Documentary fans can answer the call of the wild as the 2022 Whistler Film Festival kicks off November 30. The festival in BC’s mountain town returns in a hybrid edition with a robust slate of Canadian and international films. Whistler’s executive director Angela Heck notes in an interview with POV that this year’s event marks the third iteration in terms of finding the right format for the festival circa COVID. After a well-received virtual edition in 2020, Whistler adapted to a hybrid form in 2021. “We squeaked in between the variants of COVID and were unfortunately challenged by some environmental factors in BC that included floods and landslides that completely cut the province off to the east,” says Heck regarding last year’s festival. “But we had a steady group of local supporters and people in theaters there, as well as online for throughout the month of December.”
Heck notes that finding new methodologies amid COVID-related challenges inspired aspects of this year’s festival. “We brought in some key things that stay with us today,” explains Heck. “One of them is that to support artists in those times, we did revenue splits 50/50 with the filmmakers. That was a very welcome initiative for us.”
After in-person screenings, industry events, and parties wrap on December 4, online screenings run nationwide through January 2. Many of the festival’s films will be available on the platform. Whistler’s director of programmer Paul Gratton explains that Whistler chose an extended screening window for the online iteration to take advantage of the holidays, and to acknowledge the challenges that exhibitors face with the busy holidays. “We’re trying to focus on that juicy week between Christmas and New Year’s where you have a huge available audience stuck at home looking for entertainment alternatives,” notes Gratton.
Hockey Docs Face Off
Besides the marquee screenings of the Borsos Canadian competition, which features thirteen dramatic titles, audiences across Canada can sample some of the documentary slate. Highlights on the documentary front at Whistler this year include Offside: The Harold Ballard Story. Directed by actor-filmmaker Jason Priestley, Offside chronicles the tumultuous rise and fall of the controversial owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Whistler offers the world premiere of Offside after Priestley’s drama Cas & Dylan won the Audience Award at the 2013 festival.
“What will motivate people in Whistler to go see Offside is probably a deep and countrywide hatred of the Toronto Maple Leafs,” laughs Gratton. “What will motivate people in Toronto to watch it will be a fascination with this curmudgeonly character who defined sports-going and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto for years.” The film features a who’s who of hockey figures dishing all aspects of Ballard’s brash business practices that defined the Leafs for a generation. (Check back for an interview with Priestley during the festival.)
Whistler also gets sporty with the hockey doc with Ice-Breaker: The Summit ’72 Series. The doc directed by Robbie Hart looks back at the 1972 hockey showdown between Canada and the Soviet Union that riveted a nation. The series features prominently in Offside as well, and audiences can see how Ballard’s efforts to squeeze every dime from the games proved as unpopular as some of the Canadian team’s stickhandling. (Read more about the film in this essay by Susan G. Cole.)
Also screening on the doc front is Out in the Ring by Ry Levey. The film, which won Best Canadian Feature at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBTQ Festival, spotlights queer athletes in pro wrestling and confronts the problematic homophobia entailed amid the super-macho showboating of the sport. “There’s an honesty to Out in the Ring that is refreshing and effective in conveying the nuances of the subject,” wrote Rachel Ho while reviewing the film for POV. “[I]t’s a conflicted love letter from fans, who acknowledge the sport’s misgivings, and ask for it to be as beautiful and exemplary as they know it can be.”
Double Doses of Peedom and Donard
Audiences looking for extreme sports will enjoy a double shot of adrenaline at Whistler. The festival features two documentaries from prolific French filmmaker Thierry Donard. His Reset offers a cinematic portrait of young people in the wild and their relationship with nature. Human Extreme, meanwhile, gets Whistler’s closing night slot with a North American premiere. It gives audiences a portrait of extreme athletes around the world and explores their passions and obsessions. “This French filmmaker is in his sixties and he’s still running around hanging from helicopters and doing extreme ski stuff—nothing seems to be holding him back. He’s still unbelievably active,” notes Gratton. “For people who are into extreme sports, both films are breathtaking.”
