I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, the Toronto New Wave and Beyond
By Wyndham Wise
(October 10, 2017 – Toronto, ON) In the fall of 1987 Patricia Rozema was sitting on top of the world. In the spring she had conquered the Cannes Film Festival with I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, receiving a standing ovation at the end of its fabulous Riviera debut. She won one of the festival’s major prizes, Le Prix de la Jeunesse, and the articulate, intelligent, funny and pretty 29-year-old was at the receiving end of adoring and overwhelming attention from her hometown critics, as Mermaids was the prestigious Opening Night Gala at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals.
The influential critic Jay Scott of The Globe and Mail wrote this of its historic Cannes screening: “Thunder followed yesterday’s screening of a gentle, lyrical Toronto movie, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. This year at Cannes, the Canadians have not only heard the mermaid’s song, they’ve heard the siren’s call.” On its initial release, Mermaids did something very few English-Canadians had ever done before – it was both a critical and commercial success.
Over the years the film has achieved a special place in the Canadian canon. It has been the subject of much feminist/queer study, a book (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing: A Queer Film Classic) and was number nine on TIFF’s 1993 Top Ten list of best Canadian films of all time. It also introduced the world to a group of Late Baby Boomers (all born between 1958-63) who would later become known as the Toronto New Wave. This group includes, but not limited to, Rozema, Atom Egoyan, John Greyson, Ron Mann, Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, Peter Mettler and Jeremy Podeswa.
The origin of this derivative, catchy phrase is rooted in a September 1988 issue of Cinema Canada magazine, known as the Outlaw issue, that announced loudly and proudly that such a group of filmmakers existed, even if only in Bruce McDonald’s fevered imagination. The one from this loosely knit group with the instincts of a publicist, McDonald used Travis Bickle’s profane-laded monologue from Taxi Driver (the one about washing away the scum from the streets of New York) in his opening editorial salvo.
He declared his cinematic inspiration was the streetwise films of Martin Scorsese and not the dreary documentaries from the NFB; rock ‘n’ roll outlaws on the Highway to Hell and not the alienated sad sack “losers” of Nobody Waved Goodbye or Goin’ down the Road. He was totally committed to “make-the-fucking-movie” by any means possible and not a distribution deal or a tax write-off. His was not a manifesto. It was a primal scream from the gut for something real, something that would shake-up the Canadian film establishment, such as it existed at the time.
A year later, McDonald was at the Festival of Festivals with Roadkill, starring his buddy Don McKellar, who had written the screenplay. Most people familiar with Bruce’s career are familiar with the oft-told story about how Roadkill was the unexpected winner of the Best Canadian Film Award that year. How he, somewhat disheveled and hung over, was in total shock and told the equally surprised gathering that he would spend his cash award on a classic car and “big hunk of hash,” thereby giving him country-wide headlines the next day and an enduring legacy as the rebellious Toronto filmmaker in a battered cowboy hat.
What most people don’t know about that brunch is the very telling mini-drama that went on just minutes before Bruce blurted out his infamous line. Deny Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal was a big winner at Cannes that year, and later would be nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category. It was the festival’s Opening Night Gala and a shoo-in for the Best Canadian Film Award. Roadkill was screened as part of the Perspective Canada program and had played late in the festival’s schedule. The reason Bruce was hung over that day was because he was at the celebration for its world premiere the night before. Overnight the Canadian jury did a serious rethink, and chose Roadkill over Jesus of Montreal.
A confident Arcand had left the festival early for other commitments, so he was not in attendance at the awards’ brunch. However, the film’s producers were there, and when it came to the announcement for the best Canadian Film Award, they were halfway on their feet when a wave of shock spread throughout the room. Embarrassed and confused – surely this was a mistake – the Arcand table sat down as Bruce made his way to the podium to rapturous applause. The room was his. It’s one of my most precious festival moments, and solidified Bruce’s future as a perennial TIFF favourite.
In 1992, critic Geoff Pevere wrote a piece for a major retrospective of Canadian cinema that took place at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris (Middle of Nowhere: Ontario Movies after 1980). In it he described this emerging “Ontario New Wave” as “one of the most vital and productive booms in the history of the country’s cinema” and a major “semantic reversal” that saw the artistic heart of Canadian filmmaking shift from Quebec to Ontario during the 1980s.
That same year, I launched Take One: Film in Canada and to celebrate 100 years of film in Canada in 1996, I asked Geoff to contribute a piece for a special issue devoted to the simple idea of including all naturally born Canadians in a list of prominent Canadians and films. His essay, Ghostbusting: 100 Years of Canadian Cinema, or Why My Country Includes The Terminator, accompanied a selection of 100 mini-bios and reviews (Take One: Film in Canada No. 12, Summer 1996). As a sidebar, I wrote a short piece with Marc Glassman on “Ontario’s New Wave.”
