Atom Egoyan has just returned from Armenia, his ancestral home and site of his ambitious Ararat. He and his wife, Arsinée Khanjian, got caught up in muddled elections there, and that was after a trip to China to work on a potential project. Now he’s looking forward to visiting Victoria, where he grew up, and then Vancouver, to help celebrate National Canadian Film Day (NCFD 150) next Wednesday (April 19) at the Vancity Theatre with a special 20th-anniversary screening of The Sweet Hereafter.
“It’s fitting that we show this,” declares Egoyan, on the line from his Toronto home, “as it’s really the only film I ever made that was shot and set in B.C.” Plenty of other Canuck titles are showing throughout Vancouver and rural B.C., thanks to Reel Canada, a nonprofit outfit he helps advise. The day before, there’s a special screening of his most recent movie, Remember, at Victoria’s Empress Hotel. That was the site of Egoyan’s first job, in fact, as captured in his 1989 breakthrough, Speaking Parts.
“I think I still have some badges from when I worked there, and I have to find them before going home,” he adds. The veteran writer-director, actually born in Egypt, in 1960, sounds nostalgic when talking about his first real home—especially when it comes to UVic’s Cinecenta, where he “spent countless hours devouring all those great movies from Europe and Asia that inspired so many filmmakers who followed”.
Egoyan moved to Toronto in the early ’80s, to study international relations at Trinity College. Cinema took over, however, and he achieved some of his globalist ambitions by winning festival competitions, including three major Cannes prizes and two Oscar nominations for Hereafter.
He has since been knighted by the French government, received state honours in Armenia, and been given the Order of Canada—upgraded to the highest level, Companion, in 2015 for his dedication to Canadian culture. Examples of his generosity include sharing his own prize money with Vancouver directors John Pozer (The Grocer’s Wife) and Mina Shum (Double Happiness) in 1991 and ’94, respectively.
“The landscape has certainly changed since then,” Egoyan observes. “In the ’90s, there was suddenly much more emphasis on the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Then, when Deepa Mehta won all those awards for Water, just over 10 years ago, it was obvious that Canadian film would show a lot more cultural diversity.”
Other big changes have been in technology and distribution.
“With the advent of digital cameras and editing,” he explains, “it has become way easier to make films. And I’ve never seen so many high-quality first features. The problem comes in finding places to show them. There have also never been so many festivals, and programmers compete over premieres, which means that movies don’t travel quite as much as they used to. And theatrically, they are vying for space with things that are much easier to market. So a great debut like Hello Destroyer, for example, just isn’t seen by all the people who would enjoy it.”
Of course, marketing problems are familiar to Egoyan, who had a hard time pushing his Hereafter even after the triple win at Cannes.
“Let’s face it: who wants to see a movie about a bus crash that kills a bunch of schoolchildren? Then, when you want to explain that it’s not really about that, and that some of it is quite funny, or even stranger, you lose some more people.”
Still, the movie will always hold a sweet spot in his filmography.
“There’s no doubt it was a peak experience. It was the last film that I location-scouted and cast myself; even the fact that Donald Sutherland dropped out at the last moment and we got Ian Holm instead was important. We finished in January of 1997, and I don’t know how we got it together to show at Cannes, which was having its own 50th anniversary. Have I ever felt that magic again? I don’t know, really. I never went to film school, but I know my first efforts were full of feeling. I’m always trying to keep that alive and, hopefully, to add some sense of accomplishment.”
The Sweet Hereafter screens at the Vancity Theatre at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (April 19), followed by a Q&A with Egoyan and actor Bruce Greenwood. Egoyan’s 1994 film Exotica screens at 10 p.m.