TIFF Canadian Announcement Forecasts a Great Year for Docs

By Patrick Mullen

The announcement of the Canadian film programming for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival forecasts one of the most promising doc lineups that the festival has had on the Canadian front of late. This year’s festival includes five feature documentaries, all of which are world premieres, and seven short documentaries amidst the overall slate of seventy-two Canadian features, shorts, and installations. New films from directors Mina Shum, Barry Avrich, Avi Lewis, and Brian D. Johnson offer a range of docs that add Canadian perspectives within the festival’s greater international scope.

“This is the highest number docs we’ve had in quite a while,” said TIFF Senior Canadian programmer Steve Gravestock in an interview with POV at the event. “It’s quite a spectrum with a number of hard-hitting social change documentaries.” Among the topical Canadian docs is Patrick Reed and Michelle Shepard’s Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr, which will give TIFF audiences the story of Omar Khadr’s life behind bars from his own perspective. “He’s the most intriguing character you’ll find anywhere in the festival,” Gravestock said of the polarizing Khadr.

Another notable newsmaker in the TIFF Docs programme is bestselling author and public intellectual Naomi Klein, whose book This Changes Everything receives an adaptation directed by her partner, Avi Lewis. Klein says that fans of her book should expect to see something new. “If [audiences] want a film that’s just the book with pictures, they’ll be disappointed. Our idea from the beginning was to ask ourselves, ‘What do books do well?’ and ‘What do films do well?’ and we decided to use the strength of each.”

This Changes Everything comes to the festival after a five-year production in which Lewis and Klein explored various approaches to give the book its own cinematic voice. “Documentary has far fewer footnotes. I did a word count on the entire narration and it was actually shorter than Naomi’s acknowledgments in the book. But that’s a constraint that’s actually quite a creative space,” said Lewis. “For a long time, I was trying to make a film that captures the depth and breadth of Naomi’s argument in the book. That’s a doomed experiment because it becomes wordy, it becomes dense, and it doesn’t serve the audience of a film that wants to be present every moment. The strengths of the book experience are different from the film experience.”

Klein adds that the film complements the book. “The cinematography is so beautiful and so rich,” she said. “A lot of what I write about is people going to enormous lengths to protect their land and water, and what the film does is take you to those places and show you those experiences in a way that’s difficult for a book to do.”

Gravestock adds that This Changes Everything brings a far more optimistic message than TIFF audiences often see in climate change documentaries. Lewis and Klein agree that offering a hopeful message inspires change. “We set out from the beginning to explode the genre,” said Lewis. “We feel that the scare-your-pants-off documentary on climate change has run its course. We’ve seen it, we’ve seen ourselves paralyzed with fear, and we’ve been paralyzed. What we’re seeing now is a kind of global environmental justice movement and that movement is not paralysed. That movement is optimistic.”

The TIFF 2015 Canadian docs also reflect an optimistic movement in the festival circuit that demands more diversity both in front of the camera and behind it. Several of this year’s documentaries credit female directors, including the National Film Board of Canada doc Ninth Floor, which marks the first feature documentary from Mina Shum. Shum has been a TIFF favourite since her debut dramatic feature Double Happiness earned a Special Citation for Canadian film and the Toronto Metro Media Prize at the 1994 festival. Gravestock notes that Ninth Floor is an especially exciting premiere for the festival since Shum’s Double Happiness is “one of the cornerstone movies of the 90s and was a breakthrough for actress Sandra Oh.” He adds that TIFF audiences will want to catch Shum’s first documentary feature because it is “visually striking” and recounts a “seminal event in Canadian history” with which viewers may be unfamiliar.

Canadian film buffs have another familiar name in the doc line-up with film critic turned filmmaker Katherine Monk, who makes her directorial debut with the short doc Rock the Box, which chronicles the story of Vancouver DJ/Playboy model Rhiannon Rozier. The Vancouver-based Monk, formerly a national critic for Postmedia and currently behind the website The Ex-Press, offers a film that could easily enjoy a chapter in the next edition of her book Weird Sex and Snowshoes: and Other Canadian Film Phenomena. Monk admits that this NFB production “isn’t the kind of film they usually make, but the movie asks a lot of important questions.”

“I think they [the NFB] were very brave in choosing to support this film,” Monk adds. When asked if her work as a writer filters into her filmmaking, Monk notes, “When I was researching and making the movie, I related to the element of Weird Sex and Snowshoes in which there was an empowered Canadian female. The central figure in my doc is a very empowered woman who is taking destiny into her own hands. She’s not letting people assign value of her outside of what she assigns to herself.”

Monk sits in good company in the Canadian film line-up with fellow critic/filmmaker Brian D. Johnson (Maclean’s), who brings his first feature, Al Purdy Was Here, to the festival. Johnson says that he first began working on the project when he was “conscripted into cutting a montage for a literary benefit” (Johnson is famous for his montages at the Toronto Film Critics Association annual gala awards dinners). After editing and produced the film shot at the benefit, the idea was spawned to shoot more material on the work and legacy of Canadian poet Al Purdy.