In 2000, I was able to convince the Ontario Film Development Corp. (OFDC) to partially fund a special issue devoted to the history of the Ontario film industry (Take One: Film in Canada No. 28, Summer 2000) and this time I asked Cameron Bailey to contribute an article based on the idea of a unique cinematic new wave that emerged from the downtown film/video/art scene in the 1980s and early 1990s. His piece, Standing in the Kitchen All Night Long: The Secret History of the Toronto New Wave, was the first use of the expression in print.
The Toronto or Ontario New Wave? And Who Cares Anyway?
I should probably explain the nuance in the choice of the expression for those unfamiliar with the deep loathing Toronto holds in certain quarters outside its downtown core – meaning the area bordered by Davenport Road/the Bloor Viaduct to the north, Dufferin Street to the west, the Don River to the east and Lake Ontario to the south (including the Islands). It’s the very heart of English-Canada’s financial/cultural elite so despised by the federal Conservatives (who currently hold no seats in the Greater Toronto Area) and certain populist politicians (such as the late, unlamented mayor, Robert “Crackhead” Ford).
When Bruce McDonald first announced the group’s existence, he was specifically referring to his friends and peers who all lived in the section of downtown Toronto described above, but he did not give them a name. Take One’s editorial board was reluctant to put Toronto on the cover of the magazine, fearing it would alienate readers in other parts of the country. And if you think this seems all a bit petty, when TIFF published its history on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, it deliberately did not put Toronto on the cover, calling the book Brave Films Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever instead.
When I asked Cameron to write his piece, we talked about this dilemma and concluded that since this was really about the filmmakers who made Queen Street West their professional and personal stomping grounds in the 1980s we would go with the Toronto New Wave, and damn the torpedoes. While I occasionally still see the Ontario New Wave used in print, the Toronto New Wave has become the standard shorthand for this group and is now widely in use, even filtering its way into academic discourse. Bailey’s article was the basis for York University Prof. Brenda Longfellow’s article Surfacing the Toronto New Wave: Policy, Paradigm Shifts and Post-Nationalism, which was published in TIFF’s Toronto on Film (2009).
Of course, the group did not emerge in a vacuum. Two major events of the 1980s gave credence and cash to these young filmmakers. In 1984, the Toronto Festival of Festivals premiered Perspective Canada, a program that for 20 years was the most prestigious venue for launching English-Canadian features. Then, in 1986 the OFDC was founded, providing a much-needed funding alternative to the restrictions of the Ontario Arts Council and Telefilm Canada, headquartered in Montreal. From the start, the OFDC was officially mandated to create an Ontario film culture. Under the guidance of its first CEO, Wayne Clarkson (who, as the former head of the Festival of Festivals, had been partially responsible for launching Perspective Canada), it proceeded to do so.
Unlike previous generations, this group of filmmakers avoided the easy lure of big money and bigger films in Hollywood. Instead, like their cinematic mentor David Cronenberg, they chose to stay and make a living in Canada. However, the inevitable happened. Clarkson moved on to serve as the head the Canadian Film Centre, and the vital project funding came to an end in 1996 with the June 1995 election of the Mike Harris’s Conservatives. Tax incentives and development programs replaced equity financing. Abruptly, one of the most creative and innovative periods in Canadian filmmaking history came to a sad end.
Key films from this period include three by McDonald, Roadkill (1989), Highway 61 (1991) and Dance Me Outside (1994); six by Egoyan, Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), Calendar (1993) and Exotica (1994); three by Rozema, I’ve Heard the Mermaids (1987), White Room (1990) and When Night Is Falling (1995); four by Mann, Imagine the Sound (1981), Poetry in Motion (1982), Comic Book Confidential (1988) and Twist (1992); four by Mettler, Scissere (1982), Top of His Head (1989), Tectonic Plates (1992) and Picture of Light (1994); two by Greyson, Urinal (1988) and Zero Patience (1993); and Podeswa’s Eclipse (1994).
Did They Make a Difference?
In the claustrophobic, hothouse world of English-Canadian cinema, I would say so. That incident from the awards’ brunch, when Roadkill won over Jesus of Montreal, was real, concrete evidence of the seismic shift Geoff Pevere talked about in the 1980s when he described the Toronto New Wave as “one of the most vital and productive booms in the history of the country’s cinema.” With the release of Egoyan’s Exotica in 1995, I wrote an opinion piece entitled The True Meaning of Exotica, and concluded that the true meaning of Exotica was the fact we no longer had to “weep for English-Canadian cinema.”
