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Film TIFF 2019: Inside Telefilm’s just-crazy-enough-to-work plan to change the future of Canadian film

Ursula Calder in a scene from Bone Cage.

Jessie Wells/Handout

Every September, the Canadian film industry attempts to justify its existence under the bright lights and brighter media glare of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The mega-event – 245 features spread across 11 days – is where the country’s veteran filmmakers (Atom Egoyan, Francois Girard) come to reinforce their legacies, and where rising artists (Albert Shin, Kathleen Hepburn) hope to break through the brutal pileup of international competition. But this year, those looking to discover the true future of homegrown film at its very infancy need to look in the margins, the background. It is there, both inside TIFF and out, where a tidal wave of fresh and diverse cinematic voices is preparing to crash into the landscape.

TIFF 2019: Updated – The Globe’s latest ratings and reviews of movies screening at the festival

The source of the flood: Telefilm Canada. A little more than a year ago, the federal funding agency revealed the inaugural cohort of filmmakers selected for its new Talent to Watch program. The initiative is a super-sized reboot of Telefilm’s microbudget program, and awards $125,000 each to upward of 50 first-time directors each year. Every production can top up that funding – through arts councils, regional production funds, tax credits – but only to a maximum of $250,000. The goal: to make as many films as possible, for as little as possible. (The program is largely financed through the Talent Fund, a private-donation system supported by individual donors and media partners solicited by Telefilm.)

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“When we created the microbudget program [in 2013], it came out of hearing from film schools and emerging talent saying how difficult it was to make that first film. We needed a way to create a path to success,” Carolle Brabant, then executive director of Telefilm, told The Globe and Mail ahead of Talent to Watch’s launch. “We created this new program to further discover and nurture talent in an environment that’s less financially risky.”

“We want to introduce the country to new voices that we would never have seen otherwise,” added Matt Johnson, a filmmaker and, alongside producing partner Matthew Miller, one of the architects behind Talent to Watch. “This is a sea change in funding.”

In June, 2018, Talent to Watch plucked 45 creative teams from across the country – 38 feature films, seven web series – pledged to hand over $125,000 to each, and then let each sink or swim.

Since then, The Globe has been tracking the progress of every production, from preproduction headaches to last-minute switch-ups to locking final cuts to, for two especially driven and lucky teams, the sweet relief of securing a premiere at TIFF. In their successes and false starts, their triumphs and failures, the filmmakers’ journeys paint a revealing portrait of just what Canadian cinema is, what it could be and who might get to shape it.

Ahead of the 44th edition of TIFF, it’s time to meet the future. Whether everyone is ready or not.

When Talent to Watch kicked off last summer, expectations were low. Three sets of jurors (one English-language panel, one French-language and one Indigenous) selected almost four dozen filmmaking teams from partner organizations (including schools such as Ryerson University and Sheridan College, and groups ranging in size from TIFF to the Yukon Film Society) from across the country and assembled them for a “boot camp” in Toronto. Not one person there had made a feature-length film before. Some had never produced a short. And their debuts were due in 18 months.

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“The success of the program is the moment we give the money away. If we see anybody who cracks the surface of this, even one person, we will be so much further than we were five years ago,” said Johnson, who knows how to work with next-to-nothing (his debut film, The Dirties, cost just $10,000 to shoot).

Using that metric, Talent to Watch has already justified its existence two times over. Sanja Zivkovic’s mother-daughter drama Easy Land and Heather Young’s animal shelter-set character study Murmur both cycled through 2018-19 production quickly enough to secure world premieres at this year’s TIFF.

Filmmaker Heather Young wrote Murmur with Talent to Watch’s budget in mind.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

“That is the vote of confidence right there,” says Christa Dickenson, Brabant’s successor at Telefilm who stepped into her role just as Talent to Watch launched last year. “That’s the trajectory we’re hoping for.”

It helped that both films had laid as much groundwork as possible before entering Talent to Watch. Easy Land’s script was already locked for shooting, Zivkovic had secured Canada Council funding, and she had already made three short films. Young wrote Murmur with Talent to Watch’s budget in mind, and has been filming shorts for the past decade. But that is not to say either team breezed through.

“Looking back, it was tough – we had limited funds for all that we needed to do, a long list of favours we needed to ask, less shooting days than I expected,” the Toronto-based Zivkovic recalls. “I remember flying to L.A. to convince Mirjana Jokovic to play the lead role and just praying that she would take a chance on on our film.”

Easy Land director Sanja Zivkovic. Zivkovic’s team had to constantly stretch resources while not making too many artistic compromises.

