29 November – 5 December 2007
Possible Worlds, Sydney’s Canadian Film Festival has, unforeseeably, become amongst the best of the city’s burgeoning annual “international” film festivals, which include the highly popular French film festival, the Italian, Spanish and German film festivals, the fairly recent Russian Resurrection festival and various smaller festivals, from the Greek to the Jewish, and the Mexican. Not to mention the Human Rights Film Festival, Queer Screen and the Seniors Film Festivals (also, run by the Festivalists, curators of Possible Worlds).
The Festivalists, comprised of Mathieu Ravier and Marianne Alla, have done something that most of Sydney’s other film festivals can’t or don’t do: they have made the festival accessible, interactive, engaging and relevant. At the recent Berlin interfilm short film festival, one of the organisers argued passionately for the correct use of nomenclature around screening events: a festival, he argued, is something that is comprised not only of screenings, but of events, panels, discussions involving the filmmakers, the public and industry experts; the program is curated, by one or by many, but its contents reflect distinctions, choices, possibly themes. In short, a festival is more than the sum of its parts; a festival is a reflection on the contents and the form of cinema, and implicitly at least, the nature of spectatorship.
Possible Worlds, in a city that has only one remaining arthouse cinema (and that was recently bought by the Palace chain), and minimal funding for the arts, is an ambitious festival: 14 feature films (including documentaries), six of them attended and introduced by one or more of the filmmakers, a program of short horror films, a panel on Canadian independents, a photo exhibition from documentarian Robin Schlaht, and a concurrent Kino Cabaret filmmaking project, modelled on the Montreal-based ultra-low-budget filmmaking movement of the same name.
This contrasts with most of the other “national” film festivals in Sydney, which are not curated, as much as an overblown “top hits” list from each country – or if they are curated, as the Italian Film Festival is by the head of Palace Films, then they represent a long list of usual suspects rather than ground-breaking cinema. Antonio Zeccola claims to have created Australia’s only “independent and truly national cultural film festival”. This statement simply doesn’t bear examination. It’s not that the festivals of Italian, French and German cinema are not good: they present a chance to see films from the major festivals such as Berlin – films that may not make it to arthouse distribution in Australia. But as far as groundbreaking, Possible Worlds has got it covered – with one cautious qualification: the films seem to be programmed exclusively from the Toronto International Film Festival, and there was only one French-language film this year.
But really, if you are an independent filmmaker or cinephile, there is no excuse for not attending Possible Worlds next year, since its focus on low-budget and innovative cinema is fairly unique within Australian festivals. The festival also managed, within 14 films, to represent two key defining influences within Canadian film: documentary realism and the French New Wave. These influences are apparent throughout the program, not least from the mouths of the film directors themselves.
The 2007 Possible Worlds Film Festival kicked off with Who Loves the Sun, the second feature from writer/director Matt Bissonnette (Looking for Leonard, 2002). It is a good cast for a million-and-a-half dollar budget, and a funny film: two men, once best friends, fighting over one woman (who is the estranged wife of one, and the one-night stand of the other), and you wouldn’t wish either of them on her. The dialogue is the obvious strength of the film, and Lukas Haas and Adam Scott tread a nice line between the ridiculous and the sincere, and ultimately redeem characters who are annoyingly immature.
Bissonette and producer Corey Marr attended the festival and talked about their first project together. Marr came from a commercials background, and approached Bissonnette on the basis of his debut feature. Their film makes the most of picturesque lakeside locations in Manitoba and Ontario, as a background for a narrative that is about relationships and revelations. Will, who left his wife Maggie (Molly Parker, real-life wife of Bissonette) without a word five years ago, unexpectedly returns, to the home of his best friend Daniel’s parents. They call Maggie and Daniel, and it soon emerges that Will disappeared after those two had a steamy one-night stand. The next days see an uneasy coexistence between three people with lots of unresolved issues and an obvious desire for connection. The character of Maggie is not as developed as those of the two male protagonists, but Molly Parker does an admirable job making her the calm centre of the storm.
