A closer look at TIFF’s Canadian selections

The festival's Canadian programmer Steve Gravestock talks the lineup's Western contingent and stellar first features.

One of the ways to measure the health of a national film industry is by how many emerging filmmakers are being supported and making great work, said TIFF senior programmer Steve Gravestock.

Of the Canadian films in this year’s lineup, nine of 28 are by first-time filmmakers, and the films they’ve created feature bold performances and “striking” visuals and tackle complex subject matter, he told Playback Daily.

“We were impressed with the level of skill, craftsmanship and audacity in dealing with a variety of subject matters,” Gravestock said, pointing to films like Wayne Wapeemukwa’s Luk’Luk’I, an “edgy,” nontraditional feature following Vancouverites living on the fringe of society during the 2010 Olympics; Sadaf Foroughi’s AVA, about a young girl coming of age in Iran; and Carlos and Jason Sanchez’s A Worthy Companion, a sinister drama about an unlikely and manipulative relationship between a runaway teen and a young woman.

Another indicator of a healthy industry, Gravestock said, is the number of emerging filmmakers that have moved on to second, third and fourth features. But, in an interview with Playback earlier this week, TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling said this remains a problem in Canada.

“Every year we have a crop of new young Canadian filmmakers, which is really rewarding to find that work,” said Handling. “The big challenge remains in Canadian cinema to take those first filmmakers and turn them into filmmakers with a career, who’ve got legs and who can actually continue to make films and have their films shown.”

While Gravestock admits that support for second films is harder to come by, he said it’s not a problem unique to Canada. “In a lot of countries there may be a kind of support that you get for your first feature that is not present for the second,” he said, adding that first features are often more intimate and scaled to budget, while filmmakers often want to shift to “a bigger canvas” for their sophomore films.

That said, the festival this year features several second and third features that Gravestock said his team is “really keen on debuting.”

He pointed to Kyle Rideout’s Public Schooled, the director’s second feature following 2015′s Eadweard. “The first film from Kyle and his producer Josh [Epstein] was a really interesting movie, but I think [Public] is much more confident in tone,” he said. “It’s really sharp and funny and bodes well for those guys.”

The film, which stars Judy Greer as an over-protective mother who home schools her son, is produced by Epstein and Rideout’s Vancouver-based prodco Motion 58 and backed by the CFC Features program and Telefilm.

Pat Mills’ Don’t Talk to Irene is also heading to the festival. The director’s third feature follows a young girl whose been ostracized in her high school, which Gravestock calls “gentler” than Mills’ 2014 feature, Guidance. 

There’s also Adam MacDonald’s sophomore effort Pyewacket, produced by Jonathan Bronfman and Victoria Sanchez-Mandryk, and Sean Menard’s second feature doc, The Carter Effect, exec produced by LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Drake and Adel Future Nur. 

Overall, Gravestock said he and fellow Canadian programmer Magali Simard were particularly impressed with the quality of performances in this year’s Canadian selections, calling out in particular Sheila McCarthy in Grayson Moore and Aiden Shipley’s debut Cardinals, Sandra Oh and Chinese actor Cheng Pei Pei in Meditation Park, and Sarah Gadon in Alias Grace. 

The Canadian lineup also features six films from Western Canada, the most the festival has ever had, said Gravestock. Those films are Kathleen Hepburn’s Never Steady, Never Still (Vancouver’s Experimental Forest Films and Christie Street Creative), Luk’Luk’I (from Vancouver director Wayne Wapeemukwa and producers Matt Drake and Spencer Hahn), Tarique Qayumi’s Black Kite (Vancouver’s Aquatinter Films), Kyle Rideout’s Public Schooled (Vancouver’s Motion 58), Matt Embry’s Living Proof (Calgary’s Spotlight Productions) and Mina Shum’s Meditation Park (B.C.-based Thoughts from the Asylum). 

“It’s always been a bit of a frustration for us. There’s a lot of talent out in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan and we don’t always get [to showcase it]. Some years are not as strong as others, but we’re really happy there’s been such a strong contingent from a group of filmmakers and a filmmaking culture that I think is sorely neglected particularly in eastern and central Canada.”

Image credit: George Pimentel for TIFF