Docs Stand Strong at Canada’s Top Ten

Photo courtesy of TIFF

By Pat Mullen

Documentaries stand strong at Canada’s Top Ten! Canada’s national art form gets a thirty percent share of the annual TIFF gongs as three documentaries are among the features listed as Canada’s Top Ten for 2015. Alan Zweig’s Platform winner HURT about fallen Canadian hero Steve Fonyo (read the POV interview with Zweig from TIFF), Mina Shum’s powerful historical exposé Ninth Floor (another POV interviewee), and Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard’s Omar Khadr portrait Guantanmo’s Child: Omar Khadr all make the cut. It’s especially nice to see HURT on the list (admittedly a shoo-in) since the film brought a significant achievement for Canadian film at TIFF when it won the inaugural Platform prize amidst a field of dramas and international films. Both Ninth Floor and Guantanamo’s Child (like HURT) are timely films that challenge the image of a rosy Canada, so it’s admirable that panelists want them to represent Canadian cinema.

Ninth Floor
Photo courtesy of TIFF

The inclusion of these three films shows that 2015 is a strong year for documentary. There are other great 2015 docs worth remembering, such as This Changes Everything, Al Purdy Was Here, How to Change the World, The Messenger, Sugar Coated, Finding Macpherson and Welcome to F.L., so Canadian docs could have held the majority of spots on the list. However, 2015 offers one of the stronger representations for docs at CTT in recent years. The dramatic front of the line-up is undeniably impressive and one can’t really find a reason to complain when films as great as Guy Maddin’s wild odyssey The Forbidden Room and Philippe Falardeau’s sharp political satire My Internship in Canada are on the list. (One should note that Canada’s current Oscar bid Felix and Meira was on last year’s list.)

Docs also find a decent showing among the shorts. Wayne Wapeemukwa’s Balmoral Hotel makes the list, while TIFF runner-up Bacon and God’s Wrath is one of POV’s favourite docs of the year. Ann Shin and her Oscar-shortlisted My Enemy, My Brother get another boost with a shout-out on the list. (Watch the film in full here.) TIFF, finally, does especially fine by POV for including Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson’s riotous doc Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton on the list.

Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton
Photo courtesy of TIFF

Horton, a defiantly funny behind-the-scenes doc about Paul Gross’s war drama Hyena Road, astutely appropriates the pomp of Gross’s drama as Maddin meditates upon the paradoxes of film funding in Canada that let a populist film like Hyena Road earn oodles of tax dollars while an auteur like Maddin shoots DVD bonus features as work for hire and plays a dead Taliban soldier as an extra. The film comes to the list after playing outside of the Official Selection at TIFF earlier this year, for it played at TIFF Lightbox during the Festival tucked away on a random screen between the gift shop and the Temple Grandin lines corralling moviegoers. The film’s appearance on the list shows the strength of its word of mouth power and critical support at TIFF. Moreover, raves about Horton consistently note its superiority to the film it (sort of) documents, which shows that Canadian audiences really do have an appetite for fresh ideas and innovative approaches to film and documentary in place of more conventional entertainment.

It’s also worth noting that Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton finds a place on Canada’s Top Ten, but Hyena Road does not. This year’s Canada’s Top Ten emphasizes the quality of the films themselves, rather than the names behind them. Names absent among the features are Deepa Mehta and Atom Egoyan, both of whom were in contention for Beeba Boys and Remember, respectively, although neither film ranks among their better works. Instead, the panel brings new voices like Stephen Dunn (Closet Monster) and Anne Émond (Les êtres chères) to the list and offers them some worthy exposure. Maybe the panelists also remain under the aura of Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton and agree that Canadian films should aspire to artistic invention, rather than buttery popcorn. TIFF earns a double-double for this year’s list!

Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival – Features

Closet Monster, Stephen Dunn, Ontario/Newfoundland
Release date: summer 2016
Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival
An East Coast teenager and aspiring special-effects makeup artist (Connor Jessup, Blackbird, 2012 TIFF Rising Star) struggles with both his sexuality and his fear of his macho father, in this imaginative twist on the coming-of-age tale from first-time feature director Stephen Dunn.

The Demons (Les démons), Philippe Lesage, Quebec
Released: October 2015
While Montreal is in the throes of a string of kidnappings targeting young boys, 10-year-old Felix is finishing his school year in the seemingly quiet suburb where he lives. A sensitive boy with a vivid imagination, Felix is afraid of everything. Little by little, his imaginary demons begin to mirror those of the increasingly disturbing world around him.

