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VIFF’s Future//Present expands its view of what Canadian cinema can be

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Shot in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, director Igor Drljača's The Stone Speakers is set to play as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival's 2018 Future//Present series. Photo courtesy Timelapse Pictures
Shot in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, director Igor Drljača's The Stone Speakers is set to play as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival's 2018 Future//Present series. Photo courtesy Timelapse Pictures

Anyone who has been paying attention to Canadian cinema in recent years will have noticed a major shift in where the attention is going. Over the last half-decade, Canada has developed (or redeveloped) a new definition for its art cinema, often dubbed the New Canadian Cinema. Though this movement has existed for some years, its main festival support system has only emerged recently.

Now entering its third year, the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Future//Present has become the annual hotbed for what is most exciting in Canadian cinema that year. In its brief existence, the section has helped launch new works by some of the most impressive talent ever to come out of this country: Sofia Bohdanowicz, Ashley McKenzie and Antoine Bourges, to name a few. This time around, Future//Present aims to expand its view of what Canadian cinema can be.

Two prime examples in redefining Canadian cinema come in the form of The Stone Speakers and The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs, a pair of films that both approach the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina in distinct ways. The Stone Speakers comes from director Igor Drljaca, making his documentary debut after a pair of narrative features. In the film, Drljaca pairs images of the nation’s burgeoning tourist industry with various voiceover narrations that recount the history of the country through these landmarks. Through these two devices, modern images and detailed history, Drljaca finds a way to bridge the past with the present, while also examining the nation’s conflicts between religion, politics and economics.

In The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs, Bojan Bodružić takes a more intimate and personal approach to the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ostensibly a documentary about his grandparents spanning a decade and a half, Bodružić uses their stories to paint a portrait of a nation that has gone through turmoil. Essential to the film is the manner in which Bodružić makes the viewer aware of and comfortable in the family living space, the space where most of the film is set. Images of a nation ravished by war are paired with recollections and memories, setting the context for the film that follows. Though much of the film can be seen in relation to the nation it takes place, the scope of the film extends beyond just a history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The film also operates as a mediation on the passing of time, seen through the slowly aging subjects, as well as the various mediums used for recording. In the end, Bodružić returns to the images of the house, a house that carries the weight of history, presenting the intrinsic connection between the personal and the national.

Continuing on the documentary front, first-time director Aïda Maigre-Touchet’s Song of a Seer proves one of the greatest artistic statements in this year’s Future//Present section. Shot with great intimacy, Song of a Seer is a portrait of Haitian artist and intellectual Dominique Batraville. In its early scenes, Song of a Seer bears a striking resemblance to the films of Straub-Huillet, as Maigre-Touchet films Batraville reciting a series of texts and songs. As the film progresses, Maigre-Touchet finds her own voice in making the film. Much attention is given to Batraville’s home, a tight space brimming with knowledge, as books clutter every corner and pour out of the shelves. Despite the film’s tight focus on Batraville as the subject, there is a a strong sense of universality to the film, especially in its meditation on the self. Eschewing any traditional documentary traditions, Maigre-Touchet’s minimalist glimpse into the mind and life of Batraville is as artistically exhilarating as it is pensive.

The only director to make their return to Future//Present this year, Andrea Bussmann, makes her solo directorial debut with Fausto, following 2016’s collaboration with Nicolás Pereda, Tales of Two Who Dreamt. Taking her camera to the Oaxacan coast, Bussmann presents a dreamlike story of ghosts and myths, all shot on video transferred to 16mm. Arguably the most dense and difficult work to screen in Future//Present yet, Fausto feels like a series of unsolvable riddles, a layered meditation on history through a series of tales that feel as if they have been passed down for generations. Fausto is a modestly ambitious film that demands a lot from its viewers, but those who can find the film’s rhythm will be rewarded tenfold.

