If you’ll humour me in first-person, for a moment: when I started The Mutt back in May of this year, I had a passing wonder whether there would be enough interesting Canadian film and television to fill a full content calendar. That concern was quickly dashed – our small team of writers didn’t have time to cover everything! (PS: writers, send me your pitches!)
What’s interesting to me about the Canadian film and television market is the allowance it provides for originality. While box office is important (as the good folks at First Weekend Club will tell you) few production teams plot out their features with an adherence to investors as their primary guiding principle.
That makes writing about the Canadian film scene all the more interesting, given the fact that each production usually has a passionate voice behind it or an easy hook to guide the story.
With 2018 wrapping up, we’ve chosen 10 of these stories featured on The Mutt in the past year that we found to be emblematic of this spirit, as well as some of our favourite Canadian film and TV of the year.
Letter from Masanjia
Dir: Leon Lee
The subject of this documentary traces back to 2012, when an Oregon resident shopping in Kmart discovered a desperate letter from a political prisoner in China. Letter from Masanjia, directed by Leon Lee, follows this letter back to China, uncovering the harrowing state of labour camps in the country. The doc was one of 166 submitted for consideration at the 91st Academy Awards and would wholly deserve a nod.
Letter from Masanjia is now available on VOD.
Mr. D Season 8
CBC’s beloved workplace sitcom about an ill-equipped and bumbling high school teacher came to an end as the show’s series finale aired Dec. 20. Season 8 of the show saw Gerry Duncan (Gerry Dee) start a new life in Japan, take over as principal at Xavier and send the graduating students off with the perfect parting gifts. We’ll miss the show – no one plays bumbling idiot as riotously as Dee.
The complete series of Mr. D is now available to watch on CBC.
Dir: Cam Christiansen
From award-winning director Cam Christiansen and starring British playwright David Hare, the fascinating WALL examines both the physical and cultural barriers separating the Israeli and Palestinian residents of the Israeli West Bank. The film boasts a distinct visual style partly inspired by graphic novels and one that Christiansen said he chose to emphasize a sense of authorship.
More information on WALL is available via the National Film Board website.
Dir: Michael Peterson
Mix Home Alone with The Shining and you’re getting close to understanding the premise behind Knuckleball, a gritty and pulse-pounding thriller from director Michael Peterson. Peterson draws engaging performances from Michael Ironside and Luca Villacis perfectly suited for this lively and taut feature.
Knuckleball is now available on iTunes and VOD. For more information, click here.
Baroness von Sketch Show
Picture yourself riding your bicycle on the way to work. As you’re pedaling, you see someone you vaguely know, but not enough to stop-and-chat. Instead of stopping, you awkwardly yell to them, “Hello! …I have to keep going.” For Baroness von Sketch Show writer Aurora Browne, turning those painfully awkward moments into riotous sketches have propelled her career on what has become one of the CBC’s most reliably entertaining shows.
The third season of the Baroness von Sketch Show is available to watch on CBC.
Dir: Jeremy Lalonde
In the intro, I wrote about how one of the best parts of covering Canadian film is being able to watch films where directors take big risks and play to underground tastes. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of this than in Jeremy Lalonde’s The Go-Getters, a gloriously dark and vulgar journey starring a deadbeat drunk and a junkie hooker. Just in time for the holidays!
The Go-Getters is currently playing in select theatres and launched on VOD on Christmas Day.
VIFF’s Future//Present program
Among festival programs we always keep on our radar each year is the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Future//Present program. Our writer Brandon Wall-Fudge dove into the lineup at the 2018 festival, which showcased some of the best examples of those films redefining what Canadian film can be, including Spice It Up, M/M and Mangoshake.
The Vancouver International Film Festival returns in 2019.
Slave to the Grind
Dir: Doug Brown
Napalm Death, Carcass, Pig Destroyer… maybe not household names to the average music fan, but among the principal players in the proudly abrasive genre of “grindcore.” Doug Brown’s feature-length documentary Slave to the Grind dives headfirst into the history of the genre and of its legions of disciples, many of which look nothing like you might expect.
