Amidst the hype of the annual Berlin International Film Festival, which awards its Golden Bear prize tonight, Canada has earned an important distinction from at least one critic.
"The Canadians should win the most-laid-back award," said the German journalist sitting next to me at the world premiere of Gary Yates's High Life.
Indeed, pretension is something that the Canadian filmmakers in Berlin are lacking. Wearing jeans and a baseball cap, Winnipeg-based Yates introduced his film with an anecdote from his trip to Berlin. While going through airport security in Toronto, a hookah pipe was discovered in the lining of his carry-on bag. Initially relieved to have found the long-lost pipe, Yates then had a moment of panic: Would he make it to Berlin? The two security guards looked at the object, looked at each other and then waved him through.
High Life, based on Lee MacDougall's play of the same name, is a brilliantly acted gangster flick of a bank heist that goes wrong, thanks to the absolute ineptitude of its drugged-out protagonists. Like the other Canadian films here, High Life is not in the running for the Golden Bear, but the Berlin audience was full of praise. When the first serious question came from the audience during the Q and A - why Yates had chosen to set the movie in 1983 - the director, squinting into the lights, said, "Aw mom, you promised not to ask any questions."
Philippe Falardeau's C'est pas moi, je le jure ( It's Not Me, I Swear) was met with equal enthusiasm by a thousand-strong audience of mainly children. The film, soon to open in English-speaking Canada, is the story of Leon, an energetic 10-year-old who refuses to conform to the strictures of life in small-town Quebec in the 1970s, preferring to rob the ice-cream truck, throw eggs at the neighbour's roof and, when desperate, hang himself from a tree.
"It wasn't intended as a children's film so I was surprised that they put it in the youth program here," Falardeau said, "but maybe it was a good call." Following the screening, the leads - Antoine L'Écuyer and Catherine Faucher (10 and 12, respectively) - were swarmed by young fans for autographs.
Two documentaries played in the festival's Forum section: Richard Brouillette's L'Encerclement (Encirclement) and Petr Lom's Letters to the President. Brouillette's film, shot in black and white, explores the origins of neo-liberalism in a nearly three-hour marathon of interviews with noted intellectuals. Berlin's left-leaning daily, the Tageszeitung, called it the "most fact-based thriller" in the Forum program, conceding that it demanded a "well-slept audience."
Letters to the President, a portrayal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is remarkable for the access that Czech-born, Barrie, Ont.-raised director Petr Lom gained to the demagogue. Following the press screening in Berlin, Lom explained that it took several years, hundreds of phone calls and a "smart way in" to get permission to shoot the film.
Lom focused on the Iranian practice of writing letters to their president and Ahmadinejad's commitment to respond to their requests. The President's media adviser appreciated the "working title" of Lom's project: Democracy in Action.
Lom shows letters pouring in to the Presidential Letter Answering Centre, talks to their authors and watches the bureaucrats processing them with various strategies of inaction. The camera follows Ahmadinejad on his tours of the impoverished countryside, promising running water and roads to throngs of peasants, kissing the photographs of martyrs of the Iraq-Iran war, reassuring a boy that he will recover from cancer "because he's young and strong."
Avoiding narration or explicit judgment, the film shows the populist propaganda machinery at work, and offers an insight into the poverty, desperation and political hypocrisy in Iran that Western viewers rarely get to see.
Protests by the Club of Iranian and European Filmmakers against the Canadian co-production fell flat when it became clear that they had not seen - or understood - the film but simply assumed it to be "propaganda for the Iranian terror regime" because it had been shot with a government-issued permit. In fact, as Lom explained, the Iranian Vice-President was quite disappointed with the rough cut. "He told me I was a bad filmmaker, which I probably am in his books."
Lom was glad to get the material out of Iran after his five-month shoot, feeling he was sitting on a "time bomb."
Toronto native John Greyson is also presenting a finished product in Berlin. Fig Trees, his portrait of AIDS activists in South Africa and Canada, was completed just in time for the festival, having been accepted on the basis of a rough cut.
"That's the great thing about the Berlin festival. They support their filmmakers over the long term," he said over coffee at one of the many festival bars. Greyson has had four films in the festival since his first entry, Urinal was invited to the still-divided city in 1989.
"This festival champions two things I feel strongly about: queer content and experimental form. Despite huge industry pressure, it has maintained a huge commitment to the marginal and innovative," of which Fig Trees - which takes its cue from an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson and is narrated by an albino squirrel - is perfect evidence.
Another long-time Canadian friend of the festival, Michael Snow, was back in town as an honorary guest of the Forum Expanded program, which presents film-related installations, exhibitions and discussions in various venues across Berlin. Snow's Puccini Conservato, a 10-minute handheld study of loudspeakers playing music from La Bohème, opened the program, followed by two other Puccini-inspired short films by two other directors. And when a corpulent critic stormed the stage, grabbed the microphone and exercised his right to call the works offensive and ridiculous, Snow - true to Canadian form - didn't bat an eyelid.
Telefilm Canada festival representative Brigitte Hubmann, pleased with this year's Canadian showing, attributes the success of the Berlinale relationship to the annual trip its programmers make to Montreal. "They view all we have to offer. They know more about Canadian films than many of us do."