The Toronto Film Festival has programmed one of its strongest Canadian feature slates in recent years — films with head-turning performances, eye-catching artistry, and global market and audience appeal, from filmmakers who are subverting stereotypes, challenging or bypassing power structures, or transforming the industry ecosystem from the grassroots on up.
“Right now in our industry, tons of high-paying service work lets people pay their bills, but the quality work is coming through the Canadian independents,” says Conquering Lions Pictures’ Damon D’Oliveira, who has produced the Canadian work of director Clement Virgo, from his 1995 Cannes-premiering feature “Rude” to the series “The Book of Negroes” to their latest, “Brother.”
The adaptation of David Chariandy’s novel tells the story of two Jamaican Canadian brothers in 1990s Scarborough. “We see this as a bookend to ‘Rude,’ which is set in the same period and is an adrenaline rush,” says D’Oliveira. “We’re returning to this era with a polished approach, telling a mature coming-of-age story— which we’re dedicating to our immigrant mothers!
“This is the biggest step up we’ve taken on the features side,” he continues. “The industry has been on a bit of a buying spree; we hope that continues.”
After riding out last year’s sated marketplace, Luc Déry and Kim McCraw of Montreal’s micro_scope return to Toronto with two minority co-productions and are most excited about Stéphane Lafleur’s buzzing “Viking” — his first feature since his 2014 Cannes hit “Tu dors Nicole.”
“It is an original, funny movie with a cool premise [behavioral research subjects mirror astronauts in advance of the first manned mission to Mars] and we can’t wait to share it with the amazing Toronto audience,” Déry says.
Like many of her festival peers, Colombian Canadian director Lina Rodríguez draws on personal emotional truths for her latest feature, “So Much Tenderness,” about an environmental lawyer who flees to Canada, in order to shift the narrative line away from tropes and audience expectations.
“A few years ago, my father-in-law asked why I don’t make films in Canada,” she recalls. “I hadn’t thought about making a film here because I felt in between Canada and Colombia. I started writing [this film] to deal more directly with the anxiety, uncertainty, and dislocation I feel as an immigrant.
“It’s important for us to re-frame how we do what we do,” she adds. “My producing partner and I make our sets spaces of mentorship, generosity and reciprocity to develop skills within different communities so we can see more diverse teams on future projects.”
Buzzy acquisition title “Something You Said Last Night” —about a young aspiring writer who reluctantly agrees to join her younger sister and wildly happy parents on a summer resort vacation — is aligned with the adage “make what you want to see,” says director Luis De Filippis.
“Content about trans women and their familial relationships is almost non-existent. Stories that do exist are centered on coming-out narratives or the family coming to accept their child. I wanted to tell a story that simply saw a trans woman as an intrinsic member of her family.”
When De Filippis premiered a short film in Toronto in 2017, she emailed producers to request meetings; the first to reply were “The Florida Project” producers Kevin Chinoy and Francesca Silvestri, who eventually boarded “Something” as hands-on exec producers.
In the spirit of giving back, the director created the Trans Film Mentorship, which took place during production. “[The film] couldn’t capture all the realities and experiences of trans people. But by sharing the opportunity, we could ensure other trans creators were gaining skills and work experience so they could one day tell their own stories.”
For her debut feature “Until Branches Bend,” writer-director Sophie Jarvis was informed by her background as a production designer (“Never Steady, Never Still”). “Working in different departments gave me an intimate understanding of what a team needs from the director,” says Jarvis. “Artistically, production design made me think more about the world that the characters move through.”
Set in British Columbia’s bucolic Okanagan region, “Branches” follows a cannery worker who discovers an invasive insect that could threaten the town. “The plot can be read on paper as a sci-fi thriller, the film is a drama with psychological elements driven by a woman dealing with the parallel struggles of gaslighting and lack of autonomy over her own body,” Jarvis says. “Harder to sell!
“I would love to see more films that defy category and that center stories that I find relatable.”
For long-time Toronto fest attendees, you can’t get more relatable than “I Like Movies,” the debut feature of reformed film critic and Canadian Film Centre Screenwriter’s Lab alum Chandler Levack. Set in early 2000s suburban Toronto, the coming-of-age comedy follows a charmingly egocentric teenage cinephile who starts a part-time job at a local video store to pay for NYU film school, to which he’s certain he’ll be accepted.
Early in the film, Lawrence, played by newcomer Isaiah Lehtinen, sits in a car with his mom and utters the meme-worthy line “I don’t want to be, like, a Canadian filmmaker.”
That was then, this is now.
“There’s been this real sea change of voices that have been allowed to make work that they probably never would get to—and I totally count myself as one of those,” says Levack, whose film was a funded through Telefilm Canada’s newish Talent To Watch Program that provides production grants for first features from emerging creators.
“I want to make a film that’s entirely my own voice,” Levack says. “As a friend of mine reminded me, it’s my job to invent new celebrities and create new images for people on screen.”