Les êtres chers (Our Loved Ones), Anne Émond, Quebec
Released: November 2015
The story begins in 1978 in a small town on the Lower St.-Lawrence where the Leblanc family is rocked by the tragic death of Guy, found dead in the basement of the family home. For many years, the real cause of his death is hidden from certain members of the family, his son David among them. David starts his own family with his wife Marie and lovingly raises his children, Laurence and Frédéric, but deep down he still carries with him a kind of unhappiness.Les êtres chers is a film of filial love, family secrets, redemption and inherited fate. Featuring 2015 TIFF Rising Star Karelle Tremblay.

The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, Manitoba
Released: October 2015
Honouring classic cinema while electrocuting it with energy, this grand ode to lost cinema begins (after a prologue on how to take a bath) with the crew of a doomed submarine chewing flapjacks in a desperate attempt to breathe the oxygen within. Suddenly, a lost woodsman wanders into their company to tell his tale of escape from a fearsome clan of cave dwellers, and we are taken high into the air, around the world and into dreamscapes, through spinning tales of amnesia, captivity, deception and murder, skeleton women and vampire bananas. Created with the help of master poet John Ashberry, The Forbidden Room is like a glorious meeting between Italo Calvino, Sergei Eisenstein and a perverted six-year-old child, with Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Maria de Medeiros, Jacques Nolot, Adèle Haenel, Amira Casar and Elina Löwensohn who comprise a cavalcade of misfits, thieves and lovers.

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr, Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard, Ontario
Release date: January 2016
Omar Khadr: child soldier or unrepentant terrorist? The 28-year-old Canadian has been a polarizing figure since he was 15. In 2002, Khadr was captured by American forces in Afghanistan and charged with war crimes, including murder. After spending half his life behind bars, including a decade at Guantanamo, Khadr is released. This is his story, in his own words.

HURT, Alan Zweig, Ontario
Release date: January 19, 2016
Toronto Platform Prize, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival
HURT is a documentary portrait of Steve Fonyo, who having lost his left leg to cancer, completed a fundraising run across Canada in 1985 at the age of 19. He was the youngest Canadian ever to receive the Order of Canada. The next 30 years, however, were even tougher than his legendary run: petty theft, larceny and drug addiction, until in late 2009 the Order of Canada was taken from him. Spend a year in the world of this one-time hero and see how the run has nothing — and everything — to do with his life.

Into the Forest, Patricia Rozema, British Columbia/Ontario
Release date: spring 2016
Two sisters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) struggle to survive in a remote country house after a continent-wide power outage, in this gripping apocalyptic drama by one of Canada’s most celebrated filmmakers.

My Internship in Canada (Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre), Phillippe Falardeau, Quebec
Released: October 2015
Guibord is an independent Member of Parliament representing a vast county in Northern Quebec who unwillingly finds himself in the awkward position of determining whether Canada will go to war. Accompanied by his wife, daughter and Souverain (Sovereign) Pascal, an idealistic intern from Haiti, Guibord travels across his district in order to consult his constituents and face his own conscience. This film is a sharp political satire in which politicians, citizens and lobbyists go head-to-head while tearing democracy to shreds.

Ninth Floor, Mina Shum, British Columbia
Release date: January 15, 2016
It started quietly when six Caribbean students, strangers in a cold new land, began to suspect their professor of racism. It ended in the most explosive student uprising Canada had even known. Over four decades later, Ninth Floor reopens the file on the infamous Sir George Williams Riot: a watershed moment in Canadian race relations and one of the most contested episodes in the nation’s history. Director Mina Shum (Double Happiness) locates the protagonists in clandestine locations throughout Trinidad and Montreal — the wintry city where it all went down. In a cinematic gesture of reckoning and redemption, she listens as they set the record straight.

Sleeping Giant (Le géant endormi), Andrew Cividino, Ontario
Release date: April 15, 2016
City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival
Spending his summer vacation on rugged Lake Superior, teenager Adam befriends Riley and Nate, smart-aleck cousins who pass their ample free time with pranks, vandalism and reckless cliff jumping. The revelation of a hurtful secret sets in motion a series of irreversible events that test the bonds of friendship and change the boys forever.

Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival – Shorts

Bacon & God’s Wrath, Sol Friedman, Ontario
In this short documentary, a 90-year-old Jewish woman reflects on her life’s experiences as she prepares to try bacon for the first time.

Balmoral Hotel, Wayne Wapeemukwa, British Columbia
A dance through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside serves as a haunting metaphor for the life of a First Nations sex worker in this powerful short documentary.

Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, Manitoba/Ontario
Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton is a strange, stirring behind-the-scenes look at Paul Gross’s new feature, Hyena Road. The film mixes deep contrast black-and-white expressionism with wry and raw western revisionism reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah, as it summons unwieldy, psychedelic energy from the main event.

Interview with a Free Man (Entrevue avec un homme libre), Nicolas Lévesque, Quebec
Several men are interviewed to get a job and make a new start in life. Through the questions put to them, the plots of their existence are revealed.

The Little Deputy, Trevor Anderson, Alberta
An uncomfortable moment between a father and his son is reassessed in this witty and memorable documentary short.

My Enemy, My Brother, Ann Shin, Ontario/British Columbia
Zahed and Najah are two former enemies from the Iran-Iraq War who become blood brothers for life. Twenty-five years after one saves the other’s life on the battlefield, they meet again, by sheer chance, in Canada. This emotional documentary story is a surprising affirmation of humanity that cuts across political borders.

Never Steady, Never Still, Kathleen Hepburn, British Columbia
Distressed and overwhelmed by the mistakes of his past, a young lease-hand returns from Alberta’s oil fields to his childhood home on Lillooet Lake, where he finds solace in the strength of his recently-widowed mother.

NINA, Halima Elkhatabi, Quebec
At 16 years old, Nina is helpless in the face of her four-month-old baby’s incessant crying. Without any escape from this new presence in her life, she ventures out from her tiny apartment into a working-class neighbourhood of Montreal for a brief escapade.

o negative, Steven McCarthy, Ontario
A young woman and the man who takes care of her find shelter in a roadside motel and take the necessary steps to feed her addiction.

Overpass (Viaduc), Patrice Laliberté, Quebec
Shorts Cuts Award for Best Canadian Short Film, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival
Police chase a teenager after he scrawls graffiti on an overpass for reasons only he understands. Patrice Laliberté’s deeply moving drama captures the power of self-expression in the midst of upheaval.

Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival – Student Shorts

Alia, Raghed Charabaty, Nova Scotia
A man recounts the last few moments before the death of his beloved, in this haunting and poetic glimpse into the flashpoint that started the Lebanese Civil War.

The Casebook of Nips & Porkington, Melody Wang, Ontario
In this delightfully imaginative animation, clues and charac¬ters literally jump off the page as two policemen investigate a mysterious crime.

Cupid, Maria De Sanctis, Ontario
Love becomes all the more complicated when Cupid falls for one of his targets, in this endearing twist on classical mythology.

Dysmorphia, Katherine Grubb, British Columbia
Both hand-drawn and 3D computer animation are used in this strikingly emotional exploration of the connections between body dysmorphic disorder, disordered eating and scoliosis.

ed, Taha Neyestani, Ontario
Ed is a quiet man who truly comes to life when he sets foot onstage as a nude figure drawing model, in this exuberant and beautifully rendered animation.

Menesetung, Kyle McDonnell, Ontario
Two siblings on a failed sheep farm in rural Ontario decide to escape their troubled home by stealing their father’s truck, but are unprepared for the consequences ahead.

Michi, Kaho Yoshida, British Columbia/Japan
In this mixed-media animation, Michi journeys into a brightly-coloured world filled with adventure and mysteri¬ous creatures — and leaves with a renewed self-awareness.

Ms. Liliane (Mme Liliane), Junna Chif, Quebec
Primary school teacher Liliane is distracted from her overly disruptive class as she anxiously awaits a phone call, yet comfort ultimately comes from an unexpected source in this assured and sensitively directed work.

Pretty Dangerous, Dan Laera, Ontario
This intimate portrait of Seleziya “Sparx” Esho finds the pro wrestler confronting a personal obsession and the strain it puts on both her body and her family.

Smoke, Kellen Jackson, Suzanne Friesen and Sasha Tomasky, British Columbia
Quin helps care for her ill mother and tends to the beehives on her family’s sprawling farmland, but after an unwelcome discovery must question her surreal and mysterious world.

The Canada’s Top Ten selections screen January 8 to 17, 2016 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Please visit for more information.