If you thought that Canadian cinema consisted of dry, uninteresting stories that are meant to educate more than entertain, it’s time to check your head, and there’s no better time than the present to do so, eh?
Wednesday is National Canadian Film Day, which is a celebratory way of drawing attention to a cryptic problem. If you’ve ever watched a film then you’ve probably realized how important it is to tell stories on film, how many Canadians are big deals in the film industry, and how very, very, very few of the world’s 100 most popular movies are set in St. Albert. Or Moncton. Or Iqaluit. Actually, none of them are.
“Film is such a powerful medium to share our stories and our perspectives. I think it’s important – whether it be from St. Albert or from the greater Edmonton area or from Canada – that we share and experience our stories because they give us a more well-rounded perspective on how we’re thinking and the society we’re in,” stated aAron Munson, the St. Albert-based cinematographer and artist who recently was part of the Canadian Screen Award-winning documentary project Equus.
“It’s a window into how different people are thinking and perceiving the world. I think it’s important to have those perspectives to inform how you engage with your own world and the world around you. In that way, it’s a powerful medium to do that.”
If you missed watching Equus when it aired on TV, you can always go to www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episodes/equus-the-story-of-the-horse and watch it for free there.
The Film Day is meant to help change the tide so that more and more Canadians recognize and appreciate our national cinema, says Jack Blum, executive director of Reel Canada, the non-profit organizer of the annual event. He and his partner Sharon Corder started the annual event as a way to help foster national identity and to help Canadian pride to be stronger through the arts. They feel that cinema captures the soul of a nation.
“In Canada, and indeed in most places around the world, film that is other than Hollywood … has a very difficult time finding an audience just because no one can compete with Hollywood promotional budgets. As a result, we feel that Canadians are missing out. They’re missing out on the experience of getting to see themselves and each other on screen. And they’re missing out on being able to express their pride in the country through the experience of a really great Canadian film,” he began.
“We believe that cinema is powerful and it really matters to see our experiences together on screen. It’s also a way of expressing our love for the country, which we feel is widely shared, even though people don’t often get the opportunity to express it.”
The festival’s website at www.canadianfilmday.ca says the event is a massive one-day, “coast-to-coast-to-coast celebration of Canadian cinema” but it’s really much more than that. It’s a chance for one and all to gather around and trumpet the stellar accomplishments of our filmmakers and dream those silver screen dreams about all the stories that still need to be told in film.
The day is officially being celebrated at more than 1,000 locations in all provinces and territories. You can watch films on television, stream films online if you like, you can stop by the St. Albert Legion Branch No. 271 for a free screening of Edmonton-born filmmaker Paul Gross’s Passchendaele starting at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.
The St. Albert Public Library is hosting a free screening for its part, too.
You might remember the name Richard van Camp. The author of the celebrated 1996 novel The Lesser Blessed was the metro Edmonton regional writer in residence two years ago. He’s back with the film adaptation of his graphic novel Three Feathers.
It’s the story of three young Indigenous men, troubled troublemakers all, who find themselves having to face justice for their brutal crimes. Their sentence is unusual and spiritual: nine months of living on the land under the care of two elders. It’s a beautiful story that receives a beautiful treatment under the loving hand of director and co-writer Carla Ulrich. The film examines the possibilities of restorative justice but it does more than that. It fully embraces its multicultural “Canadian”ness with an unprecedented production.
The 44-minute movie was simultaneously made in four languages: Bush Cree, Chipewyan (Dëne Dedliné), South Slavey (Dene Yatıé) and English. Some scenes also include American Sign Language.
“We’ve researched multi-language filming and as far as we can tell, Three Feathers is the first film in cinematic history to be filmed and produced in four separate languages,” said producer Brent Kaulback. “The actors learned and spoke their lines in all four languages, three of which are Indigenous.”
Astonishingly, it was also filmed primarily outdoors during all four seasons (“from -42 C to 30 C”) in Fort Smith, N.W.T., a small town located on the Slave River. Its cast was comprised mostly of amateur local actors with mostly local production team members.
“In fact, the film represents a great leap forward in Indigenous storytelling and filmmaking as more than 90 per cent of our cast and crew are Indigenous.”
The budget was also raised unconventionally through organizations and private donors including local Aboriginal groups and the local school board.
