It is a fool's game to crown any film a surefire buzz generator going into an event as large as the Vancouver International Film Festival, but here goes anyway.
Fail to Appear, the debut feature from Canadian director Antoine Bourges, is a quiet gem that draws the viewer in from its opening frame – a long, steady shot of office equipment in an aesthetically challenged basement. It is experimental filmmaking that is at the same time wholly accessible and utterly watchable. And it is an ideal showcase for the new wave of talent coming out of Toronto's indie scene: a community of young cinephiles, often working below the radar and with microbudgets – and collaborating like mad.
Screening in VIFF's Future//Present series, Fail to Appear is a shoestring-budget Canadian film about a social worker that viewers will find hard to shake.
It starts off focusing on Isolde and then becomes about Eric. Isolde is a literature graduate and a social-work trainee; she is the case worker for Eric, who has been charged with theft and has an upcoming court appearance.
Part of the film's success comes from Bourges's casting of a mix of professional actors and non-actors. Isolde is played by Deragh Campbell, a 2015 TIFF rising star who starred in Never Eat Alone, which won filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz last year's Emerging Canadian Director award at VIFF. Eric is played by Nathan Roder, who is not a professional actor – one of several in the film, many of whom have real-life experience in the world Bourges portrays.
"There's a whole tradition of fiction film that involves non-actors because there's this unexpected quality to their performance, something a bit more pure, something you can't quite write or put down that gets revealed while you work with them," says Bourges, who used a similar approach in his previous mid-length film, East Hastings Pharmacy.
"I think what is most interesting about working with non-professional actors is I really feel that we both elevate each other," Campbell says in a separate interview. "Because it requires a really particular amount of attention that you have to pay to each other in order to one make each other feel comfortable, respond naturally; and because you're working with a person who in some ways is much more natural than you are by virtue of maybe not having acquired a certain number of habits in front of the camera."
The performances by the non-actors, including Holder, are convincing – subtle yet assured. But it's Campbell who is a naturalistic revelation as the neophyte case worker trying to find her feet in a world where too many people fall through the cracks.
Campbell's theatre pedigree is golden; her father is actor Benedict Campbell; her mother, Jackie Maxwell, stepped down last year as artistic director of the Shaw Festival. Her grandfather was the legendary stage actor Douglas Campbell.
Campbell, who studied creative writing at Concordia and wanted to be a novelist, herself had no formal acting training when Matthew Porterfield cast her in his feature I Used to Be Darker after meeting her at the party following the premiere of his 2010 film Putty Hill.
"It's not a story I usually tell to other actors; they don't usually like it," Campbell, 28, says. "I still have never gotten a part from an audition, literally, I think, 15 movies in."
Over the phone during a Greyhound bus ride between Toronto, where she lives, and Stratford, to visit family, Campbell talked about how Bourges's use of improvisation differs from other filmmakers' methods.
"It's more about learning how that person talks and then Antoine [lays out] what the scene is about and what our attitudes are. But I think the main difference between what he does and what a lot of other directors do that work with improvisation is he then wants to, over a number of takes, hone a certain stillness and a certain calm to it, which I think has a slightly elevated, slightly hyper-real atmosphere or tension," Campbell says. "It's almost like there's a script and then there's the script that you build through the scene."
Bourges, 33, was born in Paris and moved to Montreal when he was 14 to pursue a career in hockey. He played for years, but his goal – an NHL career – eluded him. He moved to Vancouver to study film at UBC. He is now finishing his MFA at York University in Toronto.
In addition to Bourges and Campbell, the film's executive producer Kazik Radwanski (an associate producer on East Hastings Pharmacy) and cinematographer Nikolay Michaylov are also part of Toronto's filmmaking new wave.
Michaylov, who was born in Bulgaria and moved to Canada with his family as a young child, is hugely in demand on Toronto's indie scene; he shot two films that screened at TIFF this year and four that are coming to VIFF. The other three VIFF films are shorts: Cherry Cola, Radwanski's Scaffold (which also screened at TIFF; Michaylov was a producer) and Let Your Heart Be Light, which was co-written and co-directed by Campbell, who also stars (Sophy Romvari is her co-writer, co-director and co-star).
"She's just so naturally gifted at what she does," says Michaylov, of Campbell – who calls him her most frequent collaborator. "We're so familiar with each other when we're on set, it doesn't feel like work any more just because we know each other's process so much. Shooting a film isn't easy and when things get tense we know how to read each other and we know how to handle those situations accordingly."
Michaylov also shoots commercials, music videos, documentaries and this week was working on the CBC's Baroness von Sketch Show – the commercial stuff is how he pays the bills. He says there are challenges for a cinematographer when working with non-professional actors – and very high stakes.
"These people are real and they're telling us their real stories and it's just so real for them, too," he says.
"The film lights, the camera, the crew – if there is any – can be a little intimidating; people get camera shy or maybe become very conscious of the camera. So a lot of my job in that respect means that I have to be a bit more sensitive," Michaylov, 27, continues. "We all have a common goal, to create this piece of art, and I really feel when everyone's in line and shares the same passion, the outcome is an amazing film. And I think that really happened on Antoine's film."
Fail to Appear plays VIFF Sept. 29 (The Cinematheque) and Oct. 2 (International Village). VIFF runs Sept. 28 to Oct. 13 (viff.org)