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August 31, 2017

Western Canada and debut filmmakers to shine in homegrown TIFF lineup


TORONTO — Movies from Western Canada and first-time filmmakers will take a chunk of the spotlight as the Canadian lineup unfolds at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Programmers say those are two of the big trends for the homegrown slate of the festival, which runs Sept. 7 to 17.

“We have … I think six features and/or feature-length documentaries from out West, which is a very high number,” said Steve Gravestock, Canadian and international programmer for TIFF.

“There’s a great nucleus of filmmaking talent out West but we don’t always get to show that many films from there, for various reasons…. A lot of them (are) first or second features from out West.”

Among those debut features from Western Canada is “Never Steady, Never Still” by writer-director Kathleen Hepburn. Set on the shores of Stuart Lake, B.C., it stars Shirley Henderson as a mother with advanced Parkinson’s disease, Theodore Pellerin as her son and Nicholas Campbell as her husband.

“A really beautiful drama, very touching, very powerful,” said Gravestock. “One of the strongest films we saw.”

Other debut features from Western Canada include “Luk’Luk’I” by Wayne Wapeemukwa, about five Vancouverites “living on the fringes of society during the 2010 Winter Olympics.” Some of the cast members play themselves in the film, which blends fiction with harrowing documentary elements.

“The path that has led me here has been full of many challenges, especially an ethical exigency required in making a film like ‘Luk’Luk’I’ that stars non-actors talking about real problems,” said Wapeemukwa.

“Over the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of advocacy and work in the Downtown Eastside and I’ve been getting to know a lot of real people that have actually been brave enough to share their stories with me, and that’s been the impetus, is them and their truth.”

In the late-in-life empowerment comedy “Meditation Park” from writer-director Mina Shum, Cheng Pei Pei stars as a 60-year-old Chinese mother who finds another woman’s thong in her husband’s laundry in East Vancouver. Sandra Oh plays her daughter.

“I’ve always thought about the disparity between my mother’s generation and mine,” said Shum, who shot the film a block from her house.

“I also feel like there’s a lot of talk these days, in the world, in the media, amongst my friends, folks at home about powerlessness, and so this is a response to that.”

Gravestock said this year’s fest has a particularly strong crop of first-time feature directors, who make up over 30 per cent of the titles.

They include “Trailer Park Boys” cast member Cory Bowles with “Black Cop,” which examines police-community relations and racial profiling through the eyes of the title character, played by Ronnie Rowe Jr.

“It was affecting me quite a bit, profoundly, a lot of the things that have been happening in North America and throughout the world and the phenomenon of police culture and race relations,” said Bowles, who also wrote the film.

“It seemed to be the only time we really talk about it is on social media, and of course, social media has a lot of that kickback and a lot of that real silencing. So I just decided to focus my energies into my own sort of exploration.”

Other highlights of the Canadian lineup include the world premiere of Mary Harron’s TV miniseries “Alias Grace,” which Sarah Polley wrote and produced based on Margaret Atwood’s novel.

And celebrated Indigenous documentary maker Alanis Obomsawin will mark a milestone at TIFF with the premiere her 50th film, “Our People Will Be Healed,” about an innovative school in the remote Cree community of Norway House in northern Manitoba.

“It’s the first time I witnessed such a wonderful place for children,” said Obomsawin. “The building itself is incredible, it’s got a lot of light and children are kings there.

“I’ve made so many films where everybody’s struggling and there’s lots of sadness, but it’s changing and this film is more than hope,” she added.

“I really feel we’re going someplace we’ve never been before and Canadians are getting more educated and they’re really listening to our people, which is a very different time.”