In an increasingly corporate fest milieu, Serge Losique is a maverick. Pugnacious, unpredictable, the 76-year-old Montreal World Film Festival chief has for over three decades run his event as a personal fiefdom, as shuttered and inscrutable as the court of Tamburlaine.
He’s also a survivor, having seen off a recent challenge that would have sunk many a less determined adversary. Launched amid great fanfare in February 2005, the New Montreal FilmFest quickly signed a high-profile director (former Berlin and Venice topper Moritz de Hadeln) and boasted coin from Canada’s major government film offices. It was, its backers claimed, the breath of fresh air the Montreal film scene badly needed.
But in fact, the newcomer proved one of the fest world’s more conspicuous train wrecks.
The omens were not good: Both the fest’s staff and its board were castigated by de Hadeln in the Canuck press just days before opening night — but the reality proved far worse, with few (and flummoxed) guests, an empty red carpet and most films unspooling to near-empty houses. “It was,” one attendee commented, “like watching the Lusitania go down. For 11 days.”
From across town, you could practically hear Losique’s sigh of satisfaction. Sure enough, after that first, disastrous edition, the plug was pulled. Bloodied, but defiantly unbowed, the veteran fest celebrated its 30th anniversary last August.
However, the very creation of a rival fest signaled other, more serious concerns — specifically, a deepening feud between Losique (who runs his event as a private company, even owning its principal venue, the Imperial Theater) and his chief funders, Canadian government bodies Telefilm Canada and Sodec, the Quebec film agency.
Both claimed disenchantment with Losique’s autocratic managerial style and “lack of accountability” to the local film community. In electing to side with the NMFF, they expected his event to fold. Instead, the tyro event went under, leaving both bodies with oeuf on their faces.
“The problems we encountered in the last two years with Telefilm Canada and Sodec are due to the fact that they are judge and jury,” Losique reports. “Sooner or later, this approach to culture has to change.”
Losique has challenged the status quo before: “We raised these questions (just) as we raised questions about the rules of FIAPF (the Intl. Federation of Film Producers Assn.). We quit them. Now FIAPF is better, with new rules, and we are a member again.” In the same way, he says, the relationship with Telefilm Canada is “becoming more normal.” His lawsuit against them has quietly been dropped: “We’re not yet kissing each other, but we are talking to each other.”
Still, Telefilm has not committed to reup its funding: a spokesman would say only that MWFF was still “under evaluation.” Sodec, however, has returned to the fold, announcing in June that Losique’s event would be once again among the eight Quebec film fests to share its annual C$800,000 ($750,000) pot.
For many attendees, the chief virtue of the World Film Fest — and the reason for its enduring importance on the fest landscape — is the sheer unpredictability of its programming. Where Toronto, true to its origins as the Festival of Festivals, essentially culls a greatest-hits lineup from Berlin, Cannes and Venice, the Montreal slate comprises many off-the-radar pics from across the globe.
Last year saw entries from 76 countries; this time, filmmakers from Chad to the U.S. will compete on equal terms for the Grand Prix of the Americas, the event’s major award. Many of these will be world premieres. As such, it’s a distinct change from the homogenous, shopping-list selections of most fest selections.
Or as Losique puts it: “Our goal is to find the best films from as many countries as possible. We are not looking for ‘names,’ because even great names can produce bad films. In some festivals, you see the parade of stars and starlets offered by the marketing junket machine of Hollywood. We are not here to please dubious merchants, but to display the gems of the film industry.”
Still, he admits to a growing sense of dejection: “The emotional mystery of cinema is disappearing. Today you can buy any film on DVD on the same shelves with cat and dog food. Films d’auteur are gradually dying at the box office, and that’s a danger for a quality film festival and also for cinema in general.”
The only way forward, he believes, is to retain a sense of perspective: “If you’re too big, it’s not good for cinema and discoveries. If you are too small, you do not exist for the media and sponsors. A festival should not be so big that you cannot even appreciate the films. Some middle road must be found.”