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TIFF 2018: 10 can’t-miss Canadian films on the lineup

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The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, directed by Xavier Dolan, will make its world premiere as part of the Special Presentation program at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Photo courtesy TIFF
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, directed by Xavier Dolan, will make its world premiere as part of the Special Presentation program at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Photo courtesy TIFF

The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) returns Sept. 6 to 16, 2018, with 19 Canadian features and 24 short films on deck. Heavy-hitters this year include the latest from Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother, It’s Only the End of the World), titled The Death and Life of John F. Donovanand the final film from Canadian conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart (Sharkwater, Revolution). 

Steve Gravestock, senior programmer with TIFF, weighed in on 10 Canadian films you’ll want to mark on your calendar this September.

The Grizzlies (World Premiere)

Dir: Miranda de Pencier

“The Grizzlies looks at teens up north. It’s set in Nunavut, in a community plagued by teen suicides,” Gravestock said. “A teacher tries to get the teens to focus on starting a lacrosse team to sort of do a reset of what they’re focusing on and the discipline that you have to do when you’re playing sport. It’s quite an affecting movie, really very emotional.

“(Director Miranda de Pencier) has been working on it for a number of years. She’s working with two great producers, one of them the events took place in her hometown. It’s really driven by this amazing young cast. This film might be one of the emotional high points of the festival.”

Freaks (World Premiere)

Dir: Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein

“The film stars Bruce Dern and Emile Hirsch and a really great young actress (Amanda Crew). There’s a little more fantasy in the film,” Gravestock said. “It’s about this father and daughter, and they live in this dilapidated ramshackle house and they’re afraid to go outside. The daughter is bored and desperate to go outside, and the father finally nods off and she sort of slips out and finds this really strange world. It’s kind of an allegory about refugees, although it was started well before the crisis on the American border.”

Kingsway (World Premiere)

Dir: Bruce Sweeney

Kingsway is a really fun film about more mature desire. It’s about the collapse of this marriage and everybody around them starts questioning what’s going on in their life. The main character is wondering why there is no romance in her life,” Gravestock said. “It has that kind of sly sense of humour that percolates through Bruce’s stuff.”

Falls Around Her (World Premiere)

Dir: Darlene Naponse

“The film stars Tantoo Cardinal as a pop star who wants to escape it all,” Gravestock said. “She’s an amazing actress. I think this is one of the first films where she’s in virtually every shot.”

The Great Darkened Days (World Premiere)

Dir: Maxime Giroux

“The film is also kind of about refugees (and stars) Québécois actors who are chased by these hostile forces across the southwestern United States,” Gravestock said. “It’s really quite visually striking. It’s set in a vague, not very specific time period. It feels like the 1930s but other times it feels much closer to our time.”

The Fireflies Are Gone (North American Premiere)

Dir: Sébastien Pilote

“(The film is about) a girl who sort of lives in a small town that is fading. Industry has left town and she’s desperate to leave and is wrestling with that,” Gravestock said. “Her father left under a cloud of scandal. It’s really a smart movie, I wouldn’t say it’s unexpected, but it’s a very gentle film. It doesn’t come to easy solutions. (Director Sébastien Pilote) has had films play in a variety of festivals, a lot of key European festivals. He’s a very interesting filmmaker.”

Firecrackers (World Premiere)

Dir: Jasmin Mozaffari

Firecrackers is about this friendship between these two girls. They are graduating from high school and they live in this sort of bleak, very rural place. There’s very little opportunity afforded them,” Gravestock said. “One of them might be able to leave early and it kind of impacts the friendship. It’s really about female friendship. It’s shot in a really distinct way based on a short that (director Jasmin Mozaffari) did a couple years ago.”

Splinters (World Premiere)

Dir: Thom Fitzgerald

“A young adult comes back to deal with her father’s death. It’s set in rural Nova Scotia where they have a farm. She’s dealing with issues of sexuality and she comes back and the town has changed,” Gravestock said. “It’s quite different, and it’s done in a very smart way.”

