit and costumed take on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the fest rounded up movies from numerous countries, including China, Australia, Italy, South Korea, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, France, Chile, and the U.S.

The WFF continues until September 4th and hopefully for many years to come. 

We join with others in breathing a huge sigh of relief, but for us, from now on, the festival season will begin in early August with the larger, more stable and ultimately more important Fantasia Film Festival.

Production still from the 2017 film Borg/McEnroe.

In the next month important festivals will become the cultural highlight in most of Canada’s largest cities. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has become a behemoth but this year they’ve pared the list down somewhat, making selection only mildly easier for moviegoers. It kicks off on September 7th with Janus Metz’ 100-minute tennis epic Borg/McEnroe, costarring Sverrir Gudnason as the calm, cool, collected Björn Borg and Shia LaBeouf as the mercurial John McEnroe. Being billed a “sports drama as psychological thriller,” Borg/McEnroe is a little different from what might be called the perfect “festival film” which makes it…the perfect festival film. TIFF continues at a multitude of Toronto theatres as well as its home base the TIFF Bell Lightbox until September 17th.
Production still from Long Time Running.

Opening on the 14th is a festival that represents an entire region. It’s in Halifax but it’s called The Atlantic Film Festival. The opening night Gala is Long Time Running. Co-directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier it follows The Tragically Hip’s iconic 2016 Man Machine Poem cross-Canada tour and final concert in their hometown of Kingston, after the band’s announcement that lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. Long Time Running also screens at TIFF, but opening night Galas are always special and this 97-minute documentary deserves its honoured place at the Atlantic Film Festival.

Smaller festivals in larger cities deserve your attention too. Look for the Montreal Stop Motion festival on September 15, 16 and 17, especially if you’re a lover of this special, intricate kind of animation.

Production still from Night is Short, Walk on Girl, screening at OIAF in 2017.

Speaking of animation one of the most important festivals in North American is the Ottawa International Animation Festival running this year from September 20th to the 24th. Their opening gala is the feature film Night is Short, Walk on Girl, by director Masaaki Yuasa, which is in a Competition Selection. It’s a romantic comedy based on the bestselling 2006 novel of the same name written by Tomihiko Morimi. Yuasa fully embraces the use of evocative colors and surreal storylines to weave an unusual and amusing tale of love. Of the 94 films selected to screen in competition, 14 are from Canadian animation filmmakers. Some 28,000 artists, producers, students and animation fans attend OIAF each year.

The Calgary International Film Festival also kicks off on the 20th. They’ve decided not to use the acronym CIFF anymore. There’s a funny short video that explains why. From now on they want to be known as Calgary Film. This year’s festival runs right through until October 1st. This year there’s a new award recognizing the Best Canadian Narrative Feature Film at the festival.

Coming with a cash prize of $10,000, the jury award is supported by RBC’s Emerging Artists Project. The jury will consider Canadian narrative features with an emphasis on emerging directors and those who do not yet have a history of major theatrical distribution. “How better to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday than by launching the new Best Canadian Narrative Feature Award with a remarkable cash prize to nurture our nation’s own emerging talent?” said Calgary International Film Festival Executive Director Steve Schroeder. Calgary Film will announce their Opening Gala on August 30th.

Both the Edmonton and Vancouver film festivals start on September 28. Edmonton is playing coy and will not release its schedule until September 15th. That’s about normal for large film festivals. There’s a huge demand for films and filmmakers to attend festivals in support of their work and I think organizing a film festival is a lot like playing chess blindfolded while also juggling five priceless keepsakes. Edmonton runs from September 28 to October 7th.

Vancouver runs from the 28th to October 13th. Larger city, west coast filmmaking capital, longer festival. There are eight separate program streams at VIFF and while passes and film packs go on sale online on August 28th, the full program won’t be released until September 7th. Last year they presented more than 300 films from 73 countries.

There are links to all of these festivals and more, including the increasingly important Cinéfest Sudbury with will open its 29th edition with the Tragically Hip doc Long Time Running. Cinéfest, or the Sudbury International Film Festival runs from September 16th to the 24th.

Click here for a link to our list of September 2017 film festivals.

Northernstars logo imageRalph Lucas is the Founder and Publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began writing about film in the mid-1970s in radio in Montreal.