In 2015, Adam Cook scored an administrative gig at the Vancouver International Film Festival. A year later, remarkably, the sometime Georgia Straight contributor inhabits a far more exalted position as the programmer behind Future//Present, a collection of deeply independent films arriving at this year’s festival as an adjunct to its traditional Canadian Images program, which in turn has been beefed up and shuffled into a wider category called True North. When executive director Jacqueline Dupuis and her team made the announcement last month that VIFF was launching “a bold restructuring of its traditional film and industry programming”, they weren’t just whistling “Dixie”. There’s a sense of newness and discovery across all of the refreshed festival’s programming streams, and Future//Present provides an especially potent dose.
“The greatest films in our country right now are coming from all sorts of different places, often with low budgets, being made in atypical ways and in atypical forms,” Cook tells the Straight, explaining that he pitched the series with a mock program composed of super-indie critical raves like Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer and Isiah Medina’s 88:88. The films ultimately selected by Cook—eight in total, each one a feature debut, half of them directed or codirected by women—were all made well outside the conventional industry framework, with only one, Ashley McKenzie’s micro-budgeted Werewolf, receiving any support from Telefilm.
McKenzie’s staggeringly raw and original portrait of two tragic Cape Breton junkies also played (and slayed) at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, unlike, to VIFF’s credit, the rest of Future//Present, which includes Montreal media artist Karl Lemieux’s postrock tooth-grinder (that’s a recommendation) Maudite Poutine and Lev Lewis’s uncomfortably hilarious and downbeat tale of a one-night stand gone weird, The Intestine.
Cook’s miniseries of films “made in atypical ways and in atypical forms” otherwise represents the work of an atypical generation. Millennials have emerged into a pitiless world frozen into corporate lockdown, but also a world that inadvertently surrendered the means of production when it shoved an iPhone, among other digital toys, into everyone’s hands. “I guess it got easier to make movies 10 years ago and it took 10 years for a sophisticated generation of filmmakers to emerge from that,” suggests Cook, who proclaims that Toronto’s independent-cinema movement is equal to that of either New York or Los Angeles. “And it’s starting to happen in Vancouver,” he adds. “I think we’re at a really exciting historical moment for Canadian independent cinema.”
At the very least, we’re at a really exciting historical moment for Kevan Funk. The Emily Carr grad brings one of the buzziest of this year’s feature-length debuts to VIFF with Hello Destroyer, his devastating, Prince George–set portrait of a junior-hockey-league grinder whose world collapses after he administers a life-threatening hit to an opponent. Funk’s film arrives here via Ignite, which is VIFF’s shiny new take on the B.C. Spotlight series, although it’s philosophically related to the insurgent community defined by Future//Present.
“I’ve got a bunch of good friends there,” says the 30-year-old filmmaker, calling the Straight on his way home from TIFF. “I know this emerging filmmaking scene in Toronto that’s very much a pushback led by guys like Kazik Radwanski and Andrew Cividino and Albert Shin. These guys are making, in my opinion, the best cinema in the country. Way better than the big, big boys, and better even than the French-Canadian cinema.”
Like Adam Cook, Funk senses a “trickle-down effect into B.C.”, but he’s blunt about the future of a local film culture steeped in a long-established service-industry “comfort zone” concerned more with status than with cultivating meaningful work.
“I was probably just as nervous about getting into VIFF as I was about getting into Toronto because Hello Destroyer is so much a film of B.C.,” he says. “I have pretty strong feelings about the state of B.C. film and English-Canadian film in general. I don’t want to speak in some ridiculous grandiose way about making something that’s changing everything in B.C. film or anything like that, but I do think that we need to be a bit bolder in our voices. Film in B.C. can sometimes suffer under the weight of the reality of the city, which is very much influenced by serving Hollywood. I feel there’s a reason that Quebec has such great cinema, and it’s because it’s not attached to that world at all. It’s all culturally based, and so much of what frustrated me about B.C. film is a lack of identity of place, and a lack of a strong authorial voice that was interested in looking back on where we’re from.”
Inspired in some ways by Todd Bertuzzi’s fate, Hello Destroyer is a sensitive critique of our failure to reckon with institutional violence, on the rink and beyond. It’s equally compelling when viewed as a repudiation of Canadian cinema itself, forever aiming wide on its tired search for national identity, or, worse, forever coming up short with mainstream audiences. “There are exceptions,” says Funk, “but in a broad way we have so long made films for nobody. You literally end up spending money making these films that zero people are interested in seeing.”
If VIFF has offered a robust response to the long crisis described by Kevan Funk, Telefilm deserves equal praise for supporting Hello Destroyer. “We had some big institutions in this country sign up and then ditch us at the altar,” says Funk. “It was pretty traumatic and we ended up making the film for half the budget we thought we were going to have, but Telefilm stood by us.”
His good fortune aside, the filmmaker also allows that Canada’s primary funding body has stagnated along with Canada’s product. The solution is busy presenting itself as a cross-country mob of young, connected, cine-literate artists building pressure from below with work too convincing to ignore—like Hello Destroyer.
Indeed, when TIFF awarded its best-Canadian-first-feature-film prize this year to Johnny Ma’s Old Stone, it zeroed in on a work of astounding confidence and maturity. “It’s a game-changer. I’m shocked that we won,” Ma tells the Straight during one of his frequent visits to his family’s Vancouver home. “It’s a message to all the Canadian filmmakers who don’t make the traditional kind of Canadian film that they can all come out and boldly do what they want to do and trust that the Canadian filmmaking platforms are going to support it.”
The noir-ish tale of a taxi driver in China who makes the grave mistake of trying to help the motorcyclist he injured, elliptically told inside a perfectly judged 80 minutes, Old Stone could have been made by an old master. It appears as part of the True North program, but again, Ma provides another coordinate inside Canada’s loose assembly of 30-something radicals.
“Kevan Funk, me, and a small group of other Canadian filmmakers—we all sort of grew up together with TIFF, basically,” he says, citing Cook’s Future//Present program as a welcome, one-stop location for much of their work. “And it’s just the beginning. In the next couple of years you’ll see what the new face of Canadian filmmaking could be. It’s very, very exciting.”
“It’s about looking to a new generation, but also the types of cinema that maybe didn’t even exist before or we didn’t even know about before,” offers Adam Cook. “I think there’s a real chance to cultivate audiences and to really foster a culture that hasn’t exactly flourished in the past—an artistically driven culture rather than an industry-driven one. And obviously, in Vancouver, that’s all we’ve talked about: the industry. I don’t think there’s been a support system for audiences or filmmakers who think about film differently. This is more geared towards them.” By which, of course, he means you, dear festie.
The Vancouver International Film Festival runs from Thursday (September 29) to October 14. More information is at the VIFF website.