The other notable indie from a writer-director is Chaz Thorne’s Just Buried, a dark comedy starring Jay Baruchel and Australian actress Rose Byrne, about a younger son who inherits his father’s funeral business. The ultra-nerdy Oliver is encouraged by seductive mortician Roberta to be creative in drumming up business. As his love life burgeons, so does the town’s mortality rate. This is a delicious B-movie of guts, gore and laughs, and it knows exactly what it is. In a Q&A after the film, Thorne said, “I think it’s really important when doing a dark comedy, that there is realism to the gore, and to push it beyond laughter… and then possibly a release of laughter. It was really important to me that the deaths were done well and realistically”.
Although not without flaws, Thorne’s vision is clear, his comic sensibility solid (including eliciting a promising comic performance from Rose Byrne), and the script has enough tricks up its sleeve to keep you engaged. The film was shot in Nova Scotia, in just 24 days, with most of the scenes done in one or two takes.
Thorne also co-wrote and co-produced Poor Boy’s Game, the sixth feature from Jamaican-Canadian director, Clement Virgo. The two went into production after Virgo saw Thorne present his pitch at the Pitch This! event at TIFF 2001. Thorne’s original concept was based on an incident in his own life, but as the director and producer wrote the screenplay, it evolved into something broader, about tribalism within the context of race and class.
Filmed and set in Halifax, Poor Boy’s Game examines the racial tensions around the release from prison of amateur boxer Donnie Rose, ten years after he beat a black kid so badly he caused brain damage. The family of the victim, Charlie Carvery, and the black community at large, are outraged by the release. A young black boxer, Ossie Paris, challenges Rose to fight him in what is anticipated to be a short-lived payback match.
Clement Virgo is no stranger to the boxing genre and to films focused on intense conflict, as seen in his previous features Rude (Cannes Un Certain Regard, 1995) and Love Come Down (2000). His films also tend to involve a character’s search for grace in order to overcome obstacles. Poor Boy’s Game has this same motif, as particularly demonstrated by the character of Charlie’s father George (Danny Glover), who is an ex-boxer and the former trainer of Ossie Paris. George has to struggle between his Christian values and his personal desire for revenge. Ultimately he is unable to stand by and see Donnie set up in the name of his son, and so he undertakes to train him himself.
Glover’s is a great piece of casting for what is an emotionally challenging role. He also manages to make an unlikely course of action believable. Rossif Sutherland (Donald Sutherland’s son) as Donnie is an excellent find, holding his own against Glover and mapping the trajectory towards redemption, through this one fair boxing match, and his relationship with the father of his victim – having none of his own. He is able to capture the ambivalence in Donnie when he first returns home, finding that his ten years away have given him a bleak perspective on his family and friends. Although he appears somewhat inscrutable at the outset, we already sympathise with this young man, as heinous as his crime his.
With a budget of 5 million dollars, and DOP Luc Montpellier (Sarah Polley’s Away From Her and Guy Maddin’s surrealist The Saddest Music in the World), the picture looks superb, and is finished in industrial tones that emphasise the suburban drabness. The fight scenes are also covered excellently, given Virgo’s previous forays into the subject, and his personal interest in the sport. The tone may be bleak, but this is an overwhelmingly optimistic narrative about forgiveness.
The most user-friendly film of the festival was Paul Fox’s Everything’s Gone Green, based on the first original screenplay by popular Generation X author Douglas Coupland. It is part homage to his home city, Vancouver, and completely his inimitable, satirical take on modern life. The film is the stuff of late-twenties crises: breakups with people you don’t even know why you went out with in the first place; mindless office jobs that you have to be fired from to move past; natural disasters as cognitive tourism, photographed and broadcast into the conscience of middleclass families. Hope is the preserve of lotteries, dreams sustained by the purchase of an improbable winning ticket. Pyramid schemes have segued into eco-friendly home-sale products. Pot dealers have adopted a franchise model of economic profit. Ryan, a likeable twenty-something slacker gets involved in a money laundering scheme while working in his latest mindless white-collar position, in the lottery office. It’s a parody of 21st century life as we know it, and works best as a ridiculous one. When Ryan’s discovers his sweet, middleclass parents have a crop in their basement, it’s almost a relief.