Of course, what has not changed is the public’s ability to see these films. In 2000, the federal Liberals took a hard look at the business of exhibiting Canadian movies in Canada with the aim of trying to increase their profile with their domestic audience. After five years of study, they came to the conclusion that films from Quebec have a decent annual domestic audience of approximately 15 percent (hitting an all-time high of 20 percent in 2003), while English-Canadian films languish at less than two percent. For years I had been tracking domestic films released in the Greater Toronto Area (the largest market in the world for English-Canadian movies) in Take One, and year after year, the total never exceed two percent.
So if the Toronto New Wave produced a least one world-class filmmaker in Egoyan, and may have changed some minds in the refined world of Canadian films studies—which now considers the work of some English-Canadian filmmakers on an equal footing with their French-Canadian counterparts—when it comes to the indifference English-Canadian audiences have for their own films, the French have an excellent expression for it: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
What Has Happened Since the 1990s?
Of the GenX film directors from Toronto, Sarah Polley stands head and shoulders above the rest. Not even taking into account her Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay for her debut feauture Away from Her in 2006, Polley has been making a name for herself in Canadian film and television business since her days as Sara Stanley in the popular long-running CBC series Road to Avonlea (1990-96). Her meta-documentary Stories Well Tell (2012) was placed number 10 on TIFF’s 2014 Top Ten list of the best Canadian films of all time. In fact, Polley, despite her age, has more in common with the previous generation of filmmakers than her own. She appeared in Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), McKellar’s Last Night (1999) and Greyson’s The Law of Enclosures (1999). Most recently she adapted and produced Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace for television (2017; directed by Mary Harron).
Polley’s peers of her own age have made some interesting work, but nothing really stands. Without the equity support from the OFDC (now the Ontario Media Development Corporation), and a seemly lack of common purpose, for most part the best from Toronto filmmakers in the late 1990s and 2000s are safe, non-challenging works. These include Clement Virgo’s Rude (1995) and Poor Boy’s Game (2007); Michael McGowan’s One Week (2008) and Still Mine (2012); Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997) and Splice (2009); Ruba Nadda’s Sabah (2005) and Cairo Time (2009); and David Weaver’s Century Hotel (2001). What all these filmmakers have in common is that they now work in episodic television and none have achieved a sustained career in world cinema.
In the 2000s, the creative pendulum swung east, back across the Ottawa River, and the richest and most challenging Canadian movies once again came out of Quebec. In a striking contrast to the box office adverse Toronto-born filmmakers, the successful GenX directors from Montreal include two of the best this country has ever produced, the marvellous Jean-Marc Valleé, C.R.A.Z.Y., Dallas Buyers Club, and the American mini-series Big Little Lies, and the brilliant Denis Villeneuve, Incendies, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and maybe the next Bond if the rumours are to be believed. Apparently Daniel Craig is a fan of his work.
The Millennials Have Arrived
Now we have the Millennials (roughly those born in the 1980s and 90s) and activist filmmaking seems to have come back in vogue, with Toronto-based directors such as Kazik Radwanski, Matt Johnson, Pavan Moondi and Albert Shin. Barry Hertz, in a lengthy piece last year for The Globe and Mail on this New Toronto New Wave, wrote: “Their work is raw and scrappy, urgent and intense, and driven by a keen sense of frustration – with life, with art and with the system that is supposed to produce homegrown films in the first place. The filmmakers make do with little money and either shun traditional funding bodies or partner with them reluctantly. They focus on the vast, diverse identities that make up Canadian culture, but do not feel bound by any staid, maple-syrup-swigging, hockey-loving, Tragically Hip-listening presuppositions.”
Kaz Radwanski wrote directed and produced three award-winning shorts between 2007-09, known as the MDF trilogy, before moving on to features, Tower in 2012 and How Heavy This Hammer in 2015. Together with his former Ryerson classmate Daniel Montgomery, Radwanski formed the production company MDFF (Medium Density Fibreboard Films), which holds local screenings for indie and Toronto filmmakers. He has been called “one of Toronto’s most gifted young filmmakers” by Now critic Jason Alexander.
Hammer was given its world premiere at TIFF 2015 and was generally well received by the local critics. The National Post called it a “must see” and it was in the running for the best Canadian film at the 2016 Toronto Film Critics Association awards’ dinner. It did not win, and perhaps a more balanced review was offered by a critic from The New York Times who wrote, “The movie is laden in its pacing – the first 15 minutes feel like an hour – and its constricted shooting style, practically all handheld almost close-ups, is transparent in its contrivance of realism.”