Galit Rodan

Jokovic did, joining the film as Jasna, a Serbian architect and refugee who struggles to adjust to life in Toronto with her teenage daughter (Nina Kiri). But Zivkovic’s team had to constantly stretch resources while not making too many artistic compromises. Young didn’t feel as much budgetary strain – “I like to have a small crew, it’s easier for me,” the Halifax director says – but faced her own difficulties, especially with Telefilm itself.

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“Because there were so many projects and so many first-time filmmakers who had so many questions all at once, I found that Telefilm was inundated with inquiries, so it was challenging to get answers from them in a timely matter,” she says, a sentiment echoed by other teams. (Telefilm has one dedicated lead staffer on the file, and says that “many employees across” departments in all four regional offices "contribute to this program on an ongoing basis.”)

Other productions encountered myriad false starts and speed bumps, some familiar to any independent filmmaker working today, but others unique to not only the microbudget realm, but the peculiarities of the Canadian microbudget realm.

Cassidy Ingersoll and Bhreagh MacNeil in Queen of the Andes.

Nick Staples/Handout

Jillian Acreman, for instance, had to find locations in small-town New Brunswick that could reasonably be turned into a jail, a space shuttle and Mars for her near-future drama Queen of the Andes. “Thankfully we live in a place where everyone wants to help, so I’ve got my mortgage broker e-mailing me properties to use, the hotels offering us space to shoot,” she says. Then there were little things such as, say, her camera dying mid-shot on Day 2 of principal photography, and having to recast a key role with less than 24 hours’ notice.

Dawn Bird, meanwhile, was set to produce Benjamin Musgrave’s drama Q, until the B.C. director realized that he couldn’t fully execute his artistic vision with only $250,000. Instead, the team was permitted to pivot to another film, the LGTBQ-focused drama Mercy, but five days into shooting this past April, Musgrave became ill and had to remove himself from the project. Bird’s solution: forming a sort of quadrumvirate of directorial powers: herself, the first assistant director, the director of photography and a grip enlisted to act as co-director. (“It’s a bit odd,” admits Bird, who is now supervising postproduction.) And then, Bird had trouble receiving her team’s Canada Council funds, since only Musgrave could apply for that and by the time she was able to get him to sign a release form, the Canada Council staffer overseeing the file went on vacation.

Yet, to say that Talent to Watch is challenging threatens to miss the point – according to Johnson, the program is engineered to be difficult.

“A part of the tension we’re working out now is finding filmmakers who are excited about the budget because it allows them to do innovative and exciting things, and finding filmmakers who apply with what’s really a million-dollar film and are trying to use the program to short-gap it,” says Johnson, who continues alongside Miller to serve as an ambassador of sorts for Talent to Watch. “The philosophy of this program is that you can tell a story extremely well for $125,000. We want filmmakers interested in story and character, which are the building blocks. If we can get 50 Canadian filmmakers a year understanding that, then the future looks bright.”

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There is a lot of darkness in between, though. Some of it literal.

“I’m in the dark cavern of my basement with my family upstairs, living like a hermit editing this film,” says Arnold Lim, director of the intense family drama All-in Madonna. When reached this past July, the Victoria-based director was working his full-time job as a video journalist while editing his film in the mornings and evenings, stressing over Telefilm’s December deadline (it’s since been adjusted from 18 months to 24 months). “Any free time I have is locked away. I literally had a conversation with my wife where I said I was abandoning our family for six months.”

Maddie, played by Melanie Rose Wilson, in a scene from upcoming Telefilm Talent to Watch feature film All-in Madonna.

ARNOLD LIM/Handout

But Lim, like others in his cohort, emphasizes that this is all part of the game, no matter your budgetary scale. “Anyone in film knows there’s no such thing as a work-life balance. When you’re on a film, you’re on a film. Everything else goes out the window,” he says. “But yeah, there were days when I was seeing spots and hallucinating. When my body was telling me to go to sleep.”

That stress can also get passed on to collaborators. “It hurts more when I see my editor Milène Ortenberg dedicating all her soul to put the pieces together while being paid less than a production assistant,” says Laurence Turcotte-Fraser, director of the documentary The End of Wonderland. The Montreal filmmaker even worked as a technician on other sets to help pay the bills while making his doc. “In a better world, I would like to have the luxury to be working on my movie, and my collaborator would have the [L’Alliance québécoise des techniciens et techniciennes de l’image et du son] union minimum salary. Right now, everyone is at 50 per cent.”

Adds Montreal’s Joëlle Agathe, producer of the French-language thriller Cimes, “I had to sit down with every union to explain our reality, and I was very surprised to realize that they were not aware of [Talent to Watch] and their requirements. We had to negotiate packages with everyone and special agreements with the unions to be able to make the shoot happen. I was still waiting for a confirmation a day before shooting for the crew members.”