Slave to the Grind wrapped up a world tour in November 2018. Stay tuned to the film’s official Facebook page for updates.
Wynonna Earp Season 3
To be perfectly frank, I personally am not caught up on Wynonna Earp, but after reading the weekly coverage from our resident “Earper,” Ghezal Amiri, it’s become clear to me that the show is among the most bonkers, odd and crazy good times on television. Amiri took us on a roller-coaster ride of her own emotions as she explored Purgatory along with Wynonna, Wayhaught, and one individual she calls Angry Vamp Doc, all the way to the season’s wildly emotional conclusion. Full speed ahead to Season 4!
Wynonna Earp returns on Space in 2019.
Dir: Philippe Lesage
Few directors are doing coming-of-age stories as effectively as Montreal-based director Philippe Lesage, whose second autobiographical feature, Genèse, is a total knockout. The film follows 2015’s The Demons, with characters from that film also appearing during Genèse. It’s a beautiful, intelligent and contemplative look at adolescence and young love, and one of the best Canadian films of the year.
Genèse is now screening at festivals worldwide.
Honey Bee is a revealing look at human trafficking in Canada
Honey Bee director Rama Rau may be known to Canadian audiences mostly due to her acclaimed work in documentary, including League of Exotique Dancers (2015) and No Place to Hide (2015) – the former profiling aging burlesque dancers and the latter taking a focus on the world of cyberbullying.
But though Honey Bee marks Rau’s narrative feature debut, her instincts honed in documentary filmmaking remain essential, as much of the film is shot as though it were a documentary feature.
“I think that was key in telling the story, for me,” Rau said. “The actors were never acting – they were always in that state.”
Much of the film’s dramatic power is supplied by lead actress Julia Sarah Stone, who plays Natalie, an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival.
“She was literally the crux of the film. She was everything,” Rau said. “When I saw her audition, and I looked at a lot of auditions, I really wanted her to be in my film.”
Rau spoke with The Mutt about Stone, transitioning from documentary filmmaking and the too-infrequently discussed prevalence of human trafficking in Canada. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
THE MUTT: So tell me about Honey Bee.
RAMA RAU: It’s about a girl groomed from the foster home system and put into a human trafficking ring. She thinks the person grooming her is her boyfriend. That’s how they get young girls from the foster care system in Canada. Then, she’s caught in a police raid and sent to a farm and the movie really begins there, her coming to terms with what has happened. A lot of it is her finding herself.
TM: What were your first thoughts when you initially read the script?
RR: I was a bit shocked, to be honest. I was stunned that these things happen in Canada. I wondered if I wanted this to be my debut feature. But it’s never frightened me to go into the underbelly of society. But films have the power to open up areas that we don’t normally talk about. I also said as a woman director I can bring a certain perspective to it. And I found my way into the story, and said, “This is how I’m going to do it, and if you’re OK with it, I’m happy to work on this film.”
TM: What were those specific elements you wanted to bring to the film?
RR: I knew I wanted it to be totally told from the perspective of Natalie, from her POV. I knew I wanted it to be a very personal film. In documentary, we use handheld cameras a lot. We literally run behind our characters. I wanted that sense of urgency in this film. We kind of blurred the lines between fiction and fact. I wanted to go so deep into the story, so the audience never knows, “Is this a real story, or is this a person acting? Does this really happen in Canada?” [There was a scene where] and we ran behind [Natalie] like we were a camera crew.
TM: This film is obviously so based on character and Natalie’s experience. Do you think approaching things with that documentary mentality, did that help you capture small character moments?
