By JOHN SEMLEY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, February 16, 2018
BERLIN -- Thirty-five thousand feet in the air is a difficult place to get much done. Unless you're in business class, sleeping is a no-go. Reading, too, is tricky in light that is either too dim or so blinding that you make yourself a nuisance to fellow travellers. Beyond the prospect of attending to some serious drinking, one is left to wade through the on-board, in-flight entertainment.
Odd - and utterly pleasant - then, to find Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf among the skim of C-grade Hollywood trash bundled for in-flight viewing on my flight to Berlin. The 2016 Cape Breton-set microdrama about a young couple struggling with addiction, to opiates and each other. And particularly auspicious given that both McKenzie and your wily cub reporter are set to converge in the German capital for the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale).
Canadians from across the country converging in a European capital in mid-February, trading the prospect of a brutally cold winter for a slightly less brutally cold and drizzly one. Serendipity? Fate? Carefully choreographed industrial manoeuvring? One is reminded of the immortal words of former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, on the eve of German reunification: "Now we are in a situation where what belongs together, will grow back together."
It may sound hopelessly Canadian, in that desperate, "Hey, us, too!" way, but it's true all the same: Canada is angling to make a major impact at the 68th Berlinale. In addition to the 17 Canadian films slotted into the fest's various programs - including the European premiere of perennial Cancon avant-pop oddball Guy Maddin's latest work with codirectors Evan and Galen Johnson, The Green Fog - Canada has also been christened the "Country in Focus" at the European Film Market, the Berlinale-adjacent industry trade show and networking event. There, more than two dozen Canadian titles are looking to ink lucrative international distribution deals.
That media materials tie Canada's "Country in Focus" designation to the "Canada 150" celebrations, which happened last year, hardly seems to matter. But it nonetheless speaks to a truth about Canadian filmmaking: Our films seem to trump up more serious interest abroad than at home. And it is genuinely thrilling to see Berlinale audiences of critics and potential buyers queue en masse for Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky's Interchange, an arty and abstracted portrait of a working-class Montreal borough. (It's especially encouraging when I remember barren TIFF media screenings of ostensibly "major" Canadian films such as Alanis Obomsawin's We Can't Make The Same Mistake Twice and Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie's Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves.)
Beyond well-attended early screenings at the 2018 Berlinale, Canadians are also well represented in the annual Berlinale Talents summit. There, they're likely to be buoyed by the attention afforded Canadian talent.
"It is true that Canadian and Quebec cinema attract elsewhere," says 36-year-old Québécois filmmaker Philippe David Gagné, who is taking part in this year's Berlinale Talents activities.
"We might have a mythology that is more apparent elsewhere, maybe it is the winter, the cabane au Canada or simply because we have more great films per capita than many other places. Who knows?" Gagné has noticed the reception of Canadian films at festivals differs from that in cinemas, where homegrown movies typically struggle against the block-booked American studio fare.
"It seems that Canadian cinemas have a preference for American films," says Reem Morsi, an Egyptian-Canadian UN humanrights worker cum filmmaker and Berlinale Talents veteran, who took part in the program in 2012 and returns this year. This year, Morsi is taking part in the Berlinale's "Script Station," which offers her the opportunity to develop a screenplay with professional mentorship. In addition to nurturing talent from Canada and elsewhere, the Script Station and other Talent Lab workshops provide further showcases for emerging directors, writers and other creative professionals.
"Our projects also receive attention and exposure internationally," she explains, "through networking and the talent directory."
Beyond the trade-show booths and Beck's-lubed hobnob soirées of the European Film Market, Canadian films are also well-positioned on screen at the 2018 Berlinale. In addition to a big-ticket project by Maddin (whose acclaim in the hothouses of European cinema eclipses that at home) and the Johnsons, there's Jean-François Caissy's First Stripes. A vérité documentary in long, institutionalized tradition of Canadian cinema (think: the NFB, Allan King etc.), First Stripes immerses the viewer inside a Canadian army training camp where new recruits are whipped into shape against the workaday backdrop of suburban Quebec.
While the barking mad drill sergeant routine has become a cliché of American cinema, First Stripes offers something entirely different, something distinctly Canadian: a tightly run military operation that functions more through mannered shaming and passive aggression than direct intimidation. As privates are dressed down for not being cleanly shaven, they struggle to suppress smirks. (Admittedly, the close-quarters of Caissy's cameras likely do little to ease the tension.) Viewers, too, may be unable to contain their amusement at the very idea of "Canadian military efficiency" - of a country reputed worldwide for peacekeeping, politeness and a fancifully besocked Prime Minister asserting its military seriousness.
But the patent absurdity of First Stripes belies a creeping sinisterness. It's a film that turns all the fuzzy clichés of Canadians as peacekeeping pacifiers inside out, projecting a darker image of the country abroad and reflecting that same image back at the country itself. Ours may be a stubbly, pimply, faintly ludicrous warrior class - but it's a warrior class all the same.
Granted, there's little chance that massive audiences at home or abroad will pack cinemas for weeks-long runs of documentaries about Canadian military rites of passage or experimental portraits of struggling Montreal bedroom communities. The reality may be that Canadian cinema has never been a massively popular cinema, despite the anxious hand-wringing of bureaucrats sweating issues of national identity and worst efforts of creatives to cop popular genre styles. And outside of the United States, India and mainland China, relatively few countries manage to establish an authentically populist filmgoing culture.
Among discerning cinephiles (and, hopefully, international buyers) the interest in Canadian films is there. Like a beaming gap-year backpacker traipsing across the continent with a Maple Leaf stitched to their baggage, Canadian cinema sometimes seems even more at home abroad. While the dispersed mass that constitutes the Canadian public may never take a keen interest in Canadian national cinema, many of our finest films will always find homes and audiences - whether in a crammed cinema in Berlin's bustling Potsdamer Platz or a claustrophobic Air Canada flight arcing across the Atlantic at 35,000 feet.
Jean-François Caissy's vérité documentary First Stripes, screening at the 2018 Berlinale, immerses the viewer inside a Canadian army training camp where new recruits are whipped into shape in suburban Quebec.