“War is not a place for deep emotion,” Eric Peterson sings in Billy Bishop Goes to War, the sardonic Canadian musical about the dubious business of hero-making, which was first staged back in 1978.
The new film of John Gray’s play – shot off the stage by Barbara Willis Sweete ( Perfect Pie) – documents a recent revival of the Canadian musical, which is curiously pertinent to the take-no-prisoner’s tone of this year’s festival. Think of it as the Year of No More Mr. Nice Guys.
It’s been a decade since the festival dropped its Perspective Canada program, lumping diverse Canadian films into one roster. In that same period, Canada has been involved in the war in Afghanistan, a period that former Globe writer Michael Valpy has described as a “profound cultural shift” in which our military went from near-invisibility to valorization, highly visible at sports events and honoured on public television, a period in which CBC personalities such as Wayne Rostad, Rick Mercer and Don Cherry have all become proud honorary colonels.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, war is in the air at this year’s festival, though in a less affirmative manner. Most obviously, there’s Afghan Luke, a black comedy by Trailer Park Boys’ director Mike Clattenburg, which follows a freelance journalist (Nick Stahl) trying to track rumoured war atrocities committed by a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. No one, including his newspaper editors, wants any part of a story that discredits our troops.
Stahl also stars in Randall Cole’s disquieting new political horror movie 388 Arletta Avenue, a film that mixes the surveillance-camera scares of films such as Paranormal Activity and Austrian director Michael Haneke’s 2005 drama Cache ( Hidden).
In Cache, a couple are terrorized by a stranger making videotapes, which are linked to a 1961 cover-up of a massacre of Algerian protesters by the Parisian police. In this Canadian update, when a stranger begins terrorizing a young urban couple (Stahl and Mia Kirshner), the husband assumes the culprit is a misfit Afghanistan vet who he once abused. Meanwhile, his wife has been writing a doctoral thesis on Afghan embroidery for about as long as the war has been going on, an allusion to most famous war wife in literature, the shroud-weaving Penelope in the Odyssey.
The story of Ulysses’s long-delayed homecoming from the Trojan War appears in another guise in Guy Maddin’s Keyhole, a black-and-white phantasmagorical gangster drama and ghost story, in which a violent hood, Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric), returns home to his haunted house carrying a drowned but oddly revived girl. Ulysses fails, however, to recognize his own son, who his henchmen are keeping hostage. Through the course of the film, Ulysses fights his way through his house to the room of his estranged wife (Isabella Rossellini).
A different kind of violent glamour-boy gets the biographical treatment in first-time director Nathan Morlando’s Edwin Boyd, the story of the son of a policeman and disillusioned Second World War vet turned celebrity bank robber.
Hero worship and blood lust are also evident in sports films this year. Instead of last year's feel-good hockey musical, Score, with its pacifistic hockey hero, we have films about the brutality of our national game. By coincidence, the festival has two about hockey enforcers at a time when the sports pages are filled with uncharacteristic soul-searching following the sudden deaths of three of the National Hockey League's tough guys in the past four months. Goon (co-written by Jay Baruchel and directed by Fubar’s Michael Dowse) is a comedy about a misfit from a brainy family who makes his living by beating people up on the ice. The Last Gladiators is a documentary from Alex Gibney ( Taxi to the Dark Side) about NHL enforcers and their warrior psychology.
Canada is not necessarily the multicultural utopia of our junior-high readers. The struggles of new immigrants are another subtheme at this year’s festival: Ivan Grbovic’s Romeo Eleven is a drama about the dangers and opportunities of the Internet, from the perspective of a physically disabled 20-year-old Lebanese-Canadian. Philippe Falardeau Monsieur Lazhar follows an Algerian refugee who takes over an elementary school class where the previous teacher hanged herself in the cloak room. (For comic relief, there is Breakaway as well, a film about an Indo-Canadian kid who, after being rejected by a racist coach, finds a team to help him reshape hockey, Bollywood-style.)
Steve Gravestock, associate director of Canadian programming, sees this year’s dominant trend as one of generalized anxiety about our shifting cultural identity and the speed of technological change. The mood could be summed up in the title of a new National Film Board documentary, Surviving Progress, from directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. Based on Ronald Wright’s cautionary book, A Short History of Progress, it's about some of the blind alleys down which civilization has led us.
The video cam and Internet surveillance in 388 Arletta Avenue, the use of online false identities in Romeo Eleven and the game of truth in Afghan Luke are about a world in which digital evidence is mutable, exacerbating the character's anxiety and sense of displacement.From the battle abroad, we come to the to tussle in the bedroom: Other films getting prefestival buzz are Café de flore, a supernaturally themed drama from Jean-Marc Vallée ( C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria) about the pain of divorce, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method about Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the birth pangs of psychoanalysis, and Sarah Polley’s marital-discord dramedy Take This Waltz.
Heartache and struggle, on the battlefield or in the bedroom, appear to be the common threads. Complacent? Repressed? Passive? These are adjectives from another, more innocent era. O Canada, our home and anxious land!