The fall film season can be an intimidating period for the devoted moviegoer. How could one possibly make the time to ensure every prestige film is watched, every Oscar-bait picture ranked, every film-festival hit dissected? It is enough to drive even the most casual of cinephiles to levels of anxiety not seen since the great Scotiabank Theatre Escalator Incident of TIFF 2016.
Not to add to the seasonal stress, but I'm afraid Toronto audiences are going to have to make room for yet another must-attend engagement on the autumn calendar: the new season of Medium Density Fibreboard Films screenings. Previously held at various locations across Toronto, including most recently The Royal, MDFF is about to take a giant leap forward in scope and ambition. Starting Sept. 28 with a screening of Alessandro Comodin's Happy Times Will Come Soon, MDFF will partner with TIFF and Cinema Scope magazine to find a new home in the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
An offshoot of the production company of the same name, MDFF's screening series is the brainchild of producer Daniel Montgomery and filmmaker Kazik Radwanski. Since 2014, MDFF has connected local audiences with the work of emerging Canadian and international filmmakers that would otherwise pass the city by entirely: daring and provocative titles such as Queen of Earth from American indie sensation Alex Ross Perry, Malgre La Nuit from French provocateur Philippe Grandrieux and Kaili Blues, the sensational directorial debut from China's Gan Bi.
"It started with looking at the current cinematheque landscape internationally, and wanting Toronto to compete. We wanted to be able to see these films that everyone is talking about on Twitter or elsewhere," says Radwanski, a director himself whose 2016 feature, How Heavy This Hammer, is one of the strongest Canadian films in recent memory. "I think back to when I was in film school and how hard it was to find out where the good films are. And that was when we had more rep cinemas and video stores. We need these curated voices to help guide audiences to emerging work."
Adds Blake Williams, a MDFF co-programmer, "Our job is to bring films that aren't even on the typical Toronto cinephile's radar. Our last screening this upcoming season is work from French-Colombian filmmaker Laura Huertas Millan, who's not someone many in Toronto or even in the U.S. have heard of, but should be on more people's radars."
MDFF's one-night screenings are designed to be Toronto premieres, meaning that they're the only opportunity for local audiences to watch the films on a big screen before they float off into the video-on-demand void, where it can be challenging to discover fresh voices, or disappear entirely.
"The proliferation of VOD, with titles skipping the theatrical experience altogether, it's culminated in this period where we've been able to program the gems that are slipping through the cracks," says Montgomery, who cites Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema and Manhattan's Metrograph theatre as programming inspirations. "The formula of what we screen is hard to predict, but we just want to show films we want to see and share. We don't want to program films that we feel are just going to draw the biggest numbers."
Which, in the past, sometimes meant only 40 or 50 people would show up to tiny venues like Double Double Land and Camera Bar. But those were 40 or 50 people who were intensely passionate about what was unspooling in front of them.
"There is something special when you have 50 people in a room and not an empty chair in sight," says Radwanski, who has managed to convince many filmmakers to show up for postscreening Q&As that are a world apart from, say, the "I have more a comment than a question" sessions that tend to dominate other screenings across the city. "So you have 50 really enthusiastic people who want to talk with the filmmaker afterward, from film students to engaged artists. It's social, we often go for drinks after."
And just like Brian Eno's now-mangled quote about how "the Velvet Underground didn't sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band," a number of early MDFF attendees have gone on to become directors themselves.
"It cannot be overstated how important Kaz and Dan have been in shaping what I'm calling this new wave of English-Canadian cinema," Kevan Funk, the director of the acclaimed hockey drama Hello Destroyer, told The Globe last year. "They coalesced a movement – young filmmakers who existed on the fringes of the system, as I feel like I have, or completely outside of it."
Now, by partnering with Cinema Scope and TIFF, MDFF not only gains the Lightbox's state-of-the-art facilities – screenings will likely take place in the building's Cinema 3, which seats about 225, or the 150-seat Cinema 4 – but the ease of not fretting over finances quite so much. Previously, MDFF operated its series out of pocket – depending on how well a screening performed, Montgomery and Radwanski benefited or took a hit. (The pair say they typically broke even by each year's end.) The new arrangement finds Radwanski acting as an independent contractor to curate the series, while TIFF is responsible for associated costs.
"Before, we had to shake things down in terms of negotiating fees and things like that. Some American filmmakers, they got it right away, but we'd run into roadblocks with European distributors, who wanted to charge something like 800 euros for a screening," Radwanski says. "Now, negotiating through the Lightbox, they're helping us with the resources, the logistics."
In Radwanski and Montgomery's perfect world, though, MDFF wouldn't exist. At least, not in its current state.
"For any of the films we've shown, our ultimate desire is for them to not show just one-night only," Montgomery says. "We wish they could have a whole week somewhere. But this is one step closer to that."