TIFF 2016: Goodbye Toronto, Hello Destroyer

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      According to a baffled Dominican man in line, Toronto was hotter than the Caribbean during the first week of TIFF. But now that things are winding down and most of the press and industry have returned home, there’s a sense of finality in the misty air and overcast skies. Plenty of locals still roam the streets but Toronto feels like a ghosttown for us stragglers. I’ve said my adieus to the festival family, who I likely won’t see for another six months, but I find myself holding on until the final second, hesitant to return life’s everyday rhythms, perhaps looking for the utopia that might exist just outside every frame in Ashley McKenzie’s debut feature Werewolf

      Looking for hope anywhere beyond Cape Breton, the place they reluctantly call home, methadone-addicts Blaise (Andrew Gillis) and Nessa (Bhreagh MacNeil) speak of travelling west as if it had the allure of Oz, because maybe, just maybe, they might find prosperity, rest, and fulfillment. Though its arc and subject matter seems conventional prima facie, McKenzie’s film has an ambitious formal conceit from which pathos emerges. This is a story about two romantically involved enablers but it’s told with unsensational and sympathetic gaze, revealing a layer of emotion lacking in other renditions of this story. 

      We open on a rope tied from a tree to a rundown trailer, lingering in a close-up as Blaise quietly enters the frame and unties it. The cut, shrieking silently, transitions to a tight shot of toes gently swaying in an opaque plain. McKenzie’s formal bravura—nearly the entire film is shot in close-ups—is married to visceral emotions and universal themes.  Werewolf is an experiment in disrupting and abstracting Hollywood editing, but more importantly, it canonizes the marginalized. 

      Though the narrative is opaque and the background details vague, McKenzie develops emotional states with significant motifs and reccurring sounds, which take the place of reaction shots and other conventional forms of expression. If Werewolf seems archetypal and too stripped down, it’s because the film makes us realize that there’s absolutely nothing special about these two individuals, other than the fact that they are human like you and me, and therefore should be valued. Blaise’s desperate face as he lugs a lawnmower in the pouring rain is utter desperation, the same that we’ve all experienced, or the shot of the couple’s entwined hands evoking universal love. We get the sense that this a film more about people and the human experience than drug addicts.

      Werewolf is the find of the festival—Canadian or otherwise—along with Kevan Funk’s B.C.–made Hello Destroyer, both of which will be at VIFF in the coming weeks. Historically, we Canadians have had problems differentiating ourselves from our neighbors down south. Our personal identity is as elusive as our national cinema’s, which still can’t decide whether we should try to compete with Hollywood or do our own thing.

      Hello Destroyer, a film that its director Kevan Funk described to me as “aggressively Canadian,” centers on a fourth line brawler for a junior hockey team in Prince George, Tyson (Jared Abrahamson). Suspended and disowned by the organization after he inflicts a life-altering injury on another player, Tyson is kicked off the team and from his billet family’s home. He moves back in with his parents and finds an industrial jobs in nowhere-B.C. Tyson is forced to bear the sin of a team, system, and nation. But surprisingly, there is next to no hockey after the first thirty minutes. Instead Funk follows a causal chain of tragic events in Tyson’s life, all the while Hello Destroyer examines how male violence is institutionalized, accepted, and dismissed by pinning blame on an individual, not the whole system. The film ingeniously uses our national sport as an entry point into dissecting our identity and colonial history.

      At a time when our films are ghettoized at festivals and avoided by members of the press, these two debuts are of exponential importance. They focus on Canadian issues and have the potential to open doors and festival slots for future artists unwilling to pursue careers in Hollywood or American TV. Both films confront important questions: where is “home”? How does the landscape impact and evoke who we are? What makes our cinema different, whether it be a film about addiction or sports?

      As TIFF is coming to a close, new opportunities are opening. Along with the introduction of Future//Present, a program specifically devoted to emerging Canadian filmmakers, and the inclusion of numerous Vancouver-made short films at VIFF, MacKenzie and Funk are just two voices in an expanding chorus of strong and “aggressively Canadian” Canadian filmmakers.