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And The Gala Goes To...

Yesterday afternoon, the Royal York Hotel opened its ornate Imperial Room to the unwashed legions of press and filmerati as the Toronto International Film Festival unveiled its 2006 Canadian film programs. After guests had sampled from a gorgeous buffet and nursed a glass of pinot or two, it was time for the names to be announced. And the verdict? While it may seem a little low-key compared to 2005, this year’s Canadian content is pretty exciting.

“Exciting?” you ask. Well, yes. I grant you that’s not always a word attached to Canadian film—especially in Canada—but at a time when things look a little bleak for the industry, it sure was nice to feel a small thrill as names were read and plot synopses were recounted.

The big news was that Sarah Pollley’s feature debut, Away from Her, would receive a gala presentation. Polley, who was on hand along with star Gordon Pinsent, thanked the festival for supporting her myriad short projects over the years—support, she said, that helped keep her committed to work behind the camera. The film, which also stars Oscar-winners Julie Christie and Olympia Dukakis and Toronto’s Kristen Thompson, was adapted from Alice Munro’s short story, “One Came over the Mountain. The story details how Alzheimer’s affects a 50-year marriage. When Fiona (Christie) begins to suffer memory loss, her husband Grant (Pinsent) moves her into a nursing home. To help her adjust, the home suggests that Grant absent himself for a month. When he makes his first visit, Grant finds that Fiona has forgotten him, transferring her affections to a new beau.

It would take too long to go into every Canadian feature, short and special presentation being screened at the festival, but of special note are:

• The world premiere of Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin’s semi-autobiographical Brand Upon the Brain!, a silent film that will be screened with a live chamber group (featuring members from the TSO) and foley artist. Made in collaboration with the Seattle-based The Film Company—the US’s first non-profit film studio—Brand Upon the Brain! is said to be equal parts horror drama, teen detective serial and Grand Guignol reverie.

• A special presentation of Philippe Falardeau’s Cannes hit Congorama, which follows the travails of a Belgian inventor (Olivier Gourmet) who discovers that he was born in a barn in rural Quebec.

• Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, a look at the work of Toronto-based industrial landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky.

• Michael Mabbot (The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico)’s Citizen Duane, the tale of a small town, high school lose-bag who opts to run for mayor.

• The father of Canadian documentary Allan King’s EMPz 4 Life, a look at four teenage boy’s struggles in a Toronto suburb.

• The headliner at Canada First!, Adam Currie’s Fido, a film about a family stuck in the moral and aesthetic net of the 1950s who buy a zombie to help with the housework. Currie used to be one of those obnoxious Speaker’s Corner Devil’s Advocates. He’s a warped mind to be sure (check out his blog), but with Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) and Billy Connelly on board, Fido is sure to garner attention.

• Shorts from the likes of Oscar-nominated Hubert Davis (Aruba) and Patricia Rozema (Suspect) to Macleans’ Brian Johnson (Tell me Everything) and Roots founder Don Green’s son Anthony (Screening).

• “The Best of Norman McLaren”, a special presentation examining the work of the innovative NFB animator.

• This year’s Canadian Retrospective showcases the work of Peter Mettler. Part of the circle of filmmakers sometimes known as the “Toronto New Wave” of the 1980s and the cinematographer behind Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, Mettler is a cinematic searcher of sorts. His films, from Scissere (1982) to Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002), attempted to forge new ways of seeing, all married to his fascination with misery, transcendence and alternative perception.

So yes, not boring. Exciting even. While there’s no Where the Truth Lies, History of Violence or Water here, that’s probably a good thing. This year is about smaller films and emerging filmmakers. Sarah Polley is undoubtedly a star, but it sill remains to be seen if she can command a feature. The rest of the field, although undoubtedly talented, continue to be under-recognized. Let’s hope that there’s something here that will change all that. Watch this space for continued coverage of TIFF 2006—there’s going to be lots of it.

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