Audiences hankering for breathtaking cinematography, moreover, will find them in two films from Jennifer Peedom. The Sherpa director brings her majestic Mountain to Whistler, which offers stunning aerial shots of mountainous landscapes fuelled by narration by Willem Dafoe. (Read our review of Mountain here.) Whistler also screens Peedom’s latest documentary, River, which explores the relationship between human activity and bodies of water. Both of them have incredible drone footage but River‘s particularly interesting because it visits the great rivers of the world,” says Gratton. “From a bird’s eye view, it shows the effects of climate change on the local populations. It’s breathtakingly beautiful as all her films are, and there extreme sports inevitably get inserted into her films.”
Rock Docs and Canadians to Watch
Alternatively, music buffs attending Whistler in person or online can rock out with a duo of rockumentaries. Revival69: The Concert that Rocked the World, directed by Ron Chapman, revisits a landmark concert that struggled to sell tickets. The film tells how top rockers were tapped for an event at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, but until John Lennon agreed, folks didn’t bite. “That was John Lennon’s first post-Beatles appearance and Alice Cooper’s coming out party with the biting the head off the chicken,” says Gratton. “I’m really pleased to be showing this in Whistler. It’s a great documentary, but it’s obviously going to resonate with Toronto area people who may have lived through it.”
Whistler also hosts the big Canadian rock doc of the year, Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On. The film, directed by Madison Thomas, offers an engaging overview of the life and career of the Cree singer, songwriter, artist, and activist. Sainte-Marie headlines Whistler’s industry conversations with an hour-long conversation with Thomas and writer Andrea Warner, who penned the singer’s memoir.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On also appears in the Whistler spotlight series with Variety that marks ten Canadians to watch. The list taps the film’s composer, Métis artist Justin Delorme, among the new generation of talent. “I’m interested to hear from Justin’s perspective,” says Heck. “How do you compose for a documentary about Buffy Sainte-Marie and not be completely terrified?”
Diaspora and Hybrid Form
Heck adds that Delorme’s music fuels what is surely among the most unique films in Whistler’s line-up: Deco Dawson’s Diaspora. The film takes audiences to decaying corners of Winnipeg’s north end and follows a Ukrainian refugee, Eva, as she arrives and encounters fellow immigrants. The film unfolds the drama in 25 languages with subtitles appearing only when Eva understands the dialogue.
The film occupies a unique space in between fiction and non-fiction by drawing upon the experiences of its non-traditional cast. “A lot of the characters in the movie were people Deco found on the spot and just agreed to be filmed, so in that sense, there are documentary elements in it that helped structure that film,” explains Gratton. The fictional narrative allows Dawson to explore diverse immigrant communities, while Eva’s wanderings through the streets and shops shatter the idea of Canada as a welcoming port for refugees. “The use of architecture is incredible,” adds Gratton. “That is a documentary filmmaker’s eye that he brought to the cinematography.”
The Oscar Race at Whistler
On the other hand, the proximity of Whistler to the Oscar race makes it a final stop for festivalgoers before the shortlists drop. Besides a quartet of Netflix dramas—Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, and Alejandro Iñárritu’s Bardo—the real awards headliners of Whistler are documentaries. The festival screens Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which won the Golden Lion at Venice this year. The win was just the second for a documentary.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed chronicles the fight of photographer Nan Goldin as she endeavours to hold the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma accountable for profiting off the pain of others amid the opioid crisis. “It was mind-blowing,” says Gratton. “I think Laura Poitras’ film is one of the significant documentaries of the year. I can’t imagine that it will not be nominated for an Oscar for Best documentary.” (Check back this week for our interview with Poitras.)
Poitras’ likely rival for the Oscar, Toronto filmmaker Daniel Roher, will also make an appearance at Whistler. The Navalny director is on Variety’s list of ten talents to watch as well, although Whistler audiences should be familiar with Roher’s name since his previous film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, won the festival’s documentary prize in 2019. “It’s great to see the trajectory of this amazing documentary filmmaker on an international scale,” notes Heck. Navalny won the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year and is an Oscar frontrunner.
“That’s the message in the 10 Canadians to watch series,” adds Gratton. “These are people who have had some level of success in Canada, and we feel they’re ready for the next phase.”