TORONTO — After Bruce Sweeney’s first feature, “Live Bait,” won the award for Canadian feature at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival in 1995, the director got on the phone to sign with the agent of his choice: He couldn’t get past the switchboard.
This year, Sweeney’s third feature, “Last Wedding,” is kicking off the festival. And today, Sweeney happens to be playing golf with the agent he tried to get on the horn years ago.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” he says of the rejection, “because I’ve had a chance to hone my skills. I feel way more confident now.”
The film industry in Canada is star-driven, just like everywhere else. But unlike, say, Stateside, in Canada it tends to be the directors that get top billing, opines film critic Brian Johnson, author of Toronto’s 25th anniversary book, “Brave Films, Wild Nights.”
Any given year, that makes it harder for filmmakers like Sweeney to catch the limelight at the Toronto fest. “I compare Toronto to trying to stargaze in a city where there’s so much light filling the sky you can’t see the smaller stars,” says Johnson.
This year’s fest lineup, however, marks a rare exception as it’s skimpy on most of Canada’s big names. There’s no Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan or David Cronenberg; there’s not even a Robert Lepage, Don McKellar or Denis Villeneuve. The majority of filmmakers on the bill are rookies and sophomores.
“If you did a quiz with me right now, I’d flunk,” says producer Robert Lantos, whose latest film, “Picture Claire,” directed by Canuck Bruce McDonald, is at Toronto this year.
It’s a great opportunity for the lesser-known Canadian helmers to make their mark. And there’s plenty of talent out there, including Andre Turpin, whose sophomore effort, “Un Crabe Dans la Tete” (Soft Shelled Man), is headlining the Perspective Canada program. Liz Czach, programmer of the sidebar, describes “Soft Shelled Man” as “an incredibly accomplished work.” Although he is no stranger to the film fest — his first feature, “Zigrail,” bowed at Toronto in 1995 — Turpin is perhaps less known as a helmer because he’s been working most recently as a cinematographer (on Villeneuve’s “Maelstrom”).
Another Canuck filmmaker to keep an eye out for this year is Catherine Martin, whose turn-of-the-century-set “Mariages” competes at the Montreal film fest. Martin has directed some fine documentaries, short films, “stuff that gets overlooked,” says Czach, “but I saw this and I said, ‘Wow, she’s a real filmmaker.'”
And Sturla Gunnarsson, whose pic “Rare Birds” has a cast that includes William Hurt and Andy Jones, falls somewhere in the middle. He’s got a strong resume (“Such a Long Journey,” “Gerrie & Louise”), so he’s not a neophyte, but he is neither a household name, notes Czach, since he doesn’t fit the standard Canuck writer-director mold.
Czach isn’t concerned that works by unfamiliar names will prompt a drop in audience numbers. “The audience at the Toronto festival is very adventurous, it’s a great launching pad, and we can really capitalize on that.”