Carmine Street Guitars (North American Premiere)

Dir: Ron Mann

“The film deals with this guitar shop in Greenwich Village. They make guitars out of buildings that have been torn down in New York,” Gravestock said. “The music is exceptional, but it’s also really about the constant threat of the shop being closed, because people want to sell the real estate. It’s a very gentle protest against gentrification.”

The Stone Speakers (World Premiere)

Dir: Igor Drljaca

“It’s about attempts to reinvigorate the economies of the former Yugoslavia, particularly Bosnia. The landscape is quite stunning, so it’s a really beautiful movie to look at,” Gravestock said. “There’s also a sly sense of humour that percolates through it. Some of these tourist sites are crazy and they tend to get crazier the more you get through the film. So there’s a subtle sense of humour running through it.”

For a full list of Canadian films scheduled at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), click here.

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Calgary Film 2018

Calgary Film interview: Keely and Du director Laurie Colbert

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Keely and Du, directed by Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert, is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Photo courtesy Dykon Films
Keely and Du, directed by Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert, is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Photo courtesy Dykon Films

Set to play at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 22, Keely and Du is a psychological thriller from directors Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film is the first from Cardona and Colbert in five years, coming after Margarita (2012), a selection at the 2012 Calgary film festival.

Colbert spoke with The Mutt prior to Keely and Du’s screening Sept. 22. This interview has been edited for length.

THE MUTT: When did you first become acquainted with the play?

LAURIE COLBERT: I first read the play 18 to 20 years ago. We followed the play for a long time, every two years (the answer would be), “No, no, no, no, no.” So I was pretty persistent. For us, we had to pitch Jane Martin, who wrote the play, and say, “Hey, we don’t want to set it in the basement. We want to confine her on an island.” But I don’t think we were mature enough to make it (at the beginning) anyways. I don’t believe we had enough chops to make this film back then.

TM: How do you feel your style has developed over the years and what themes have been most important to you?

LC: Well, we’re totally feminists. We’ve never wavered in that. (We started with) Thank God I’m A Lesbian, we followed that up with My Feminism with Gloria Steinem and bell hooks. I can’t believe there are so many colleges in the United States, like Harvard and Stanford, that use it in their first year feminist studies. So it’s a widely-known film in education. Thank God, not as much anymore, it’s had it’s day – there are better films on feminism now and there are better films on lesbians now. But there weren’t for 10 years.

TM: How does this film fit into that context?

LC: Oh, it fits in perfectly. My Feminism is about sex and abortion. Finn’s Girl, our first feature, that was about abortionists. Then we did Margarita, which is about a Mexican immigrant. That was maybe a deviation in the sense that it was about immigration and how we teach classism, and racism. So politically, very feminist. I think this is by far our most ambitious film, by a mile.

TM: You’ve been working on these themes your whole career. How have you seen these themes evolve in the culture and what statements did you want to make in this film? 

LC: I think it fits right in the zeitgeist. I don’t know if people want to watch something so pointed into the zeitgeist. Is that the ticket you want to buy, or do you want to go to Meatballs? So it will be interesting to see how it does. Even though I think the film is a character piece between the two women. It’s a psychological thriller dash it is a relationship piece. I think we have not ever deviated from the really feminist, women’s rights, and for us it was really about exploring, “Why do people have such extreme views?” – both of us really wanted to explore extreme sexism.

TM: What’s your pitch to folks to come out and see this film?

LC: I think if you’re religious, and don’t really question the dogma, and think, “Oh, I don’t believe in abortion,” what’s interesting about this film is you see what this person is going through and why she’s in the situation she’s in. Her context changes everything. Once she learns more context about what’s happened to her, I think she slowly starts to change. I think the film allows people to look at their own beliefs. I think if you come as a liberal, it’s not going to change much. But it is going to make you see how far people are going to go and how that’s going to make you feel. I don’t think our film is as poignant for Canadians, but I think it’s very poignant for the southern (United States).

