Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Canadian cinema's New Hope
Meet the bold, brash millennial filmmakers who are here to change the game – if the game will let them
It is easy to complain about the familiarity of Canadian cinema – even easier when the similarities are staring you straight in the face. Last month, the Toronto International Film Festival announced its homegrown programming for this year's edition. Scanning the lineup, you could see Mean Dreams, a drama about two young lovers who run away together, set against the country's rural Ontario backdrop, and featuring an appearance by Cancon staple Colm Feore. Just below that was Two Lovers and a Bear, a drama about two young lovers who run away together, set against the country's Arctic backdrop, and featuring an appearance by Cancon staple Gordon Pinsent. And right below that (literally, as these titles were listed alphabetically) was Weirdos, a drama about … two young lovers who run away together, set against the country's Maritime backdrop, and featuring an appearance by Cancon staple Molly Parker.
Sight unseen, it's unfair to suggest these films are unworthy of your time or maliciously conceived. Mean Dreams garnered solid reviews when it premiered in Cannes; Two Lovers and a Bear comes from acclaimed director Kim Nguyen; and Weirdos is the latest from Bruce McDonald, who gets an all-time pass for delivering one genuine masterpiece (Hard Core Logo). But the similarities in content, tone and casting stink of Cancon clichés – earnest, affected dramas that mistake Canada's natural beauty for aesthetic profundity and familiar stories for interesting ones.
But if you know where to look – both inside TIFF and outside – there are signs of a new wave of Toronto-based filmmakers who are challenging whatever musty definition of Canadian cinema still haunts the industry. 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.
They are the bold, brash millennial filmmakers who have been dubbed everything from the New Toronto New Wave to the DIY Generation to the New New Wave. But we'll just call them Canadian cinema's New Hope. And they are here to change the game, if the game will let them.
When talking with filmmakers, producers, financiers, distributors, insiders and programmers about this new generation, one name comes up more often than not: Kazik Radwanski. The 31-year-old director is responsible for three extraordinarily influential short films whose style and substance form a sort of Rosetta Stone for this new wave. Filmed between 2007 and 2009, each of the shorts in Radwanski's MDF Trilogy (Assault, Princess Margaret Blvd. and Out in that Deep Blue Sea) follow one character as they fall deeper into a personal crisis of their own making, with Radwanski's camera tightly framing the action. It is intensely intimate filmmaking that revels in feelings of anxiety and self-doubt – you can feel Radwanski working out his own inner demons with every minute that ticks by.
While his films are not quite experimental, they are defiantly not the three-act narrative structures most audiences are used to. Instead, it's a kind of dangerous cinema – the first, fervent gasps of a fiercely independent artist developing his own voice.
"My films are terribly introspective … I had a hard time in high school. I was depressed and removed. But through watching a lot of movies, I've been able to find myself," Radwanski says. "It's a big element of why I make movies."
But Radwanski has offered more than just his work to this new wave – he's given it common ground, too. Together with his former Ryerson classmate Daniel Montgomery, Radwanski formed the production company MDFF (Medium Density Fibreboard Films), which, in addition to producing his 2012 feature debut, Tower, and his 2015 TIFF-certified drama, How Heavy This Hammer, spawned a screening series connecting Toronto audiences with the work of other, similarly hungry local filmmakers, as well as semi-obscure American productions that would otherwise pass the city by.
"A lot of movies you would literally not be able to see if not for Dan and Kaz. It's the perfect little scene," says Simon Ennis, 35, a director ( Lunarcy!) and former co-worker of Radwanski's, back when the pair worked at the now-defunct Revue Video in the city's east end. "We're all obsessive carnivores of independent film, all of us from our late 20s to late 30s, and MDFF is a perfect outlet."
"It cannot be overstated how important Kaz and Dan have been in shaping what I'm calling this new wave of English-Canadian cinema," says Kevan Funk, the 29-year-old director behind this year's TIFF selection Hello Destroyer. "They coalesced a movement – young filmmakers who existed on the fringes of the system, as I feel like I have, or completely outside of it."
The MDFF screenings, along with the opening of Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2010, quickly became hubs for young, eager, like-minded cinephiles, who eventually became like-minded filmmakers – and just like that, a mini-movement sprouted. Suddenly, the city was filthy with directors making wildly inventive features for next to nothing, bucking the system in a bid to retain creative control. There was Matt Johnson, who parlayed a Web series defiantly titled nirvanna the band the show into the school-shooting satire The Dirties; Pavan Moondi and his producing partner Brian Robertson (Diamond Tongues); Andrew Cividino (Sleeping Giant); co-directors Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis (The Oxbow Cure); Rebeccah Love (Drawing Duncan Palmer); Igor Drljaca (The Waiting Room); Albert Shin (In Her Place); and Sofia Bohdanowicz (Modlitwa). Widen the circle and you find Nadia Litz (The People Garden), Chelsea McMullan (My Prairie Home), Stephen Dunn (Closet Monster), Funk, Ennis and many more.
