The Canada's Top Ten Film Festival was created by TIFF to raise "public awareness of Canadian achievements in film" – work that otherwise, and often, goes unnoticed. In that sense, this year's lineup is depressingly on-target: of the 10 movies selected for the event, only two have been released theatrically in more than one province (My Internship in Canada and The Forbidden Room). The rest enjoyed brief but tiny runs last year, or have yet to open at all.
But perhaps the most curious aspect of this year's program is the number of stellar Quebecois films on the docket – films that will in all likelihood disappear after their Top Ten screenings. Just as last year's festival included a number of fantastic Quebec productions that went on to vanish into the cultural and box-office ether, the 2016 edition is excellently programmed but comes saddled with a fait accompli of sorts: No matter how great these movies are, they may never matter to the rest of English Canada.
"To be seen outside Quebec is a great honour," says Philippe Lesage, director of the festival selection Les démons, an intense coming-of-age drama. "But I think somehow it's a little sad. From what I heard from my distributor, it seems hard to sell French-Canadian films to the rest of Canada. Very few [Quebecois] films make it into theatres outside the province."
Lesage would know: Despite earning raves from the likes of Variety after its debut on the festival circuit, Les démons only saw a release in Quebec this past October (it will finally enjoy a run at Toronto's The Royal rep cinema this Friday). Although the film is set to open in France and a British deal is also in the works, Lesage's work will likely go unnoticed by the rest of his countrymen. "We're making these films because we want them to be seen, but it's tough for Quebec cinema. It's a shame it's not being shown elsewhere," Lesage says.
The obvious obstacle is, of course, language. It can be a difficult enough sell to get moviegoers to take in homegrown English cinema, let alone films with subtitles. Yet at the same time, Quebec is inarguably producing the best films this country has to offer. Say what you will about the likes of Hyena Road, Beeba Boys or Maps to the Stars, but few English-language features from the past few years can match the emotional power of Laurence Anyways, Café de Flore, Tu dors Nicole or Monsieur Lazhar – Top Ten selections all.
"We still struggle to find our audience here in Canada. Maybe there's work to do in terms of labelling these films, marketing them so the audience doesn't care too much about where it comes from, just that they want to see a good film," says Philippe Falardeau, director of My Internship in Canada. His comedy received a rare wide release this past fall, playing not only in Quebec, but across the country – a fact the director attributes partly to the film's easy comedy trappings, its political focus in an election year and the recognizability of its star, Bon Cop Bad Cop's Patrick Huard.
"But the question could also work in reverse: How can we promote English-language films in Quebec? It's the same problem," Falardeau adds, joking that Canadian films are like Canadian beers: There are great products all over the country, they just don't cross provincial borders. (The fact that he admits he first made this quip when accepting a prize at the 2007 Genie Awards only makes the allegory more depressing.)
Yet this sad state of affairs is exactly why organizations such as TIFF are so critical to the filmmaking industry, Falardeau says.
"TIFF is critical to supporting Quebec film – because of them, I was able to launch my career not only in my own province, but elsewhere in Europe," he says. "They do a particularly great job at tracking artists, someone like Anne Émond. Programmers are going to follow her work no matter if the film is for a wide audience or small. For one of the largest festivals in the world to say this filmmaker is important, to get that nod is huge."
Émond, whose multigenerational family drama Les êtres chers plays this year's festival after a small Quebec release, agrees that TIFF is a vital resource, but also fears for the future of independent cinema as a whole. "It's not only Quebec or even Canada – it's not a good time for cinema right now around the world," she says. "It's a little frightening. I'm only 33 years old, and I hope I can make films all my life, but will people go out to the movies for a long time still? I'm not the most optimistic person, so sometimes in the middle of the night I think, will cinema die? I hope not, I love it so much, but for now, we just have to do the best filmmaking that we can."
While the survival of independent film is another matter entirely, there is at least one sure-fire option for the talented Quebecois directors who may be ignored by the rest of the country: go Hollywood. Top Ten vets Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and Falardeau himself have all found success south of the border, while still maintaining a foothold in Quebecois cinema.
Even Top Ten darling Xavier Dolan is going the English-language route, with his celebrity satire The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, starring Jessica Chastain, Susan Sarandon and Game of Thrones' Kit Harington.
"I would never say never," Lesage says about working outside the Canadian system. "It's frustrating when you're doing films mainly seen on festival circuits, so if you can get the chance to make films with bigger means and a bigger potential for distribution, then of course. I would be stupid to close the door to that."
Canada's Top Ten Film Festival runs from Jan. 8 to 17 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto before touring select films across the country (tiff.net).