Keely and Du plays at 4 pm on Sept. 22 at the Globe Cinema during the Calgary International Film Festival, and again on Sept. 26 at Eau Claire. For tickets, click here.

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Calgary Film 2018

Calgary Film interview: SuperGrid director Lowell Dean

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SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean, is set in a post-apocalyptic Canada rife with pirates and rebel gangs. Photo courtesy Lowell Dean
SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean, is set in a post-apocalyptic Canada rife with pirates and rebel gangs. Photo courtesy Lowell Dean

SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean (WolfCop, 13 Eerie), is set to make its World Premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival. He spoke with The Mutt prior to the Sept. 21 screening.

THE MUTT: Should fans of WolfCop and Another WolfCop expect something similar when they see SuperGrid?

LOWELL DEAN: I think it’s pretty different. I say it’s almost deceptive in a lot of the elements – obviously me directing it, Leo (Fafard) starring in it, Hugh (Patterson) producing it, and it being kind of a genre film. I would say it’s a gateway drug to something new, if you’re a WolfCop fan, because I jokingly say there’s still a lot of violence and a lot of people are going to die. This is a little bit different. It’s not nearly as out there. It’s something Hugh has been developing for a little while. I took it as a personal challenge to say, OK, I have a different script, I didn’t write this, so I’m going to make this movie. I’m not going to try and pervert it with my WolfCop weirdness.

TM: What did you think when you read the script? 

LD: It came at a good time for me because I was looking for something different. But I was worried because it’s very ambitious. SuperGrid had (about the same budget) as the first WolfCop film. The script that I read was going to be really hard to do for that budget level. Anytime you’re doing a movie that has multiple car chases, at least one or two explosions, shootouts involving a lot of characters, that’s not traditionally what you do with one million dollars. Usually it’s three people in a cabin. So I was hesitant, but also I can’t turn down Hugh. He’s so fun to work with. I just knew he was the kind of person people were going to go the extra mile for, myself included. So I just thought, “Let’s just do it. Let’s embrace the spirit of the original Mad Max with 17 days in Saskatchewan on prairie roads and in weird abandoned warehouses.”

TM: How did the backdrop of Saskatchewan contribute to the world of the film and did it take the film in different directions than you expected?

LD: I mean, we always wanted it to be a desolate landscape. I would say the only kind of weird thing is we shot this in summer in Saskatchewan and it was just beautiful. We should have been making a Hallmark movie. We had a great production design team and we would go out of our way to find abandoned towns and gas stations. It became more about smart filmmaking versus, we can’t walk in and say, “Let’s design these great buildings.” It just became what’s the grossest, weirdest place. People would be like, “Check out this scrap yard!”

TM: Did you draw inspiration from Mad Max? How did you differentiate this film from the genre while still paying homage?

LD: I am a fan of the genre, but I actually was probably the biggest proponent of running in the opposite direction. So much of what I saw on the page and the idea was Mad Max. I was pushing to make it a western, truthfully. I just said, for me, I’m making a western, it’s set in the future, it just as well could have been the 1800s except we wouldn’t have these cool gadgets and cars. I just made it about people trying to do the right thing, everybody is against you, it’s a corrupt world. It’s an easy thing to just be like, “whatever,” but a handful of people are backed into a corner and have the chance to do something good. They have to look inside themselves and say, “Well, damn it, I guess we have to do this thing.”

TM: Is that a philosophy you’ve been thinking about yourself lately? Or is that something you noticed in the script and latched onto?

LD: I think we definitely pushed to put it in there more. It’s obviously a film of its time. A perfect example is, we do have a border wall in our film between Canada and the States, so you can imagine where everyone’s heads are at. We still want it to be, on the surface, a very fun film, but I think especially after doing the two WolfCop films – which are absurd, ridiculous, really fun – I wanted to make a movie that I feel had a voice and maybe something a bit weightier to say, even if its in the guise of two brothers driving down the road, shooting guns. So I hope there’s a message there that people can connect to.

