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Director Zarrar Kahn's Pakistan-set horror movie In Flames is representing our national cinema at the Cannes Film Festival, which runs May 16 through 27.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Canadian cinema feels like it’s on fire. Matt Johnson’s rebelliously entertaining BlackBerry – think The Big Short with Timbits – is earning raves as it plays theatres across North America. Meanwhile, Zarrar Kahn’s riveting Pakistan-set horror movie In Flames is representing our national cinema at the Cannes Film Festival, which runs May 16 through 27.

Both of these titles are pushing what Canadian cinema can be – and as different as they are, the films share a distant connection. In Flames is the first film playing Cannes to come out of Talent to Watch, the Telefilm funding stream dedicated to first-time feature filmmakers, which BlackBerry director Johnson and his producing partner Matthew Miller had a hand in shaping. Their retooling of the microbudget program would disburse funds widely among novice filmmakers, whose projects are chosen by an independent, diverse selection committee, instead of an appointed gatekeeper.

In Flames stars newcomer Ramesha Nawal as Mariam, a young woman coping with personal trauma and culturally ingrained misogyny that hangs thick in the Karachi air. The film is put together with the intense craft and torque we saw in Ari Aster’s Hereditary, but with more heart and conviction. It’s the outcome of the investment of Talent to Watch in new voices and the conversations about race and privilege that transpired in 2020, when Telefilm engaged with groups like BIPOC Film & TV, compelling a rethink about the narratives that Canada wants to tell.

“We’re seeing this expansion of what it means to be Canadian cinema right now with films like Riceboy Sleeps and This Place,” Kahn says on a Zoom call from his Toronto apartment, a week before heading to France, where his film will play in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight section. His “secret hope” is for this expansion to mean more funds for Talent to Watch, hence more empowerment for first-time filmmakers.

Kahn, thoughtful and soft-spoken, is on the call alongside In Flames producer Anam Abbas, dialed in from her apartment in Islamabad.

They’re going to be joining a sizeable Canadian delegation in the French Riviera. Quebec’s Monia Chokri, the actor-turned-director who recently scored a Best Picture nomination at the Canadian Screen Awards for her comedy Babysitter, is putting the final touches on her latest, Simple comme Sylvain. The rom-com starring Magalie Lépine Blondeau and Pierre-Yves Cardinal premieres in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard section, where Chokri won a jury prize in 2019 for her debut feature, A Brother’s Love. Fellow Quebecois filmmaker Justine Harbonnier will present her documentary Caiti Blues in the ACID sidebar. The lovely, low-key portrait following musician Caiti Lord, whose joyous singing weathers the storm that is life in America, just scored the DGC Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs.

There are even more Canadians appearing on screen at Cannes: Tantoo Cardinal in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited crime drama Killers of the Flower Moon; Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and Dan Levy in HBO’s The Idol; and David Cronenberg and Chokri, alongside a slate of other celebrated international filmmakers in the talking-head doc Chambre 999. The latter film is a discussion on the future of film, which is top of mind for Kahn and Abbas, for both Canada and Pakistan.

The latter doesn’t have a large film industry with locals often consuming Bollywood fare. The shorts and docs Kahn and Abbas have been making there for a decade are not just changing what Canadian cinema can look like – they’re also shaping Pakistan’s onscreen voice in its infancy, while resisting the “imperialist” influence that tends to frame the Muslim world a certain way.

In Flames, their first collaboration, builds on the characters and themes in Kahn’s 2018 short Dia. In the early film, a young woman named Mariam pursues a secret online romance, finding an escape from her family’s pressures before things take a dark turn. “I was developing that film, which I thought was going to be a drama,” says Kahn. “It ended up being like a thriller. There was fear that was just coming out of the reality of the characters.”

For In Flames, Kahn developed the narrative further, absorbing intimate stories he was receiving from the women around him, including Abbas; attending workshops and script labs to get input from such filmmakers as Mouly Surya (Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts), who is often dubbed Indonesia’s Tarantino; and taking inspiration from filmmakers including Julia Ducournau (Titane), Mati Diop (Atlantics) and Jordan Peele (Get Out), who are taking up space in a genre that a few decades ago didn’t include voices like theirs.

Kahn came out of the other end of development with a visceral movie about a woman haunted by specters from the past, while the misogyny around her feels like it can come crashing through a window at any moment. There are some similarities to Alex Garland’s film Men, as Mariam deals with the spectrum of hatred, in domestic and institutional spaces, whether from a random man on the street or a purportedly close ally, in the film’s most pervasive moments.

“A lot of allyship can be patronizing,” says Abbas, discussing characters in the film who show up like white knights, their generosity or civility packaged with entitlement and expectation. “The idea of men protecting women is such a deeply entrenched part of our culture. What are the consequences of that kind of societal structure where that is the expectation? When it’s not there, what happens?”

Instead of moping around and trembling her way throughout an oppressive film – the trendy characteristic among her “elevated horror” counterparts in such films as The Babadook – Mariam is feisty, constantly fighting for joy and romance, seizing on the little reprieves to let her charm break free. When things take a toll, she doesn’t snap so much as she snaps back. For Kahn, those traits are meant to be emblematic of the film as a whole, and its setting, Karachi.

“It’s a city that’s been through so much pain and so much terror. But it still has these micro moments of joy,” he says.

“While there is trauma and terror in her life, it doesn’t define Mariam. Her resilience is what I want audiences to walk away with. Her ability to overcome the past.”

Special to The Globe and Mail