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As it marks its 39th year, the Montreal World Film Festival mirrors the tenacious, even pugnacious spirit of its founder and director, Serge Losique.

Launched in 1977, the Montreal fest was conceived as an alternative to the Venice Film Festival, which had been sidelined over political strife for most of the preceding decade.

Losique, well connected in the international film community, says he was pressured by MPAA head Jack Valenti and European producers to make Montreal the home of a competitive fall festival. “I didn’t like the idea,” Losique remembers, saying his loyalties were with the local film conservatory and overseeing the Canadian Student Film Festival, the oldest fest in the country.

But he caved on the guarantee he could control the event and avoid having “too many cooks” fighting for their vision. “Once you start, you cannot leave it, period,” the 84-year-old festival head says of his role.

For years the World Film Festival thrived with international star power, but by the mid-1990s, the dramatic growth of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival had created a challenge that many saw as a threat to the very survival of the Montreal event. Unspooling only a few days later, Toronto became a sprawling festival powerhouse and unofficial specialty film market and it was attracting more stars, auteurs and buzzworthy titles. By the early 2000s, the Toronto fest had grown into a behemoth.

While Montreal organizers say they don’t consider their event an opponent to Toronto, it’s hard to ignore that many distributors do.
Over the past decade, high-profile North American and international premieres are seen less frequently in Montreal as filmmakers bet on Toronto for more press, bigger audiences and better distribution pacts. The changing landscape meant that Montreal’s role as prized prestige film launchpad had to be retooled and its very identity refashioned.

“We’re not going to compete with Toronto for films looking to start their Oscar careers,” says Martin Malina, senior programmer at the Montreal fest. “There’s no way in the world we could do that and it’s not really our purpose.”

Instead, the Montreal fest shifted its focus to quality international films, which organizers say have been left behind by exhibitors, since many of the films are in neither in English nor French and the current specialty film exhibition market has grown more conservative and less able to takes risks on international films, no matter how exciting or finely crafted they are.

This year the lineup will represent about 86 countries, a number that is, not coincidentally, close to the current number of countries now competing for the foreign language film Oscars. The festival includes 270 feature films and 199 shorts.

The fest’s artistic bent is reflected in such selections as “Muhammad,” from Iranian director Majid Majidi, perhaps best known for 1997’s “Children of Heaven.” Majidi’s 171-minute epic drama, which will debut on opening night, traces the childhood of the Prophet Muhammad but never reveals the face of the actors who portray him. “Muhammad” was originally slated to premiere at Iran’s Fajr Intl. Film Festival in February, but was cancelled after what were said to be technical problems with one of the theaters.

In a letter on the fest’s website, Losique cements the Montreal fest’s role and legacy as a guardian non-mainstream, auteur-driven cinema — not just in Quebec’s largest city but also in the general culture: “These days, the programming of commercial cinemas is dominated by blockbusters,” he writes. “Without the Montreal World Film Festival and its annual selection of some 400 films from 80 countries, the Montreal film landscape would be drastically reduced.”

Asked about the future, Losique insists that if only a handful of global fests were to survive, Montreal would be one of them. “We don’t need to have stars,” he says. “If big stars have a great movie, they will be here, but the festival can always count on the artist base in Montreal.”

David Friend contributed to this report.