Paulo Costanzo is great in the role, a likeable mix of cynicism and snaggish. His love interest May – a cable TV set-dresser who makes Vancouver look like different American cities – is both sweet and pragmatic, not the average cute, smart girl. Paul Fox, a TV director, has made a slightly kooky sitcom-style indie, but there are some nice shot choices in the beginning of the film, dwarfing Ryan under the weight of his mindless lifestyle. The film does not take itself too seriously, and will appeal to anyone who has survived their twenties.
Modern life is also parodied in Reginald Harkema’s Monkey Warfare. Made in two weeks, for CN$30,000 on his credit card, it is this year’s clearest tip of the hat to Godard, in its themes and in its playful experimentalism with style and improvisational approach to performance. The film is loosely about intergenerational warfare, as 40-something bike-riding ex-countercultural terrorists Dan (Don McKellar) and Linda (Tracy Wright) have their established routine of rubbish-picking-for-profit up-ended by pert young aspiring urban guerilla Susan. What starts off as a simple transaction involving “B.C. Organic”, ends up as a far more complicated relationship between Dan and Linda and Susan.
Monkey Warfare is wonderfully oddball, with choreographed bicycle sequences interlaid with documentary-style footage of women on bikes, and song lyrics flashing across the screen. The soundtrack is super-cool, with 70s-inspired modern funk/soul such as “Girls Like That” by Weird War, and “What if we all stopped paying taxes” by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, as well as authentic ‘60s psychedelic folk-blues numbers such as “Hip Death Goddess” by Ultimate Spinach. Harkema is apparently happy with any Nouvelle Vague comparisons, although his film is also a tribute to the baby boomers, with its stoner sensibility and approach to narrative, and gentle cynicism about the maxed-out idealism of that generation.
Don McKellar, an actor, subversive screenwriter and director, is a cult hero of Canadian independent film from Bruce McDonald’s films Roadkill (1989) and Highway 61 (1991), through some of Atom Egoyan’s best films, to Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999) and a spattering of television series. Here he escapes typecasting to play the almost-cool old guy who flirts embarrassingly with Susan. His wife Tracy Wright (an actress in many Canadian films and television, as well as Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, 2005) has a superior deadpan delivery, but together the two work beautifully.
Harkema is an editor by trade (his work including Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo mock-rock-umentary, 1996, and Guy Maddin’s Twilight of the Nymphs, 1997). Monkey Warfare is stylistically similar to his directorial debut A Girl is a Girl (1999), and also features common threads, such as the anti-hero’s befuddlement by the female sex and the characters’ predilection for dope.
Speaking of Bruce McDonald, Possible Worlds also snapped up the latest, uncharacteristically experimental, feature from this Toronto-based indie veteran. The Tracy Fragments, starring latest indie poster-child Ellen Page is a frenetic, nihilistic, split-screen adventure in the mind of self-loathing teen Tracey Berkowitz. McDonald’s first full-length feature was Roadkill (1989), and he has done more television than films since then, with the notable exceptions of Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo, both also road films, the latter of which follows a fictional Vancouver band on its farewell tour across Canada.
Tracey opens the film wrapped in a shower curtain at the back of a bus. She is on a disorganized hunt for her younger brother, who she thinks went missing after she hypnotised him to believe he was a dog. The film eschews linear narrative and instead moves roughly backwards in time, through a confused jumble of thoughts and moments in time, both real and imagined, within Tracey’s head. It is a bleak portrait of being 15, when flat-chested Tracey is tripped in the hallways at school, is neglected by her incompetent father and booze-addled mother, and creates a fantasy relationship with the new boy at school, “Billy Zero” – who turns out to be as cruel as the world she lives in.
The film is book-ended by the shower-curtained Tracey, and the intervening “narrative” leads us backwards in time and causation to the incident where she loses Sonny and her virginity in one fell swoop. Sometimes the split screen works, as it gives us context or allows us inside Tracey’s head; other times it seems gratuitous, simply giving us more angles of a moment than we need. At its best, the chaotic aesthetic works with the energy of the soundtrack by Broken Social Scene. The apogee of the film’s intriguing rock sensibility is definitely the use of counterposed shots and frenetic editing against Patti Smith’s track Land (Horses, Horses!). Ultimately – thank god! – the film promises some kind of positive transition for our heroine.