RR: Yes, absolutely. I think that was key in telling the story. For me, the actors were never acting, they were always in that state. I encouraged them to be that way for as long as we were filming. I think they really took that to heart. They really lived their characters, and that was so rewarding for the camera because the camera picked up every little twitch of the cheek and movement of the eyebrow. I think that really lent to the authenticity. I even told Ryan (Steven Love), I want you to not talk too much to the women and I want them to hate you by the end of the film. So it’s really beyond method acting, it’s really living and being that character for that period of time.
TM: Having someone capable in the lead is obviously very important, because you need someone who is able to deliver that authenticity. How important was it having Stone in that role?
RR: Oh my god, she was literally the crux of the film. She was everything. I know she did so much research. I think she really carries the film on her shoulders. That’s why I had to choose such a strong actor like Martha to offset Julia’s stunning performance. I got so lucky in getting such great actors. God knows what I would have done if Julia wouldn’t have been able to deliver, because the film is totally based on every nuance of her face.
TM: Why would you recommend people check out the film?
RR: I think human trafficking in Ontario is not talked about enough. I think people watching this film will find a way into thinking about it. It’s not a news item. It’s more of a story of a girl who has been through the sex trade and has been bartered like a piece of furniture. I think we need to give these girls a voice. Since documentaries on these subjects can’t be made because it brings a lot of danger to their lives, these sort of films based on social issues is what opens up peoples’ minds to these sorts of issues. That’s why I think this film is crucial for people to watch if we have to tackle things like human trafficking in Ontario.
Honey Bee opened in select theatres on Sept. 20 and will be available on Video on Demand on Dec. 10.
Director Rob Grant on the tension (and dark comedy) of HARPOON
Adrift on the seas on a luxury yacht, three friends find themselves stranded without food or supplies and quickly realize their survival is less than assured. An official selection at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019, Harpoon made its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) April 28. The film will release on VOD in Canada on October 15.
The Mutt spoke with director Rob Grant prior to the film’s screening at CUFF 2019. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
THE MUTT: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of Harpoon?
ROB GRANT: I had a great relationship with my producers (Knuckleball director Michael Peterson and Kurtis Harder) from a film called Fake Blood. I pitched Mr. Peterson on this idea that was a mix between Polanski’s Knife on the Water but by way of Seinfeld characters on the boat. I grew up in Vancouver, and the original idea was, “Well, I spent a lot of time on a boat, we could go take a boat out to the ocean and try to isolate ourselves out there.” Once a budget came into play and the idea grew, suddenly we were shooting the interiors of the boat in a set in the middle of freezing winter in Calgary, and shooting the exteriors on a boat in tropical Belize down south.
TM: Was it difficult for you to balance those comedic elements and still find a way to ratchet up the tension?
RG: It was very difficult, and there were a lot of discussions about that. When you have to give the elevator pitch, you have to say: “This is the genre and this is what it means.” But I subscribe to the logic that in life you can feel in one moment that you’re in a love story and the next minute in a horror movie, and that’s the way real life actually works. But it seems a little more rigid in movies. We were aware of potentially disrupting viewers’ experiences of watching the movie. (We thought) a movie could, or should, be multiple things at once. We’re willing to accept that there’s going to be some audience members that are going to reject that as a movie experience, but we wanted to try it.
TM: Can you tell me more about those influences you mentioned? I’m curious about how you mixed something like Seinfeld with more traditional thriller elements.
RG: Hitchcock’s Lifeboat was definitely in there, as well as Polanski’s Knife in the Water. But I had to still find the dark humour in it, and Seinfeld came up specifically because as much as we all find the Seinfeld characters enduring, they’re very much in it for themselves. They’re worried about their own outcomes. So I tried to use a lot of that. As much as these people like to say they’re looking out for each other, the second it becomes a survival story they’re all kind of in it for themselves. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia was another one, not only for mixing drama and humour, but definitely because the narration was less focused. It sets up what’s going to happen without speaking to much on the nose about what you’re about to see.
TM: I understand there’s some great gore and effects in Harpoon. What was your approach to that, and what effect do you think that has?