TM: Why would you encourage people to check out the film tonight?

LD: I think the biggest selling point for this film, is not only is it a truly Canadian film, it’s a truly Saskatchewan film. You don’t often see the prairie provinces reflected on the big screen, let alone, you know, this isn’t two people sitting in a room talking, this isn’t two people baling hay. This is war and violence and machine guns and blood and chaos. It’s not going to feel like homework, but you’re going to do your part and say you saw and hopefully enjoyed a kick-ass Canadian film.

SuperGrid makes its World Premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 21 at 9:45 p.m., before playing again Sept. 23 at 12:30 p.m. For tickets, click here.

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Calgary Film 2018

Letter from Masanjia traces the origin of historic SOS note

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Letter from Masanjia was directed by Leon Lee, who also was behind 2014's Human Harvest.
Letter from Masanjia was directed by Leon Lee, who also was behind 2014's Human Harvest. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Productions

When Oregon resident Julie Keith brought home a graveyard kit from Kmart in 2012, she took with her an item not typically associated with holiday decoration – a desperate letter stuffed inside the packaging by a political prisoner in China.

“Sir,” the letter read, “if you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Association. Thousands people here who are under the persicution (sic) of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

The letter provoked a firestorm of coverage and led to significant debate on the state of human rights in China. One individual who saw those reports was Vancouver-based director Leon Lee, who moved from China to Canada to attend school at the University of British Columbia. Previously having completed the 2014 documentary Human Harvest, Lee said the situation depicted in the letter resonated with him given his familiarity with the human rights situation in China.

“The name (Masanjia) really stood out for me, because I knew it as the most notorious labour camp in China. I knew that if there was a letter coming from it, I knew there had to be an amazing story behind it,” Lee said. “All the questions that came to my mind – what happened to this person? Is he still alive? Where is this person?”

Lee’s journey to find the letter writer resulted in the feature-length documentary Letter from Masanjia, which is set to play at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 22 and 23. All told, it took Lee around three years to track the writer down – Sun Yi, a Chinese engineer who had been jailed for his spiritual beliefs.

Letter from Masanjia follows Sun Yi, a man who had been held as a political prisoner in Masanjia, a notorious labour camp. Above, he holds the letter that provoked a firestorm of coverage after a Oregon resident found it included with Halloween decorations purchased at KMart. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Productions.

“Apparently he had heard about me through my previous work. He trusted me,” Lee said. “He wanted to take the risk to make the film, because I couldn’t go back to China safely due to my previous films.”

After completing Human Harvest, it became clear to Lee that he was no longer welcome in China – while there was no official statement from the government, he said that state-run media labelled him as a traitor. So, to complete Letter from Masanjia, Lee had to train Yi on how to use a camera.

“We had to communicate through Skype and I had to train him on how to use cameras and all the equipment,” Lee said. “We had to work out a plan to pull it off. So it was very challenging and risky. But in the meantime, it was very meaningful.”

Utilizing secret camera footage, Letter from Masanjia takes viewers directly into the brutal and frightening world of a political dissident in modern China. The film also utilizes animations as reenactments of life in Masanjia, based on Yi’s own concept artwork.

“He really liked traditional Chinese graphic novels. He learned to draw the figures when he was a little boy,” Lee said. “So he kept a sketchbook. When I saw it, I was so thrilled. I thought, this is exactly what we can use as reenactment.”

Lee said Letter from Masanjia is a “real live message in the bottle story,” telling of an SOS note travelling from the labour camp, over the Pacific Ocean, all the way to the United States.

“Yi is a gentle, soft-spoken engineer who has unbelievable strength in the face of a difficult situation,” Lee said. “(The film shows) how people from different countries come together to really bring change. From the viewer feedback so far, most people find it incredibly moving and inspiring.”

Letter from Masanjia plays September 22 and 23 at the Calgary International Film Festival. Director Leon Lee will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A at both screenings. For tickets, click here.

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