Paul Gross is going back to war with Hyena Road, his fictional and bombastic account of Canada's involvement in the dusty, decade-long war in Afghanistan.
The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week before heading to theatres in October, casts Gross as a weathered military savant named Pete, who at one point brusquely tells a younger solider that they are not overseas fighting "so that kids can fly kites." Based on this pithy line of dialogue and a moral machismo that runs through the film, it might seem as if Hyena Road is cynical about Canada's role in the conflict.
"No, I think it's accurate about what the nature of the conflict was. And accurate in a way that was very rarely portrayed in the press," he said the other week . Indeed, Hyena Road is a war movie that pines for both nuance and nationalism – Gross seems to want to give Canada the patriotic myths it lacks and to offer up the ghosts of our military past so that our collective haunting may bring us closer together.
The earnest, sunset-heavy Hyena Road follows the widely dismissed First World War epic Passchendaele, which was Gross's initial foray into fictionalizing Canadian war history – and he promises his last. Might Hyena Road be the second instalment of a war-film trilogy, though? Not according to the 56-year-old, who said that because of the genre's necessary scale, war films are too challenging and the financing too complicated to secure in Canada.
Hyena Road had a budget of $12.5-million – huge for a Canadian film – and was shot in just 30 days between film sets in Jordan and on the Shilo military base in Manitoba. "Looking back, I don't know how we actually did all that," Gross said. "I don't know what I'll do next, but I can't imagine trying to do another [war movie], they're really, fiercely difficult."
It might be for this reason – the pangs of its difficult birth – that in the lead up to its TIFF premiere, the PR and messaging around Hyena Road has been managed with a tight fist. The film was heavily embargoed, which meant that all reviews and opinions had to be withheld by critics until its public release this past Monday evening. Most movies have embargoes in order to protect them from negative reviews that might destroy the opening-weekend box office, yet the grip here seemed especially tight. That may be because in a rare Canadian cinema plot twist – and much to the chagrin of Gross's PR team – Guy Maddin is easily the most interesting thing about Hyena Road.
Maddin (best known for his trippy My Winnipeg) co-directed an experimental behind-the-scenes look at Hyena Road with Galen and Evan Johnson called Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton. This 30-minute psychedelic peek into the filming of Hyena Road is also a part of the Toronto International Film Festival (installed in the foyer of the Bell Lightbox for the run of the festival), in addition to the Winnipegian trio's feature-length film, The Forbidden Room.
How did these three filmmakers, known for their penchant for the absurd, end up on set of Gross's glossy Canadian war movie? Strapped for cash with a project stalling at home, Maddin pitched a "making of" mini-documentary of Gross's war film to Hyena Road producer Niv Fichman. According to Evan, it also "seemed like a strange and unnecessary thing to do, and we probably found that appealing."
In Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Maddin performs a petulant persona and sets up Gross as "The Great Canadian Populist," whose budgets uncomfortably supersede his own by "a few more decimal places" than he would like. I wondered what he thought of Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton and its billing as "a strange and stirring behind-the-scenes look" at his film. Gross lets out a smooth, unruffled laugh. "Guy is such an absolute original. A character that in a way only this country could produce, an absolute, complete nutcase – and one of the most lovely people I've ever known. I haven't seen it finished yet, but to say it is like a behind-the-scenes look or 'making of' movie? It's a Guy Maddin film. Some of it I get, and some of it I have no idea what he's on about."
Putting his confusion aside, Gross added: "It is without question going to be the most unique take that any behind-the-scenes thing you could ever have … it will be madness. Guy madness."
When I mentioned to Maddin and the Johnsons that Gross found it a stretch to call their film a "making of," Evan insisted that it is. He admitted that Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton may be a vacation from conventional behind-the-scenes films, but that the three of them "became interested in deliberately overthinking the meaning of the phrase 'behind the scenes' and poking around in the metaphysical implications of sight and image-making."
The title of Maddin and the Johnson brothers' short film is deliberately irreverent, but Maddin also poked at its more political inflections when he predicted that the phrase Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton might "anticipate the threats our country will receive in the future if we aren't more careful." After saying that everything about his visit to the Jordan set was "gross," Maddin added: "All movie sets are gross. We Canadians have no more business being on a movie set than we have messing up civilians in another country."
Puns aside, it's safe to say the political sympathies of these two films couldn't be more different from one another. Still, Gross seemed to delight in the odd couple pairing, saying "only here [in Canada] can you imagine putting two people who are basically on polar opposites of a medium together in one kind of mashup." And how does Maddin feel about Gross? "He is an artist, too," said Maddin, "but I loved calling him the Great Canadian Populist. It felt like the meanest thing I could say. Seriously."