Producer Sarah Timmins attended the screenings and spoke on the Canadian Independents panel. It is interesting that a twenty-something Australian expat with no previous producer credits was able to get this film up with Canadian government funding, and with a director of McDonald’s experience and profile attached. But whether it says something broader about the Canadian film industry, and whether we take it as an optimistic indicator must be left to someone with more knowledge and experience on the subject! The budget was just under a million.
Allan Moyle is a director familiar with the subject of teenage angst (Pump Up the Volume, Empire Records), although his latest film Weirdsville is a different kind of cult film. Moyle has proclaimed it a “Trainspotting for Canada” – a tall order, but this is a hilarious stoner movie, following the pathetically incompetent addicts Royce (Wes Bentley) and Dexter (Scott Speedman), and their pocket rocket pal Matty (Taryn Manning, from Eight Mile and Hustle and Flow), as they try and gather their wits and cash to pay back their dealer Omar. In the process they almost bury Matty alive, run afoul of some aspiring Satanists (including the wonderfully menacing Greg Bryk, who appears as Donnie’s racist and homophobic brother in Poor Boy’s Game), make friends with medieval fighting dwarves, and resist the urge to get high with varying degrees of success.
Bentley and Speedman are a great team, Speedman the more savvy of the two, while Bentley’s washed-out hippie has delusions of entrepreneurial grandeur. Stylistically the film reminds a little of Guy Ritchie’s gangland pics Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – gritty and grungey, ochre, green and blue tones, use of slow motion and a funky soundtrack to lend a sense of style and humour even to tense situations. Weirdsville seems likely to achieve cult status.
The most thrilling and challenging film of the festival was Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!, which screened at the Sydney Film Festival earlier in the year. His most personal film to date, it infuses Maddin’s childhood imaginings with his adult fantasies to create a madcap mix of gothic horror, delicious melodrama, psychosexual paranoia, terror and titillation. Adult Guy returns to his childhood home, a blackened orphanage on an island, at the dying request of his mother, with the intention of white-washing the walls and the memories of the past. Once there, Guy is confronted by the ghosts of his past: young guy, his pubescent “Sis”, anti-social father performing experiments in the basement, and his perversely narcissistic mother, who overseas the island with a hawk-like eye.
Maddin presents memory as poetry – a kind of impressionistic arrangement of experiences by artistry. In doing so, he disregards film grammar of the last seventy years, clearly attracted as he is to the ingenuity, effectiveness, wonderment of pioneering filmmakers – especially those from the 1920s. Brand borrows tropes from the early era of sound: the narrator, the written intertitles, the superimposed soundtrack after the fact. On the other hand, his editing technique deliberately departs from traditional ‘20s fluidity, in favour of a more avant-garde “fast” editing. Maddin describes this as a facsimile for memory: it skips and jumps frames. Although the film starts with an almost documentary realism, the effect of Maddin’s editing style is to fragment action, accelerating the reader into the realm of someone else’s memory. It was a real pleasure to see this on the big screen, although the choice of the Chauvel’s smaller screening room indicates that the Festivalists were realistic about the breadth of Maddin’s appeal. And rightly so.
The Stone Angel seems set to woo fans of the Margaret Laurence book, which is a compulsory Canadian high school English text. The film features excellent performances from leading lady Ellen Burstyn and newcomer Christina Horne, both as the heroine of the piece, Hagar. The story crosses generations of an Irish-Scottish-Canadian family, as its once-proud edifice crumbles into the land, under the weight of scandal, debt, and alcoholism. Hagar parts ways with her family over her marriage to a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It all ends badly, with our heroine giving everything for her family, and getting nothing in return. The film traverses time and space simultaneously, as the older Hagar returns to her old stomping ground, and succumbs to memories of the past. Kevin Stegers gives another solid performance as an attractive, wanton, self-loathing teen; Ellen Page pops up in a frustratingly incidental part, as his wannabe-hippie girlfriend.