On top of all that, it’s a powerful and moving story about redemption and refinding one’s spirit by connecting to the land through the guidance of elders. The movie made me want to live inside it and be immersed in the generous community they created.
The National Canadian Film Day screening of Three Feathers (English version) takes place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18. Richard Van Camp will be present for the event. The film is rated PG-13 for harsh language and violence. The presentation will take place in Forsyth Hall at the library. Seating is limited so people are requested to save their seats in advance. Check sapl.libcal.com/event/3478079 for details.
If you miss it there, you can still catch it when it will be screened as part of the Dreamspeakers International Film Festival at the Metro Cinema at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 28. Many cast and crew members will be on hand for that event.
If it’s true stories of the north that you’re after, then a new film from Miranda de Pencier opening this Friday (still within the ballpark of National Canadian Film Day at Scotiabank Theatre in West Edmonton Mall) will surely hit the spot. The Grizzlies is based on real events of a white teacher named Russ Shepherd who arrives in the small Nunavut town of Kugluktuk and brings the wonders of Canada’s national sport with him. He doesn’t realize that lacrosse does more than build teams; it also helps the community to rise out of the downward spiral of having the highest suicide rates in North America.
The ball started rolling when the director saw the story on TV news and reflected on her own life.
“I’m always really inspired by stories about people overcoming challenges whatever their circumstances. This story in particular was deeply moving to me personally, and hit me to my core,” she began, offering a note about the depression she experienced as a teenager.
The prescription to help her situation wasn’t a pill; it was shaped more like a basketball.
“Sports really helped to save me in my high school years. Seeing this ESPN news piece about these amazing kids and this amazing teacher, and seeing that these kids were able to deal with this legacy of colonialism and overcome their issues through this team that they that they built with their coach was just remarkable and beautiful and inspiring.”
Honestly, if this wasn’t based on a true story then we would be having a much different conversation about the impact of colonialism. The white saviour narrative – the foreigner who becomes the hero – has been done many times before and is probably no longer relevant in a progressive, reconciliatory society.
“Those kids were dealing with so many challenges, internal and external. To see the power of what can happen when they were able to come together and overcome to transform their lives and their community was just beautiful to witness. I think sports can be incredibly profound for young people and there’s many reasons why I think this particular program was successful. I think one was that Russ Shepherd really believed in those kids, and respected them and empowered them to lead the program themselves. That built a tremendous sense of pride and purpose.”
Thankfully, the tale is not burdened in that way and we can revel in the heartwarming story that gets even better in knowing more about the production, which, like Three Feathers, says much about the northern filmmaking community. More than 600 youths from the Arctic auditioned for roles and one-third of the crew was Inuit (including two of the producers). The soundtrack is superhot with the musical stylings of Indigenous hip-hop artists including 2019 Canadian Screen Award winners Dan General (DJ Shub), Thomas Lambe (666God), and Adam Tanuyak (Hyper-T). The film is also on the home stretch of a three-month northern tour, screening through 33 remote Indigenous communities from Kugluktuk to Yellowknife and beyond till the end of May.
At this point, Canadian film is on a serious hot streak with “serious” being the operative word. You might remember Calgary director Gary Burns for his 1997 slacker comedy The Suburbanators or 2000’s Waydowntown, a quirky look at every office drone’s challenge of working and living without ever going outside, all thanks to the interconnectedness of buildings. It’s a Canadian classic.
After a period of working in television, and a period of being away from the industry, he’s back with a sombre story called Man Running set against the backdrop of a 100-mile ultramarathon. One man in the race has more to overcome than just the mountainous landscape. He’s a doctor dealing with the emotional, psychological and spiritual repercussions of participating in the medically-assisted death of a terminally ill teenager, a decision also taken against the parents’ wishes. His race is filled with exhaustion, hallucinations, injuries, and all the ups and downs of such an extreme sport.
What would prompt Burns to write (with the help of his wife Donna Brunsdale) and direct some decidedly more challenging content than what he’s mostly known for? I could see the ultramarathon subject but in a film starring Don McKellar perhaps.
“It’s a difficult subject. It's my first straight drama, too. My films are generally a bit lighter. All my stuff has got some issue behind it that’s more serious, but yeah, this one’s full on heavy drama,” he began.
