Whistler Film Fest Fetes 20 Years of Spotlighting Homegrown Canadian Content

Romanticized of late by disgruntled Americans enraged with President Trump and threatening immigration to its friendly northern neighbor, Canada has always held a significant spot in the zeitgeist of popular culture (Celine Dion! Justin Beiber! Ryan Gosling!). “Everything is better in Canada!” has been the ubiquitous trope echoing across the United States these past four years, with promises of socialized medicine, fresh, crisp air and a bounty of polite Canadians within reach across the border — if only those borders were open.

But aside from deeply entrenched stereotypes in the way of moose, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tim Hortons donuts, what do Americans truly know and understand about Canada?

The Whistler Film Fest, launching its 20th edition Dec. 1-20, has always emphasized its commitment to bolstering the global exposure for Canadian filmmakers — and, by proxy, Canadian cultural content. This year is no exception. With an online model in place due to the still-raging coronavirus pandemic — and screenings available all the way post-fest, through Dec. 31 —about 90 films directed, written by and produced by filmmakers representing 20 different countries will be stream during the course of the event. Of these, 71% are Canadian, with Canadian films making up 69% of features and 77% of shorts.

Films on tap include Matthew Bissonetter’s “Death of a Ladies Man,” starring Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Paré ; “Marlene” from director-producer Wendy Hill-Tout; and “Puppy Love,” which stars Hopper Jack Penn (Sean Penn’s son) as a mentally challenged 23-year-old virgin who gets bullied and works as a dishwasher. The film, which Penn junior co-produced, also features Michael Madsen and Rosanna Arquette.

“With over 70% of our titles being Canadian this year, as well as our commitment to share 50% of the revenues from all net ticket sales with the filmmakers or with the Canadian rights holders, our 20th anniversary edition celebrates the strength and resilience of the Canadian film industry,” says Paul Gratton, director of programming of the fest. “Our carefully curated film lineup … has something for everyone, and the high-quality films will more than satisfy our audience’s appetite for great Canadian and indie fare while supporting amazing homegrown talent during these difficult times.”

And while the Canadian films on the whole boast universal appeal, many also focus on themes or characters that explore the subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — differences between Canadian and other world cultures, including that of the United States.

Carl Bessai, whose drama “In Her City” premieres at the fest and is competing in the Borsos Competition for Best Canadian Feature, is a study on women living in three disparate locations in North America: New York, Los Angeles and Toronto.

While these female protagonists shared myriad “commonalities” says Bessai, as he explored how these women dealt with such pressing societal issues as age, body image and relationships, there were also areas of distinct contrast.

“It’s hard to overly generalize, but there are differences,” says Bessai. His “Normal” was nominated for original picture at the 2009 Genie Awards, which were given out by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television until 2012.

“Canada is very integrated into the United States culturally, so I don’t think anyone in Canada is thinking all that differently than someone in America about, say, who they want to be and what they want to do with their life,” he continues. “But what I did find interesting when making this film and getting to know these women in these three separate cities is the effect of these cities on people. L.A. is such a movie mecca, a pop-cultural hub, so there was a stronger uptick on how much a person was focused on body image, self-image, media image. And I know it’s such a cliche, but New Yorkers are so busy. It’s just such a busy city. New Yorkers to me, they seem to me to be incredibly educated. The level of discourse amongst New Yorkers is that something that I find so interesting, but the city is just always moving. And Toronto, I think people in general are a little more touchy-feely in Canada, a little softer, not quite as on the edge. I think people in Canada are just a little bit more familial, you could say.”

Canadians are also far more invested in presenting content representing the Indigenous communities, says Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Di Nonno is returning to Whistler film fest for the second time as a speaker at its Content Summit, focusing her address on issues pertaining to “gender parity,” equality and racial diversity in the Hollywood film industry.

“When it comes to the Indigenous people, they are so rarely showing up in global cinema, but in Canada, it’s very important that the Indigenous communities are included and represented,” says Di Nonno. “And I herald that.”

Vancouver-based filmmaker Kelly McCormack wrote and stars in drama “Sugar Daddy,” which explores the ideals of feminism and debunks taboo stereotypes of sex workers — specifically through its main character, a musician who becomes a “paid date” for older men to subsidize her artistic career. She credits the Canadian movie industry with helping to shepherd her project to the big screen.

The film, which screens opening night of the fest and is also competing in the Borsos Competition for best Canadian feature, is universal in its themes. But it’s still a direct product of an artist living, working and honing her craft in a country with a certain “progessive” outlook on feminism, McCormack says.

“This film, which is a music film at its core, was made in the Canadian system, and I took benefit from being born and raised a woman in this country,” she says. “It’s about a women who’s attempting to go down the rabbit hole of paid sex work and that topic definitely benefits from a more radical progressive feminist Canadian identity.

“The film is less focused on the active realm of sex work and more about how pervasive the idea of the sex economy is for the average woman who is waking up in the morning and getting out of bed,” says McCormack.

But “Sugar Daddy” also “counteracts” a collective sense of how “progressive” Canadians actually are.

“This film is also very wildly un-Canadian in terms of its sentiment and its lack of politeness,” she says. “And I hope that will be a warm welcome to not only Canadian but to a global audience at a global film festival. As Virginia Woolf famously said: a woman has no country.”

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