"There is definitely a strain that links those guys – almost a Toronto minimalist school headed by people like Kaz and Igor," says Steve Gravestock, associate director of Canadian programming at TIFF. "They all went to school together, or graduated around the same time, or just started making shorts around the same time."
"I graduated Ryerson in 2006, and for the first five or six years out of school, I felt like there was a big gap between generations of filmmakers – like there was a void waiting to be filled, and it was unclear where it was going to be coming from," says Cividino, 32, director of the runaway Canadian hit of the year, Sleeping Giant. "But then we'd all start to develop these meaningful friendships, and it's now a hugely connected community – we know each others' films, we have each other into the edit rooms to watch rough cuts, we read scripts. We get inspired by each others' works."
And they collaborate, too. Radwanski just filmed a cameo in Love's new short, Acres. Ennis helped out behind the scenes on Litz's The People Garden. Johnson filmed a walk-on in Radwanski's How Heavy This Hammer, which elicited knowing chuckles during a screening at last year's TIFF.
At this point, comparisons to American cinema's "mumblecore" scene start to pile up. Just like that Andrew Bujalski-sparked movement, these films, too, are low-budget works featuring naturalistic acting and oft-improvised dialogue, with everyone contributing to everyone else's work. Except that in the United States, there were paths toward getting films out into the world – here, it's much more of a challenge.
"We all try to help each other, and especially go see each others' films in the theatre, because we all know how hard it is to actually get your film in a theatre," says McMullan, 32, whose documentary My Prairie Home follows transgender musician Rae Spoon and straddles the line of where docs traditionally end and narratives begin.
Some of the films end up playing TIFF – such as Cividino's Sleeping Giant last year, which led to him scoring a screenwriting residency with the fest this fall – and some have impressed festival audiences abroad, including the increasingly influential Locarno in Switzerland. But many more are self-distributed to theatres such as the Lightbox or the city's decidedly less-polished Carlton Cinema, and some can only be found online, if you know where to look.
"The digital era has made it so much easier for films to have a life outside of the festival circuit," Radwanski says. "But it's also important for these films to play Locarno or Berlin or Rotterdam. The Dirties, that was bigger abroad, and discovered at Slamdance. TIFF passed on it. The more global roots we get around these films, the harder it will be to ignore this generation."
Yet, if it seems as if there's little tying these filmmakers' work together artistically, that's because, well, there isn't. Aesthetically speaking, someone such as Radwanski is as far apart from Litz as Tarantino is from Spielberg. Although everyone shoots on digital, that's more a cost-saving measure than a stylistic choice. And while many of the films skew toward art-house sensibilities, all genres are represented, from coming-of-age dramas ( Sleeping Giant) to character studies (The Waiting Room) to slacker comedies (Diamond Tongues).
"There's not a shared process of filmmaking at all – the way we make our films is different from how Kaz or Matt would," says Diamond Tongues's Moondi, who is wrapping postproduction on Sundowners, his biggest movie yet, featuring a genuine name actor (alt-comedy star Tim Heidecker). "But we're all motivated by the same kind of restlessness of just needing to direct."
Adds Litz, director of The People Garden: "There's a perseverance that unites us all – to make films and have them be seen by the world. It's by any means necessary for a lot of us."
"I don't know what to make of it all, it's quite bizarre," says Johnson, 31, the provocateur of the bunch, who's earned both praise and venom for, among other things, telling The Globe and Mail last winter that "a lot of people just need to die of old age for the [Canadian film] system to change."
"But Toronto is definitely about to have its moment in terms of spiking the international film scene," he says. "When I travel, people talk about Toronto film in a way they didn't before. It's cool."
Pausing for a moment, Johnson comes up with a theory. "Well, maybe we have no role models.… At no level do we have anything approaching good role models, and that's never more clear than when you're in film school and learning about Don Owen, filmmakers from the very beginnings of the NFB!" says the director, whose Viceland-backed revamp of nirvanna the band the show (note the extra "n," for legal reasons) will play TIFF's Primetime program this year. "For a long time, that kept us down – a sense of what's the point, what am I going to become? But now, with this small proliferation of young people, we've begun to look to one another."
Members of Canadian cinema's original New Wave might take issue with that line of thinking.
"People look at my career and think it all happened very quickly, but I was making films way below the radar for a very long time – people only took notice with Exotica, which was my sixth film," says Atom Egoyan, 56, who, along with the likes of Peter Mettler, Bruce McDonald, Patricia Rozema, Ron Mann and John Greyson, constituted their own filmmaking boom – nicknamed the Toronto New Wave – in the late eighties, after the tax-shelter era made it more difficult for Canadian filmmakers to scrape together funding. "But it's also different now – you need to create some sort of status in this vast sea of digital productions. So I understand the frustration."