This assessment lines up with veteran Toronto critic Bruce Kirkland’s review of the earlier Tower for the QMI Agency: “Tower is perplexing film from first-time director Kazik Radwanski. It has some worthy qualities, but it is also incredibly boring. The 78-minute running time can feel like 780 minutes.” Which reminds me of a memorable quote from a caustic critic from an earlier generation, who said after watching yet another indie, low-budget Canadian wrist-slashing downer: “This is another in a long line of films that makes you wonder if Canada is the unhappiest place on the planet.”
Writer, director, producer, actor Matt Johnson is the designated flamethrower/bad boy of this group, giving grief to both Telefilm Canada and TIFF, scared cows of the Canadian film establishment. The director, producer and star of The Dirties (2013; reportedly made for $10,000) and Operation Avalanche (2016), a mock documentary about a fake moon landing, Johnson received excellent reviews and awards when The Dirties was screened at the Slamdance Film Festival. However, when it came to his sophomore feature, Telefilm turned him down. Ever since he has been on a tear, calling the whole Canadian film establishment “corrupt” and, horrors or horrors, based on favouritism when it comes to government funding and screenings at TIFF.
Poor snowflake. The youthful Johnson evidently just discovered to his dismay that the system in Canada is unfair and stacked against newcomers and outsiders. Others with burning ambition, and who have discovered this unpleasant truth about trying to build a career in film or television in Canada on public money, and seriously wanted to do something about it, took the logical next step – a quick and cheap trip to Los Angeles to swim with the sharks. Instead, Johnson has decided to stick around and bellyache to the press in the great Canadian tradition of biting the hand that feds him.
If Mr. Johnson knew anything about the business he is in, he would then know that the first filmmaker to complain about favouritism in the Canadian Film Development Corporation (the forerunner to Telefilm) was six months after the office opened in Montreal in 1968. The first Canadian filmmaker to be seriously put out after being turned down for a spot in the Festival of Festivals lineup (the forerunner to TIFF) was in 1976, and it has happened every year ever since. Get in line Mr. Johnson, and it’s a long one.
Pavan Moondi’s career arc appears more traditional. He progressed from shorts to features fairly smoothly with Every Day Is Like Sunday, which began life as a short in 2011 and was remade as a feature in 2014. His sophomore movie, Diamond Tongues (2015; which he also edited), had its world premiere at Slamdance and was picked up for distribution by Mongrel Media. It gained considerable press attention and praise for its untrained lead actress, Leah Fay Goldstein, the lead singer with a local indie band, July Talk.
After a shot at episodic television in 2016 with the short-lived CBC series Four in the Morning for producer Ari Lantos, Moondi returned in 2017 with his third feature, the buddy comedy Sundowners, a Canada-Columbia co-production made with some U.S. financing. With a budget of $1.3 million, it’s his biggest movie yet, featuring a genuine name actor (alt-comedy star Tim Heidecker).
York University film school graduate Albert Shin has been directing, editing and producing indie shorts and features for himself and others for over 10 years. His first feature was Point Traverse in 2009, followed by the well-received Korean-language South Korea co-production In Her Place in 2015. Jim Slotek wrote for PostMedia: The “young Korean-Canadian filmmaker has made a terrific splash with this sure-handed feature, set in his ancestral South Korean home, and replete with themes of class and dysfunction.” Variety called it “acutely observed” and compared parts of the film to works by Bergman and Polanski, high praise indeed.
It has been announced that Shin is now doing a deal with Rhombus Media for his third feature. His producing partner in Toronto-based TimeLapse Pictures is a fellow York student graduate, Igor Deljiaca from the former Yugoslavia, who has directed two low-budget co-productions, one with Bosnia-Herzegovina and the other with Bosnia and Croatia, Krivina (2012) and The Waiting Room (2015). He now teaches at York.
Other names from this new grouping who so far have made one-offs include Simon Ennis’s You Might As Well Live (2012); Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral (2012; screened at Cannes and TIFF); Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant (2015; also screened at Cannes and TIFF); Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster (2015; best Canadian feature at TIFF); and Hugh Gibson’s cinéma-vérité documentary The Stairs (2016; winner of the Toronto Film Critics Association best Canadian film).
A 2016 press release from Rhombus Media’s Niv Fichman – who was an important producing partner in the original group, and a longtime nurturer of talented Canadian filmmakers – announced upcoming features from Brandon Cronenberg, Stephen Dunn, Andrew Cividino and Albert Shin. Only time will tell if they meet or exceed the high standards set by the original Toronto New Wave.
Wyndham Wise is Editor of Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film and former editor-in-chief of Take One: Film in Canada, as well as an occasional contributor to Northernstars.ca.