RG: I’ve explored the effects of violence in cinema with Fake Blood, and this was an extension of that. The entire movie, these people speak very casually and aloof about the things that potentially will need to be done without actually considering what that entails until suddenly when it happens. I felt like it would be a good idea to make sure that was extremely violent and horrible, not only because we’ve been teasing up to this moment, but I do believe there’s a certain element that people do not consider the actual realities of having to do something like that. So it’s very shocking, very brutal, it’s like, “ha ha ha this was all funny to discuss” and now that it’s happened it sucks the wind out of you. That was a very intentional decision.
TM: What do you think Harpoon does in a unique way when compared to other similar films? What do you hope the audience walks away with?
RG: I hope when people leave the cinema that it wasn’t the movie they were expecting, that it was a little bit of a different take. I do think it’ll challenge them depending what their expectations are. I just hope they’re expecting something interesting in the genre, and that they’re along for the ride.
Harpoon will be released on VOD in Canada on October 15.
There Are No Fakes is a shocking journey into the world of art fraud
Some of the best documentaries of the past two decades involve hard left turns – films that begin in one direction but end in another due to events that unfolded during production. There Are No Fakes, directed by Jamie Kastner, joins that select company of documentary as its comedic opening slowly morphs into something much darker.
There Are No Fakes centers on the work of Norval Morrisseau, the Indigenous Canadian artist of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Morrisseau, who died in 2007, sought to remove forgeries of his art from the marketplace, establishing the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society in 2005.
After Kevin Hearn (of Barenaked Ladies fame) buys one of Morrisseau’s paintings, he starts to doubt its authenticity and discovers a bizarre feud consolidated around Morrisseau. It’s this conflict, and the dark secrets hidden beneath it, that form the backdrop of There Are No Fakes.
Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution, Free Trade Is Killing My Mother), who was friends with Hearn in high school, learned through conversation about Hearn’s ongoing lawsuit surrounding the Morrisseau paintings. It became clear to Kastner that such a story would be perfect for his next project.
“It was almost unbelievable. There was so much crazy stuff in this story, I couldn’t quite believe it,” Kastner said. “I told him if I was going to proceed with it, though we were friends he would have no editorial control. As a journalist, I would be talking to both sides, and he agreed.
“I went off on my own doing my own kind of digging and research. Lo and behold, everything he told me and then some turned out to be the case.”
As the story unfolded and as Kastner continued to meet a succession of larger-than-life characters, he found himself shocked at what he uncovered. Bringing footage back to his editor provoked a similar reaction.
“He’d say, ‘Holy f***!’ Then I’d do another one, and he’s quite an even-keeled guy, and he’d say ‘holy f***,’” Kastner said. “So it was a series of ‘holy f***’ moments. I tried to recreate that experience for the audience.”
Documentaries can often unfold much as expected, with a known story dictating the outcome of the production. But given the fluid situation surrounding the events of There Are No Fakes, Kastner followed the story as it led him, knowing he had been handed an incredible gift.
“It’s definitely a privilege and a responsibility (to tell this story). You’re dealing with the legacy of one of our most important artists,” he said. “You wind up dealing with very serious issues of abuse of different kinds, so I felt a real responsibility.
“You have to handle it very carefully as a documentary filmmaker. It really is so unique and unusual and special and horrific and inspiring and a whole range of things that you don’t usually get in one film.”
There Are No Fakes made its world premiere at Hot Docs 2019, receiving highly positive reviews. Kastner said the film provided fascinating insight into the legacy of Morrisseau, touching on multiple problems still at play in Canada.
“It’s a very dramatic story. People can’t believe that they’re real people. They seem like characters out of some HBO series or something,” Kastner said. “I think it’s a very entertaining, edge of your seat, jaw-dropping type of story that happens to be a documentary.”
There Are No Fakes will screen at multiple locations throughout Canada in July 2019. For more information, click here.
Next to read on The Mutt: Tantoo Cardinal propels Falls Around Her in first leading role