Olivier Godin, arguably the only “veteran” filmmaker in this year’s Future//Present section, makes his first entry in the section with his fourth feature, Waiting for April. Much like his last work, 2016’s The Art of Speech, Waiting for April is once again an abstract cop comedy. Waiting for April is essentially a fantasy planted in the real world, replete with assassins, barbarians, a man with a gorilla arm and a much coveted singing bone. In the film’s emphasis on the use of shadows and the makeshift irises, Waiting for April is as much-rooted in the traditions of early cinema as it is looking forward to the future of the medium. While The Art of Speech appeared to take direct cues from the later works of Jean-Luc Godard, Waiting for April is far less alienating, while retaining the core absurdity that helped make the former feature a rousing success. Much like Fausto, Waiting for April requires patience and a suspension of belief, but the simple pleasures of the film’s brutal absurdity make it one of the most instantly pleasurable films in this year’s Future//Present lineup.

Mangoshake marks the biggest risk to ever be taken by the Future//Present programmers. The first feature from director Terry Chiu embodies the spirit and aesthetic of lo-fi/DIY cinema like few films to ever play a major festival.  Telling the story of two rival food/beverage carts over the course of one summer, Mangoshake is a surreal and unpredictable consideration of suburban ennui. While the characters and their exploits in Mangoshake fully rest in the realm of suburban ennui, even the film itself feels birthed out of this concept; a group of bored suburban young adults coming together to make a low-budget film to occupy themselves. While this may not be the truth of the film’s genesis, everything about the film feels born out of this. Despite its rough around the edges look, the film is oddly poetic, allowing characters to reflect on their place in their community and the world at large. Above all of this, Mangoshake is side-splittingly hilarious. In the way it plays with expectations (if you can even have any with a film like this), in the characterization, in the physical comedy, Mangoshake is brimming with hilarity and sincerity.

The finest film to play this year’s Future//Present selection comes in the form of M/M, the feature debut from Drew Lint. What initially appears as a fairly innocuous tale of a man isolated in a new country quickly shifts into a a wild psychosexual thriller. M/M chronicles a tale of deep obsession through sleek, cool style. The film feels at once both cold and clinical as well as brimming with life. Lint’s style plays directly into the tense energy and unease of the film, building and exhibiting the characteristics of the characters at the centre of it. M/M is a terse, glossy peek into the world of love and infatuation, marking Drew Lint as perhaps the most exciting new filmmaker to emerge in 2018.

Another film dealing with obsession in its own right is Spice It Up, a collaboration between Lev Lewis and directing duo Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas. The film tracks a young film student working on a feature-length project. Through interaction with others, she receives the feedbacks and criticisms that drive her to obsessively tinker with her project. The film is largely built on an aspect of cringe, which is honed to elevate both the drama and the humour of the film. Spice It Up is equally an observation of the artistic process and a consideration of feeling alone and dejected in the world. The end result is a film that is both beguiling and bizarre, a truly singular work unlike anything to ever emerge within Canadian cinema.

As Future//Present has shifted its focus away from films confined within Canadian borders, the program has become all the richer for it. Every film laid out in the 2018 lineup feels significant in its own right, while the program is also using this year as an opportunity to help redefine what Canadian cinema is and can be. If the first two instalments marked the introduction of a slew of new English language Canadian directors, this year is largely about diversifying the voices on display in this platform. It marks the riskiest selection that has been curated yet, but the rewards are largely bigger and more exciting than ever.

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Honey Bee is a revealing look at human trafficking in Canada

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Honey Bee, directed by Rama Rau, stars Julia Sarah Stone as an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival.
Honey Bee, directed by Rama Rau, stars Julia Sarah Stone as an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival. Photo courtesy A71 Entertainment

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.

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Director Rob Grant on the tension (and dark comedy) of HARPOON

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From director Rob Grant (Mon Ami, Fake Blood), Harpoon will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival. Photo courtesy CUFF
From director Rob Grant (Mon Ami, Fake Blood), Harpoon will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival April 28. Photo courtesy CUFF

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.

Harpoon director Rob Grant said premiering the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 was a very validating experience. Photo courtesy CUFF

Harpoon director Rob Grant said premiering the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 was a very validating experience. Photo courtesy CUFF

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.

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There Are No Fakes is a shocking journey into the world of art fraud

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Directed by Jamie Kastner, There Are No Fakes is a shocking feature-length documentary that centres on the work of Norval Morrisseau. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions
Directed by Jamie Kastner, There Are No Fakes is a shocking feature-length documentary that centres on the work of Norval Morrisseau. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

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.”

Norval Morrisseau of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation was sometimes referred to as the "Picasso of the North". Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

Norval Morrisseau of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation was sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

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.

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