“Initially, we were looking at ultramarathons because I knew what kind of budget level I was dealing in and I have a neighbour who runs ultramarathons. I was quite intrigued. The process of finding a story that would fit into the ultramarathons took a while. I also went through a dark period. I was struggling to make films for a few years there and I was actually having some mental health issues. MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) came out around the same time as we’re starting to put this project together [Donna and I] had both just dealt with a parent dying and they were a generation where you just don’t talk about death. Those things all came circling around and then when it actually came time to writing the screenplay, there’s a guy running a race and he’s in a crisis. What’s that crisis? These were issues … that were right at the front of our experience and where we were at mentally. What I really liked about the idea, too … is this idea that you’re running and you’re running through different scenarios. Where does your head go? That’s a real cinematic thing.”
It is marvellously cinematic and not just because the mountains offer high production value on a low budget. Watching the runner struggle with his thoughts is very relatable.
The film comes to Metro Cinema for a screening at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 26. OK, this is out of the Film Day celebrations, but it’s Canadian film and it’s important. Burns will be doing a Q&A after the film.
If you prefer easier, lighter fare at the Metro Cinema, then you should plan a night out early next week. Edmonton writer/director Brandon Rhiness has a stoner comedy that might just make you think of your own misspent youth. The film focuses on an adult house party with intersecting plot lines revolving around a car in the garage where many of the guests sneak out to partake in legal cannabis.
It’s super low budget but it’s made in Edmonton and any of the actors and production team could be your neighbours.
“I wanted to do a low budget, the smallest movie I possibly could. I wanted to do a comedy. So I brainstormed some ideas. I always wanted to do a stoner comedy,” he explained, noting how he didn’t much care to repeat what Dazed and Confused did.
He just felt like it hadn’t been used to its full potential. That, coupled with how he wanted to do his own Edmonton indie entry of the sub-genre rather than a bombastic Hollywood version.
“It turned into having a way bigger scope than originally planned. Originally, it was going to be maybe 10 to 12 characters. In the end, we had 58 speaking roles and dozens of extras. So it kind of took on a life of its own and became a lot bigger than originally planned, which I think is a good thing.”
Some of the characters include the shy guy with a crush, Goth girls, the super religious folks, young numbskulls, an adult film star, a tattooed heavy metal rocker and a serial killer. There’s more than enough goofiness to get the giggles over in this one.
He added that he actually doesn’t much care for the term “stoner comedy”. It isn’t actually the macguffin that moves the plot forward, only something that occurs often enough during the movie and frequently enhances the silliness of the proceedings. There’s no other social commentary that comes with it.
It premieres on Tuesday, April 23, at 9:30 p.m.
Edmonton filmmaker Akash Sherman got his start doing some great special effects work on Wolf Cop, another Canadian classic but of a different genre. With the tech strong in his CV and a burning desire to tell human stories filled with wonder, he brought us 2015’s The Rocket List, a movie that still lingers in my thoughts to this day. It’s not that it has the greatest actors or that the plot holds up, but the last image is tender and resonant and entirely computer generated. I tip my hat deeply to any who can accomplish that with $7,000, especially those, like Sherman, who are still under 30.
His new work touches just as deeply and broadly. Clara is about an astronomy professor with a dreadful personal life but an overarching desire to find other life in the universe. He meets Clara and together they work to discover that critical proof somewhere out there. I won’t spoil the rest of the movie because the whole point is that you must see it to be touched by it, too. The film had a limited theatrical run back in the fall, but now it’s available to rent and purchase digitally on iTunes, GooglePlay, Cineplex Store, and on demand via Rogers, Bell, Shaw, Telus, Cogeco and Eastlink. Next month, it hits the U.S. market.
Clara, as it turns out, was his Ryerson film school project.
“I have to admit I was a little bit bored with the curriculum at the time and I just wanted to jump ahead and write a feature screenplay,” he said. “And so I did that in the summer after first year.”
He then pitched it to producer Ari Lantos who connected with the material.
“I think we both wanted to make something with high concept ideas of space in the universe but grounded in a very human drama, a human story.”
They did just that. Even more remarkably, many of the special effects weren’t created by Sherman. They were public domain images straight from NASA and they fit in perfectly. Behind the scenes, the movie works so well that Sherman and Clara received an unprecedented film review in Scientific American magazine.
For full interviews with these directors, visit the Gazette’s website at www.stalberttoday.ca.