What happens when a heart lives on in another body? Cellular memory – the speculative notion that organs and cells retain personality characteristics and donor history after a transplant – is the cinematic hook in Le coeur de madame Sabali.
A similar line of inquiry might also apply to the film's director, Ryan McKenna, a Franco-Manitoban who has been living in Montreal since 2008: What happens to a filmmaker's work when they live in another province and culture?
Crisscrossing provincial and linguistic divides is just what some creative types must do to see their work produced. McKenna's French-language feature, which premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival last week to rave reviews, just screened in Montreal during the city's Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) and it will be playing at Cinémental, Winnipeg's western Canadian French-language festival, later this month.
Occupying plural languages and identities, McKenna has taken on a status of Quebecker in the name of this film. Creatively, though, he says he's not so sure. You can take the boy out of Winnipeg, but can you ever take Winnipeg out of the boy? Or his film?
Sabali is the Manitoba director's first French-language feature, and it is ambitious: McKenna had a 30-person team; the film includes a cameo of the internationally celebrated Malian musical duo Amadou & Mariam; and McKenna and co-producer/costume designer Becca Blackwood infused every scene with their Winnipeg-DIY, Technicolor aesthetic, all stylized lighting and extravagance.
Voyelles Films, a Montreal-based regional production company, took on Sabali as its first-ever feature-length film, in a leap of friendship and faith.
McKenna had an intense 24 days of shooting, and he jokes production was "strangely familiar" to the way he grew up: attending immersion school and speaking French all day, returning home to speak English at night. But besides the language distinction, "There is a lot more encouragement for this kind of filmmaking, and to promote auteur or experimental cinema in Quebec," McKenna says of working inter-provincially. "That's the big difference."
The film was only made possible through the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), a provincial grant. McKenna believes the attitude in English-language filmmaking is that features are considered somewhat a vanity project. The real money, he's been advised countless times, is in documentary. And he found the funding juries between Telefilm Canada and SODEC markedly different – with the latter evaluating projects for cultural and artistic merit, and not simply on market potential.
So while feature films are produced in the rest of Canada, they're largely financed through arts council grants, and made for significantly less money. "So you need to take an entirely different approach," says McKenna. He would know.
McKenna shot his first English-language feature through a particularly cold Winnipeg winter in 2012. The First Winter – about a Portuguese man who makes a misguided move from the Mediterranean climes to Winnipeg – is abstract, full of fantastical elements and shows off our brutal prairie winter without compromise.
While he describes the work as low budget, McKenna stresses that production was "time rich: there's a value in that."
With an interest in regional cinema as a way in to different cultures, McKenna says his intention is to make films that create a larger narrative of where he's from. The First Winter, for example, inspired him to co-author a manifesto on the filmmaking style he called Winnipeg Brutalism, which includes a strict rule about including at least one (unfaked) blizzard.
"My films are often a reaction to the dominant style of the region," says McKenna, adding later he's noticed a need to adjust to the territorial rhythms of wherever he's working. "Where you are affects the art," he says.
He's not as comfortable speaking with the same authority about Quebec culture just yet, but McKenna quips if he were to write a similar statement on filmmaking in Quebec, the first point of the manifesto would read: no white walls. "There are so many films that are austere, dark, depressing realism [in Quebec]," he says. "So I wanted to respond with lots of colour and energy, to make a film that reflected how I experience Montreal…about coming out of a dark place."
At the end of the day, he didn't want to make an essay about Quebec. "[It's] more about relationships between people, which is universal."
In his dramedy, protagonist Jeanette – played by the superbly cast Quebecois cult icon Marie Brassard – receives the heart of a murdered Malian donor. She is injected into an entirely different community and feels comfortable therein, though the audience can't be sure if the feelings are hers or her donor's.
As a Winnipeg transplant, McKenna contends he can see the "meta" narrative between himself and the plot of his movie, but hadn't meditated about the parallel too deeply. "I am from the weirdo world of the Winnipeg Film Group and bring this sensibility to the work I do in Quebec, but I would like dual citizenship," he says with a laugh.
Certainly, he's not alone. Matthew Rankin, who has traversed and filmed between Quebec and Manitoba extensively in the name of art, is a poster child for this.
Caroline Monnet is another filmmaker with a similar (though reverse) trajectory. The francophone and Algonquin multidisciplinary artist is originally from Outaouais in western Quebec, but took off to Winnipeg from 2006 to 2011 to get her foot in the door of the film world, returning in 2012.
"You are never really exactly one thing," Monnet says about the inter-regional and inter-personal jumps she has made for projects and funding. "But managing these three worlds can be an advantage… I'm able to work for francophone, anglophone and indigenous productions. I like those tensions that exist when identities mix."
Steve Gravestock, a programmer at TIFF who has selected Canadian feature films for the festival since 2004, says the back-and-forth has always been a reality for Canadian filmmakers and producers. But especially for filmmakers today. "The domestic market is increasingly an uphill battle," he says. "And there are many factors that play into that."
Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room, filmed at the Phi Centre in Montreal, is one recent and obvious example of a filmmaker moving across provinces to get his work done, says Gravestock. He also mentions that Denis Villeneuve and Denys Arcand will often shoot in Toronto. And as far as the provincial festival ecosystems go: "What separates the regions are the local industry that is targeted, and the scale with which they engage internationally."
Images Festival finds a market in in the visual art world, for example. Hot Docs has its TV industry; TIFF is its own monster, reflecting the growth in Toronto, while VIFF tends to mirror its audience through regional and international cinema from the Pacific West. "In order to survive, a festival must reflect the nature of its city," Gravestock says.
And it's just different in Quebec. "I'm not sure that the desire to see ourselves on screen plays out in the same way [as Quebec] across English Canada…There is something peculiarly Canadian about the way we interact with our cinema."
Differences aside, the rest of Canada is receptive to Quebecois works, says Gabrielle Tougas-Fréchette, co-producer of Voyelles Films, who has been a programmer with the FNC for the past decade. "You guys in Toronto laugh way harder."
The FNC is proud to produce and show Quebecois culture on screen, which speaks to a cultural difference en generale, adds Tougas-Fréchette, but she says both sides would benefit from being more curious about domestic film across the country. "A language or cultural barrier is just not a good excuse anymore."
The FNC, which has been around four years longer than TIFF, still lives somewhat in its shadow on the Canadian film radar. Regardless, it is overwhelmingly celebrated as a unique place to showcase cinema auteurs from French and English Canada, and internationally.
It was the only Canadian festival willing to screen The First Winter, says McKenna. "They stand behind smaller scale films with maybe not as much of a budget but that have artistic ambition or integrity," he says. "So I really appreciate that."
A mere five-hour drive from the GTA and completely bilingual for English viewers, it is worth the transplant.
McKenna says he was pleasantly surprised how many Quebecois expats and francophones turned up to the world premiere of Sabali in Vancouver. "I just feel really lucky I was given the chance to make a film in French, that I wasn't told non," he says. "My identity is in there, somewhere – even if it's somewhere strange."