Dickenson says that Telefilm is currently talking with unions such as the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA). “There’s always room for more communication, and for ACTRA specifically, we’ve had ongoing discussions regarding their programs and ours,” she says. “We still haven’t landed on the exact solution, but we are actively pursuing that conversation.”

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There is little question, though, that the influx of so many new productions every year – all with budgets necessitating discounts and shortcuts – has put stress on the domestic industry across the board.

“You have to call on every favour. How many postproduction houses were asked to work for free on these projects? How many editors?” asks Lora Campbell, producer of 40 Acres, Toronto director R.T. Thorne’s dystopic drama, which has become the only Talent to Watch title to attract so much outside-investor interest that it’s now graduated out of the program, aiming to shoot on a $2.5-million budget. “If everyone starts working for free,” Campbell says, “what’s the economy of our industry?”

Adds Toronto’s Karen Chapman, writer-director of the “community superhero” drama The Village Keeper, which starts shooting next year after securing a Telefilm extension: “As grateful and humbled as I am to receive this funding at all, and I’ll make it work, you still have to pay people. I’m strongly against the notion that people should work for experience. It’s an elitist thought. It doesn’t work, especially in a city like Toronto.”

All of which is perhaps why Telefilm’s second Talent to Watch cohort of rookie filmmakers, announced this past June with slightly lesser fanfare, is slimmer than the inaugural one – just 28 features and three web series for the 2019-20 program.

“We’ve listened to the industry across Canada that felt the number close to 50 projects per year was hard to support with additional resources, especially that the teams have a tendency of shooting in two seasons, summer and fall. The strain on the ecosystem was felt,” says Telefilm’s Dickenson, who adds that lowering the number of films Talent to Watch produces, while at the same time offering each team a higher budget, is a suggestion that is “under consideration. This is a microbudget program at the end of the day, but we are going through an overall assessment of all our programs, which is a natural thing to do as a funding agency.”

A scene from Faran Moradi’s 'Iranian diaspora' drama Tehranto.

Handout

Also under debate is just who is getting to tell their stories. Talent to Watch was launched with an emphasis, but no quotas, on diversity. While the inaugural lineup features a range of voices – from Martin Edralin’s Filipino-language drama Islands to Faran Moradi’s “Iranian diaspora” drama Tehranto to Nayani Thiyagarajah’s Indigenous-Iranian-Tamil drama This Place – Telefilm is still deciding how, exactly, it measures diversity in the first place. And this is three years after the organization announced the issue was its next priority after gender parity (about 47 per cent of Talent to Watch’s 2018-19 slate of films comes from female directors).

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“Talent to Watch works with different partners like the Reel Asian Film Festival and Caribbean Tales, which certainly helps make sure the pipeline of applications is diverse,” says Dickenson, who adds that new diversity definitions – developed with “Canadian diversity experts” and confidentially shared with various industry stakeholders – will be launched within Telefilm later this fiscal year.

Johnson’s producing partner Miller adds that “regional diversity and cultural diversity” are also competing with one another, and that the program is still working to not miss anybody. For the initial slate, 20 projects come from Ontario, 11 from Quebec, five from British Columbia, three from Nova Scotia, two from Manitoba and one each from Alberta, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Yukon. “Our ideal vision of this program is films coming every year from every province and territory, which we haven’t been able to tap yet,” Miller says. “Are we tapping into those P.E.I. filmmakers? I don’t know.”

Yet, despite the myriad challenges, all but one of Talent to Watch’s inaugural productions are in some stage of forward momentum, with at least 26 projects in postproduction. (Kelly Milner’s Yukon-based web series, Thin Ice, withdrew from the program, citing the need to take more time to develop the project and build up its team.) Zivkovic’s Easy Land has even secured domestic distribution ahead of its TIFF premiere, with Canadian indie giant Mongrel Media acquiring the film.

And then there’s the second half of Talent to Watch, called Fast Pass, in which Telefilm automatically green-lights the second projects of filmmakers whose first features have been recognized at top-tier international festivals such as Cannes or Berlin, contributing $500,000 a film. This past June, Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf) and Pascal Plante (Fake Tattoos) were announced as the first recipients of this initiative.

“There were some hiccups, but now that the films are starting to come out and we’re going to see the rest of the country’s reaction to this work, that will be the thing that decides if there’s an optimistic or dark future for Talent to Watch,” Johnson says. “The dream here is to not look at this in 2020 but in 2025, to see how things have changed. Are the filmmakers from Year 1 contributing to the landscape? Are we going to change the future of filmmaking in this country? That is what we’re looking for.”

The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5 to 15; Murmur premieres Sept. 6 at 8:45 p.m. (Jackman Hall); Easy Land premieres Sept. 7 at 7:15 p.m. (Scotiabank). More information at tiff.net

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