If all publicity is good publicity, then the opening film for this year's World Film Festival will prove a godsend for the struggling Montreal event.
The 39th edition of the WFF will kick off with the world premiere of Muhammad: The Messenger of God, the 171-minute Iranian epic by acclaimed filmmaker Majid Majidi. The film is the biggest-budgeted film ever to be produced in Iran, a country that, despite being a dictatorship, is home to one of the most fascinating contemporary national cinemas. But the feature, which chronicles the early life of the Islamic prophet and is lensed by world-renowned cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now), will be controversial because some Sunni Muslims argue that any depiction of Mohammed is blasphemous. (Egypt's Al-Azhar University has already asked Iran not to distribute the film.)
Landing a film that is surrounded by this much anticipation is undoubtedly a programming coup for the WFF, which was cut off from funding by three levels of government last year (Telefilm Canada, SODEC and the City of Montreal) – a triple-whammy that led to a total of $680,000 in cuts. If anything, the WFF is amazing for the very fact that it is still proceeding. Its demise has been predicted so many times by so many onlookers that it's impossible to keep count.
The style of WFF management can also only be described as bizarre, overseen by its co-founder and president, Serge Losique. Last year, relations between the festival, government film-funding bodies and the Quebec film milieu hit an all-time low. After the Quebec government agency SODEC announced it would not be offering a subsidy to the WFF, then-WFF vice-president Danièle Cauchard wrote a public letter attacking SODEC president Monique Simard and accusing her of having a "personal vendetta" against the WFF. Many in the Quebec film community rallied behind Simard, pointing to the deeply personal tone of the open letter, which was published in La Presse. Filmmakers Philippe Falardeau, Anne Émond, Kim Nguyen, Manon Briand and Guy Édoin signed a letter condemning Cauchard's attack. It also led to the resignation of the WFF's publicist, Henry Welsh, who cited Cauchard's letter to Simard as the reason for his departure.
The festival continued, though, on a more limited basis. This year, the numbers are back up again: The 2015 edition will see more than 400 films – both short and feature-length – taking their bow. And Cauchard's departure from the festival last February has meant the return of Welsh, one of the city's best-known film publicists.
WFF director of programming Martin Malina concedes many of this year's entries are obscure, but insists there are always gems to be found in the vast array of titles. "All film festivals have their own personalities," Malina points out. "And every film festival has to have its niche. At TIFF, many films become overshadowed by the latest Hollywood star vehicle. We are bringing in small films from small countries that would otherwise never be seen."
While finding under-the-radar treasures is not out of the question at the WFF, an attendee is more than likely to stumble into something that is substandard, given the bloated programming. At times, the festival feels less like a curated event than a clearing house for the basements of all the local consulates. When asked if he feels the festival casts its net too far and wide, opting for quantity over quality, Malina says, "I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you."
Malina says the criticism of Losique, though, has been overblown. "I think he's been dumped on very unfairly." (Losique did not respond to interview requests.)
The looming question is how the WFF will weather the inevitable calls for censorship around Muhammad. In 2005, the controversial feature film Karla, dramatizing the lives of sexual predators Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, was slated to have its world premiere at the WFF. Before anyone had seen it, there were protests. Initially, Losique couched his defence in freedom of speech and expression. That didn't last long, as one of the festival's main sponsors, Air Canada, threatened to yank its support. Losique bowed to the pressure and pulled Karla from the lineup. In a moment that can only be described as surreal, when asked about the decision during the festival's press conference, Losique replied, "Ask Air Canada," effectively conceding that he had let a sponsor dictate the festival's content.
But the festival goes on, despite two Quebec government inquiries into its demise, and repeated predictions that it will slip into oblivion. Occasionally likened to a zombie, the WFF is the event that won't die (even when there is a blow to the head). The WFF's status pales further in comparison with the city's other robust film events, such as Fantasia, which routinely packs houses with its off-kilter programming of genre films.
Ironically, arguments for keeping the Montreal World Film Festival afloat make better sense because of shifts in the industry, now that distribution of international films has been so severely diminished. Given that almost no foreign films screen at local cinemas any more, the festival circuit is often the only way for filmgoers to see movies as diverse as the ones screened at the WFF. And whether he gets flowers or rotten fruit, Losique will still be lording over the festival, strangely endearing despite everything else.
"The Québécois are like Gypsies," he told me several years ago, after the WFF had a better-than-average year. "One day, they want to kill you, the next, they want to kiss you."
The 39th edition of Montreal's World Film Festival runs from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7 (ffm-montreal.org).