Johnson’s film brings a noteworthy element of celebrity to TIFF, not simply for his recognizable name in the director’s credit, but also for the roster of participants that includes Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Gord Downey, and Sarah Harmer. “We got virtually everyone we wanted,” Johnson says of the film’s impressive credits. Neil Young gave them the rights for “Journey Through the Past,” while Bruce Cockburn wrote his first song in two years for the film— a “six minute epic Canadian railroad trilogy of Al Purdy songs,” as Johnson describes it.

Like Monk, Johnson (who has previously made several shorts) says that stepping behind the camera offers its own rewards. He cites producing songs for the film with the talent as a great creative perk. “There’s something weird about a song, unlike a piece of writing—you can’t imagine it not existing,” he says. “If it’s a good song, like ‘Wild Horses,’ you can’t imagine that song not existing. That was the most thrilling thing, getting the musicians to step up.”

Gravestock adds that Johnson’s film “brings up a cultural nationalism that doesn’t really exist anymore. It pops up at festivals, but never gets discussed.” Taking a cue from Al Purdy Was Here, Gravestock suggests that a number of the Canadian docs “really question our place in the world.” Where Canada fits in to the larger international perspective is a question that doc fans will have to answer come September.

POV’s Fall 2015 issue includes an interview with Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein and a profile of Mina Shum’s Ninth Floor. Subscribe today to receive it as your first issue!

The Canadian documentaries announced so far for the festival are as follows:

Al Purdy Was Here
Brian D. Johnson, Canada, World Premiere
Al Purdy was Canada’s unofficial poet laureate, though he once admitted that he didn’t write a good poem until he was 40. He found his voice in an A-Frame cabin he built in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. Canada’s leading musicians and artists from Bruce Cockburn and Sarah Harmer to Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje come together to tell his story and celebrate his poetry.

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr
Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard, Canada, World Premiere
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 has been released. This is his story, in his own words.

Ninth Floor
Mina Shum, Canada, World Premiere
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.

This Changes Everything
Avi Lewis, Canada/USA, World Premiere
Seven powerful portraits of community resistance around the world lead to one big question: what if confronting the climate crisis is the best chance we’ll ever get to build a better world? Inspired by Naomi Klein’s international bestseller and directed by her partner Avi Lewis, This Changes Everything is an affecting and hopeful call to action.

Welcome to F.L.
Geneviève Dulude-De Celles, Canada, World Premiere
Welcome to F.L. portrays a community of teenagers navigating their environment and identities within their high-school world in a small town in Quebec. Learning to define themselves inside and outside school boundaries as they transition into the challenges of adulthood, they expose refreshing points of view filled with humour, philosophy and courage.

Short Cuts

Bacon & God’s Wrath
Sol Friedman, Canada, World Premiere
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.

The Man Who Shot Hollywood
Barry Avrich, Canada, World Premiere
In a town lit up by a thousand stars, Jack Pashkovsky practiced his art anonymously. By the time he was finished, he had brilliantly photographed hundreds of the biggest Hollywood icons from Garbo to Swanson. His collection of photographs have never been seen. Until now.

Amanda Strong and Bracken Hanuse Corlett, Canada, World Premiere
A young Indigenous female street artist walks through the city streets painting scenes rooted in the supernatural history of her people. As the alleyways become her sanctuary and secret gallery, her art comes to life, pulling Mia’ into her own transformation via the vessel of a salmon. This hybrid documentary uses animation and sound as a vehicle to tell the story of transformation and reconnection.

Caroline Monnet, Canada, World Premiere
Guided expertly by those who live on the land and driven by the pulse of the natural world, this film takes audiences on an exhilarating journey from the far north to the urban south. The fearless polar punk rhythms of Tanya Tagaq’s “Uja” underscore the perpetual negotiation between the modern and traditional by a people always moving forward. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) invited four talented and renowned Aboriginal artists to create a programme of works addressing Aboriginal identity and representation by reworking material in the NFB’s archives. This is the result.

Quiet Zone (Ondes et silence)
David Bryant and Karl Lemieux, Canada, Canadian Premiere
This film takes audiences deep into the world of those who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Combining elements of documentary, film essay and experimental film, David Bryant and Karl Lemieux — known for their work in the musical group Godspeed You! Black Emperor — weave together an unusual story in which sound and image distort reality to convey the suffering of these “wave refugees.”

Rock the Box
Katherine Monk, Canada, World Premiere
Electronic dance music (EDM) is now the most lucrative sector of the music industry but it’s dominated by men. To break that glass ceiling, a Vancouver-raised deejay named Rhiannon Rozier did something she never thought she’d do: pose for Playboy. Thanks to its impressionistic images, exhilarating montage and Rozier’s remarkable candour, this film tells the story of one woman who rocked conventions by owning her own image, her own voice, and her own box.

World Famous Gopher Hole Museum
Chelsea McMullan and Douglas Nayler, Canada, World Premiere
A portrait of Torrington, a fading Albertan farm town with a secret wish to be frozen in time like the taxidermied gophers that populate its world-famous tourist attraction.

*All synopses courtesy of TIFF