The only way the 1984 Toronto Festival of Festivals could have been more Canadian would have been if there had been a snowfall in September.
Not that the fest, since rebranded as the Toronto International Film Festival, needed it. That was not only the inaugural year of a new national showcase program called Perspective Canada, it was also the year of Northern Lights, an exhaustive retrospective of Canadian-made movies stretching from the silent era to the present.
Northern Lights was my festival baptism. I had been hired by then-programmer Piers Handling to assist in assembling the program and its attendant publications (Take Two and The Film Reader). So I'd spent the summer tracking films and filmmakers, writing and editing, and generally carrying out the work both Handling and I had been inspired to do by our shared professor and mentor, the late Peter Harcourt, a tireless advocate of the national cinema who was also an original programmer of the new showcase program.
On the night of the Northern Lights cocktail reception, a gathering took place the likes of which this country had never seen – and never would again. In the room, Canada's cinematic elite converged for a few hours over drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Donald Shebib, Michael Snow, Michel Brault, Larry Kent, David Cronenberg, Claude Jutra, Jack Darcus, Joyce Wieland, Jean Pierre Lefebvre, Gilles Carle, Donald Brittain, Denys Arcand, Don Owen, Robin Spry, Ted Kotcheff, Peter Pearson, Paul Almond, Francis Mankiewicz – the living history of Canadian movies was in a noisy bar on Bay Street, past and present mingling with an awestruck future.
I remember speaking with both Atom Egoyan and John Paizs that night, two young directors with fresh works in the new Perspective Canada program. Northern Lights indeed. Had the prospects for Canadian films ever looked brighter?
Paizs, now a directing mentor at the Canadian Film Centre, will be screening a restoration of his 1985 Perspective Canada premiere, Crime Wave, at TIFF this year. He recalls just how mind-blowingly surreal it was like to have a first feature – handmade over weekends for no money in Winnipeg – screened in Toronto.
"The premiere of Crime Wave really opened up a lot of doors for me," Paizs says. "I remember Atom Egoyan phoning me up when he was directing some episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, asking me if I was interested, and thinking that was terrific. Here was this guy whom I'd barely met reaching out in this way."
With Perspective Canada, a sense of something like a national filmmaking community had sprung up. Egoyan, whose rise from student filmmaker to festival fixture during the late-1980s was arguably the program's most conspicuous success story, remembers just how affirmative and galvanizing the program was.
"For me it was just a great way to be invited into the festival, a great way to situate myself," he now says. "It was an ability to have contact with senior filmmakers in a way that was structurally coherent – that we were there as part of a tradition. Like so many things in our culture, there might have been something self-conscious about it, but it felt right at that time. It felt like a bold statement to make, and it's time had come."
Perspective Canada would have been 30 years old this year. But the program was disbanded by the festival in 2004, with the explanation that it had served its purpose – to provide a designated showcase for an otherwise neglected national cinema – and that it was time to release Canadian movies into the general population of world movies. The future had apparently arrived; Canadian movies had grown up.
Handling, one of the instigators of Perspective Canada and now CEO of TIFF, remembers how times were then changing.
"The change for me was a growing internationalization of world cinema," Handling says. "National cinemas began to come under question. As money was being raised from around the world, internationally the neat distinctions of 'This is a Hungarian film, a Polish film or this is a French film' began to break down a little bit. Money was being raised everywhere, and I think that the Canadian film followed that. Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg were shooting with English money, making films in England. In mid-career, they were breaking down the boundaries of pure Canadian financing."
By the 1990s, Perspective Canada had helped launch the filmmaking careers of Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Bruce McDonald, Guy Maddin, John Greyson and Bruce LaBruce. But there was blowback. Some of the filmmakers who'd first shone in the program began to regard it as something they'd outgrown – Handling remembers filmmaker Greyson calling it "a beautiful ghetto."
Cameron Bailey, a former Perspective Canada programmer and TIFF's current artistic director, left the event just before the program was dismantled. But he understood why. "That kind of momentum ran itself out," he says. "And people began to question whether these films can or should be thought about as Canadian films, or whether they actually have a larger frame that's more useful. I think that's what probably led to the demise of the Perspective Canada program."
After consulting with filmmakers across the country, TIFF dropped the program and released Canadian movies into the larger pool – a decision that proved as timely as the foundation of Perspective Canada 20 years earlier.
Since the removal of what more than one filmmaker called "the training wheels" of Perspective Canada, the festival has hastened the emergence of some of the country's most confidently exportable talent, such as Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners), Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes) and Xavier Dolan (Mommy, Laurence Anyways).
The numbers speak loudly. Steve Gravestock, head of TIFF's Canadian programming team, tells me that the number of Canadian feature-length films submitted to TIFF over the past two years has topped 200 – barely 30 make the final cut – and that the number of Canadian first features in this year's Discovery Program, a record 11 in total, is a sure indication of a national cinema with strong genes.
"One of the major signs of the health of any industry is the presence of the next generation," he says. "This year we had more first features or solo first features than we've had in 10 years. People are astounded when I tell them the numbers. And look at Cannes," he continues. "Three Canadian movies – The Captive, Mommy and Maps to the Stars – in competition this year. You don't get multiple films from countries in competition in Cannes. France doesn't even get that."
"Three or four of the biggest successes in Canadian movies in the last 10 years were made after Perspective Canada," Gravestock adds. "Usually what those programs do is that they raise the profile and you're good to go. It's a maturing thing."
Kris Elgstrand is a Vancouver filmmaker whose first solo feature, Songs She Wrote About People She Knows, is one of the 11 directors whose debut features are being launched at this TIFF. It isn't his first time there: He co-directed a feature (Doppelganger Paul) that played the festival in 2011, and he's written and directed shorts that made the cut. His entire career has played out post-Perspective Canada, and it has played out just fine, thank you very much.
"It's that stamp of approval or validation," he says of being a Canadian filmmaker in TIFF, "that your work belongs on that level. That's huge and carries on, whether or not your film sets the world on fire. TIFF, without question, helps you immeasurably. Everybody wants to get in, and if people are going to invest in a film, that association is huge. A lot of things are possible that weren't before."
It's impossible to know if the success of current filmmakers would have been achieved without the leg up provided by Perspective Canada. But the Canadian film industry is undeniably in better shape today than it was when the training wheels were bolted on 30 years ago. And that probably isn't a coincidence.