"I came out of that first generation – Rozema, Egoyan, Mettler – and since that time there has never been a wave. My generation, I feel like we took up a lot of space," says Niv Fichman, co-founder of Rhombus Media, which last month announced a new slate of features from Cividino, Dunn and Shin (as well as frequent Johnson target Paul Gross). "I think you should bring Matt down here next time and have him sit right there and talk to us. It's funny because he's criticizing our filmmakers like Don McKellar and Paul, but on the other hand we're the ones who are making the films that he thinks should be made. But listen, it's always really hard to start."
And that's just the predicament these new filmmakers find themselves facing – they've got our attention, but now what?
"We're all trying to figure out how to graduate to bigger films. How do you make a living at this?" says Lewis, 30, co-director of 2013's acclaimed drama The Oxbow Cure.
If no one has an answer, it's because no one can agree on the exact problem.
"The problem is that no one agrees what the problems are," Moondi says. "Telefilm is trying to adapt, but they are hearing a million different things from a million different people."
As soon as you start investigating the world of Canadian film, you start hearing of what, exactly, is wrong. The list is long: Federal funding agency Telefilm Canada is risk-averse. Old-guard producers have a stranglehold on the industry. Distributors can't invest in untested artists. Ottawa is clueless about what it takes to make a film in today's market. The lingering smell of "Cancon" scares audiences off homegrown product. TIFF gala premieres give the illusion of success, only for the films to disappear in the open market. Arts council grants cannot sustain filmmakers hoping to graduate to larger productions, or, you know, earn a living. And so forth.
These arguments have been taking place in industry backrooms and filmmaker living rooms for years, but they exploded into public view thanks to Johnson. As he was promoting his new film, Operation Avalanche, before its Sundance premiere this past winter, the director used the opportunity to sharply critique the industry in several interviews. ("You have a dozen filmmakers who, no matter what, are going to get funded by Telefilm and, no matter what, are going to have their world premiere at the biggest festival in the world," he told The Globe.)
"I think when there is any critical voice that comes up talking about any Canadian institution, especially shining white-knight ones like TIFF or Telefilm, people are like, what could possibly be wrong? It's arts funding!" Johnson says today. "And a lot of people just see me as a bellicose brat who's just talking shit about the festival for no reason, and I think that's fine."
But the system did notice – or at least TIFF did. This past June, it hosted the first instalment of a new (media-free) discussion series titled Breakfast at TIFF, designed to foster a dialogue between filmmakers and gate keepers, with Johnson and Radwanski among the onstage participants. How beneficial the effort was is up for debate but at least the conversation was in the air.
"The challenge Matt put to the establishment is an important one, and it's good to hear other people react to that challenge as well," says Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director and the moderator of that first Breakfast. "The young filmmakers who are making new films and shifting our perspective of what Canadian cinema is are very important to listen to, to watch, to engage."
Telefilm, for its part, remains in a staunch defence position. "I would advise Mr. Johnson to look at our annual report – there are many low-budget films, in each region of Canada, and an average of 65 per cent are on first and second movies. It's unfair to say we only support specific directors," says Michel Pradier, Telefilm's director of project financing. "It's important to underline that Canada is quite a country to support emerging talent. There are not many countries in the world who do those things."
It is certainly true that Telefilm has helped develop a number of this new generation's films – including Closet Monster, The Oxbow Cure, Sundowners and Sleeping Giant (though not until postproduction for the latter) – but resentment against the system courses through the current scene.
"When Matt says some crazy headline, I wish that the people he's accusing don't just put up their backs and say here's the list of all the stats of how we're doing amazing," Thomas, 29, says. "The reason there's so much friction is because it totally feels like it's us versus them. I don't think that's a viable way of making art. We have to work together."
"If you say the system is broken, it invites the possibility of it becoming obsolete. It needs reform, not removal," Cividino says. "But at the end of the day, why am I paying into this program as a taxpayer that doesn't seem to be yielding results? That's the balancing act we're faced with."
Others, such as Funk (whose Hello Destroyer received Telefilm support), go a step further. "We need more risk in the system. I'm sure a lot of the older guard would say, 'Kevan's young and idealistic, and when he has a family he'll want to settle down and have the safety net.' And I kind of think, well, fuck that. We should never be all that comfortable."
Aside from the momentous problem of how to get a Canadian film made, though, there is another, even more complex dilemma facing this new wave: the dominance of white male voices. It's a problem everyone is quick to acknowledge, even if few concrete solutions are on offer.
"We're white men in positions of power coming from middle-class backgrounds, so we're starting from a good place – there are so many others who aren't so lucky," Lewis says.