Toi, the only French-Canadian feature at Possible Worlds this year, is an interesting choice. Sure to be unsettling for mainstream audiences, it follows the experience of Michelle, who decides to leave her husband and child for her lover. It’s not even for love, as much as instant gratification of an uneasy urge to be free. The film is sexually explicit and emotionally flayed. Anne-Marie Cadieux, as Michelle, has a hard job to maintain our interest in a character that is not very likeable, let alone forgivable. Michelle’s narcissism repels the audience, while the humanity of her crisis draws you in. Nevertheless, it is like watching a car crash in slow motion. A commendable film on every level, but definitely not enjoyable.
With Portage, young directors Sascha Drews, Ezra Krybus and Matthew Miller take advantage of the thriller genre, turning in a kind of teenage-femme version of Deliverance: four girls and their male guide on a camping trip; sexual tensions; a tragedy occurs; the girls are lost and need to find their way out. The worldwide rights for Portage – since the festival renamed Crooked Lake – have since been picked up by new distributor NeoClassics Films, in a mid-six-figure deal. Given that it was a first-time feature from three young writer-directors who had won awards for their short film work, and given their strategic use of the genre, it would have been fascinating to have these filmmakers represented in Possible Worlds’ Independents panel but unfortunately this was not to be. Still, given the strong line-up, one can only assume the Festivalists tried.
Robin Schlaht’s To Be Romeo and Juliet was the surprise festival favourite this year, going on the vote counts. The fact that it screened at 2pm on a Saturday could be a reason why it was voted so highly – which is not meant to uncharitable, but it is hard to suspend disbelief that this small doc following three troupes of actors rehearsing for the Shakespearean play, was more popular than every other film. On the other hand, theatre lovers and actors would have loved this intimate examination of how amateurs, young people and a professional Chilean dramatic ensemble prepared for the task of tackling one of the giants of the stage.
Previously a documentarian and photographer, Schlaht’s debut dramatic feature was Solitude (2001). He spoke in the Canadian Independents panel about how he came to change tack:
I launched into (this film) because I couldn’t get the funding together – it’s especially hard to make your second feature film. The funding wasn’t coming together and I didn’t want to be in development, I wanted to get behind the camera, so I started this extremely low budget documentary. Me doing the camera, the sound, the producing and the directing. The budget was $115,000. I wanted to spend more time with actors but I wanted also to make a documentary.
A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman was shortlisted for the Academy Award for best documentary. The Director of Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, Peter Raymont chronicles another wrenching return. Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean novelist, playwright and human rights activist, most famous for his play Death and the Maiden. As part of Salvatore Allende’s administration, he was exiled as part of the coup that put General Pinochet in power. Thirty-three years later, in 2006, Dorfman travels to Chile and Argentina. Raymont, captures this return, including the moment when Dorfman hears on the radio that Pinochet has suffered a terminal stroke, and Dorfman’s active desire to find rapprochement with the past and the people who supported Pinochet.
Probably the best documentary of the 2007 festival was Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, which profiles the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose work documents landscapes altered by industrialisation. Baichwal has made an incredibly intelligent, ekphrastic piece – every shot demonstrates careful thought about how to best represent and reflect her subject, within her own visual art. The result is a film that is both visually edifying and mentally horrifying. Baichwal spoke engagingly about her film in a phone hook-up after the one and only screening, which was sadly not very well attended!
The festival this year was an intriguing one, not altogether a cohesive and consistent vision, but most of the films seemed bound together by a principal of low-budget inventiveness – whether from first-time filmmakers or seasoned hands in the Canadian arthouse genre. Canadian independent film clearly strikes a chord with the Australian film industry. The Canadian Independent Film panel touched upon a few of these issues: similar funding structures and contexts; the Canadian tax credit system compared with Australia’s new laws; the problems and advantages of an auteur system; the similar post-post-colonial perspective and sense of humour of both countries. This made the festival not just a fertile ground for entertainment and for cinephiles, but an invaluable resource for emerging Australian filmmakers. While it is increasingly easy to get most foreign films on DVD, we rely on festivals like Possible Worlds to keep curating the emerging and obscure, the challenging and inspiring, the entertaining and the esoteric.
The Possible Worlds Film Festival website: http://www.possibleworlds.net.au/