How it gets addressed, and by whom, is another matter. "There's a lot of talk and awareness, but the truth is it's not translating into work," Litz says. "You're getting into more doors if you're a female, or more doors are opening, but I feel like you have to prove yourself more. And the receptions to your work feels shockingly gendered. You just keep going – I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm a girl, how can I make this happen?' I'm a filmmaker. You just have to move ahead and do what you do."
Which, of course, can be easier said then done. "Even at parties, people are more interested in talking with [partner Thomas] than they are with me – I resent that I can't just be myself," says Bohdanowicz, who specializes in docu-fiction, a blend of features and documentary. "I think we're making more space, but we're not there yet."
Outdated language rules also complicate matters. "Telefilm allows up to 50 per cent of a film to be in a non-English language. But you still have films done by white men who grew up in Toronto. That's not what Canada is any more," says Drljaca, whose The Waiting Room chronicles the life of a Yugoslav expat eking out a living in Toronto. "We need to see our home from a completely different view, but you cannot get the proper budget to tell these stories."
And then there are the inevitable fears of tokenism. "Things like, yay Lady Filmmaker Night! Or, woo, a lady fund! Those are just ways for people to make a quick solution," My Prairie Home's McMullan says. "We can talk and talk about it, but it just needs to change. Women, people of a more diverse colour – these are the artists who will create a more interesting perspective that will enhance our film culture."
Because of privacy rules, Telefilm doesn't collect statistics on gender or ethnicity – though as The Globe's Kate Taylor recently pointed out, the organization Women in View has done the work for them, revealing that, for example, only 17 of Telefilm's 91 feature films from 2013-14 were directed by women.
In typical fashion of this new wave, change might come from outside the system, at least incrementally. Last week, Johnson's Zapruder Films launched a program to support the development of emerging female filmmakers. "It is our hope that larger, more established production companies will follow our lead and use their own Telefilm slate monies to do the same," a statement by the production company reads.
For these young filmmakers, though, the problems are complex, the solutions unknowable and, as ever, the risk of a brain drain to the United States lurks in the background. But for audiences, there's never been a more exciting time to be a film fan. And the best is yet to come.
Cividino, Dunn and Shin are graduating to bigger budgets courtesy of Rhombus. Johnson is set to make a huge footprint with nirvanna the band the show when it's broadcast on Viceland next year. Litz and Moondi are making promising inroads into the Canadian television world, another dusty institution in dire need of a shakeup. And film fests around the world are forming deep attachments to fresh Canadian cinema.
"It's been a long time since there's been this kind of atmosphere around Canadian film," says Dunn, director of TIFF 2015 selection Closet Monster. "And it's even more exciting because I just don't think the evolution is complete. A lot more is coming."
Six young Canadian directors intent on shaking up the film industry
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Matt Johnson, 31
Known for: The Dirties, Operation Avalanche, nirvanna the band the show
Style: An aggressive mix of mockumentary and alternative-comedy
Telling quote: Nirvanna the band the show "won't be for everybody. There's a lot of histrionics and people screaming, a lot of unlikable stuff. But for the people who get it and are ready to see something new, there will be a lot of questions as to how this was allowed on television."
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Kazik Radwanski, 31
Known for: Tower, How Heavy Is this Hammer
Style: Intense and intimate character studies
Telling quote: "Quebec has always had a fresh supply of young filmmakers constantly debuting films – I think it's what has been missing [in English Canada] for the past 10 or 15 years."
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Chelsea McMullan, 32
Known for: My Prairie Home
Style: Docu-fiction that blurs the line between the cinematic forms
Telling quote: "I think every one of these filmmakers take formal and content risks – that sort of rage-against-the-milquetoast Cancon work, which you create when you're working with larger budgets because it's safer."
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Andrew Cividino, 32
Known for: Sleeping Giant
Style: Naturalistic coming-of-age dramas, with a keen eye toward character empathy
Telling quote: "The goal when I got into this was not to own huge mansions. But even the most modest film costs something to make, and that's where the support needs to come in. Especially the kind of films that aren't Captain America or Suicide Squad. These are movies that are strong, unique voices – character-driven and cinema-first. They don't need huge amounts of money, but they can't be made for free, either. It's not sustainable."
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Pavan Moondi, 31
Known for: Everyday Is Sunday, Diamond Tongues
Style: Detail-oriented comedy with an ironic edge
Telling quote: "[Producer Brian Robertson] and I are currently making a million-dollar film with Telefilm's help, so on the one hand, there's definitely things that Telefilm can be doing better. But if two guys like us, who didn't go to TIFF or the CFC or film school, can make a million-dollar film, then.…"
Nadia Litz, 36
Known for: Hotel Congress, The People Garden
Style: Immersive mood pieces about disorientation
Telling quote: "I love the conversation going on right now, because when we don't have it, that's when the industry gets stale, and we've seen periods of drought within the Canadian system before."
– Barry Hertz