Interviews / true north / Vancity (Year Round) / Vancity Theatre

Canadian Film Week: A Conversation with VIFF Programmers Curtis Woloschuk and Tom Charity

by Noémie Attia

Hi Tom and Curtis! Would you like to present yourselves? 

Curtis: Sure. My name is Curtis Woloschuk, I’m the associate director of programming for VIFF and that deals both with the festival and the year round programming. As part of my festival responsibilities, I lead the programming of our Canadian section, both features and shorts. This year for Canadian Film Week, Tom and I kind of adopted a bit more of a collaborative approach to programming. 

Tom: My name is Tom Charity and I’m the programmer for VIFF Vancity Theatre Year Round, outside of the festival. 

How long have you been doing Canadian film week? 

T: I think this is year five. We built it around National Canadian Film Day, which is always the third Wednesday in April. As the name implies that’s a national event, but it started off quite small, with only a few events around the country but built up with the Canada 150 celebrations last year; where it was a huge extravaganza. 

How many films are you gonna be screening?

T: There are nineteen films and short programs spread across twenty-seven screenings. Eight of these programs are directed by women; three are from Quebec; six are by indigenous filmmakers. 

Why do you think it’s important to represent Canadian filmmakers [in Canada]?

C: I think that the storytelling tradition of any country or culture are important to showcase, celebrate. I think that for the festival’s most recent edition of 2018, we saw a number of films that… there really seemed to be this shift in breaking down some of the definitions of what a Canadian film was or what kind of borders or boundaries constrained it, what definitions did. And I think that we’re really in an intriguing, inspiring time for Canadian storytelling. People talk about the democratization of technology that allows to make films, but I think that technology in terms of file sharing or just access to international cinema has led to a group of filmmakers—young filmmakers—who are much more literate in international cinema and exist in a dialogue with it much earlier in their lives and in their creative path as well. Consequently, we have the festival programme that we’re incredibly excited about and this programme, beyond that, with the exception of one film, represents all films that haven’t played in the fall festival. It gives us a chance to highlight other filmmakers, other stories, other experiences. 

T: There are nineteen films and short programs spread across twenty-seven screenings. Eight of these programs are directed by women; three are from Quebec; six are by indigenous filmmakers. 

A few of the films of the programme are from Québec. Why does it matter that they are represented here in the West? 

C: I guess the irony is that only one of these three is in the French language, although one other film that is not from Quebec is in French. Angelique’s Isle has passages in French. I think it’s important for the same reasons with the festival and the Film Centre… the festival shows films from about seventy different countries and the Film Centre likely is equally representative. I know a few years ago you managed the show “Films from every continent”, or that unfolded in every continent. 

T: Yeah. 

C: I think one of the purposes of an organization that showcases storytelling is to increase the understanding of other cultures. That can happen internationally, but I think it can also happen nationally, in Canada. In a country like Canada, that’s as broad as it is, but as under populated as it is in some respects, there’s so many different alcoves and corners of culture and community. I think that these films—Québec films or films from the Maritimes or films from the North—all give us glimpses into the geographic space that we all inhabit together but may seem very strange and foreign to us at the same time. So I think that Genesis or Genèse, the Philippe Lesage film, one that did play at VIFF this past year and had a world premiere at Locarno, has really been one of the standard bearers of Canadian cinema from this past year, in terms of the narrative ambition of it, the technical craft demonstrated in it—the performances are spectacular in that film. So I think it’s important, in a programme like this, to put forward one of those films from 2018, that really carry the torch for Canadian cinema internationally. 

T: I would just add to that that one of the criteria for the Canadian Film Week is really to try and bring films that haven’t shown in Vancouver before. So [Genesis] will be one of the rare exceptions. As it happens, this year a lot of the best Québécois films have shown one way or another, because they’ve been highlighted in either the Canada Top Ten series of the Canadian Screen Award series and they’ve been playing in Cineplex screens or in the francophone festival that happens at the end of January or February. In a way the sheer quality of films coming out of Quebec this year has taken them out of contingent for this particular iteration of Canadian Film Week, whereas in the past we might have had a higher preponderance of Québec films. 

C: The Québécois are too good. They’re already everywhere. 

[Laughs] 

Bella Ciao

You also said that almost half of the directors of Canadian Film Week programs were women. Is that something that you had to think of? How did it go?

T: We don’t operate by quota. We’re looking at quality as the prime criteria, but obviously we are also hoping to have as diverse a programme as we can. It’s certainly becoming easier to do that, which is good news. Certainly, this is a moment where women filmmakers and Indigenous filmmakers are being raised up in a way that they never were before, and seizing the chance. 

What changed compared to before?

T: Well I think there’s just a more enlightened, progressive cultural awareness at this moment, on the back of things like Me Too and on the back of, I would say, radicalized First Nations’ movement. I think that the gatekeepers in terms of the funders at Telefilm, etc., are more actively looking to support those other voices. 

C: I’ve programmed Canadian short films for over six years and through that exposure to probably upwards of 700 Canadian short films in the given year, it’s readily evident that the talent has never lacked in those regions and I guess, cautiously optimistically, that those balances are certain to shift now as well, and opportunities are being created for these stories to be told. But still, a lot of grant can be made up. 

Do you think there are more female and Indigenous directors or do you think that they have more space to express themselves now? 

C: That’s a good question… I think it’s probably a combination of the two and I would probably  have to acknowledge that I perhaps operate from a space of ignorance, because when you can’t maybe see that glass ceiling and it’s not in your sightlines, you don’t know how many people are bumping up against it. And the fact that there are those opportunities there now—there are more opportunities there that are allowing some of those voices to flourish and to gain additional recognition. You see Elle-Maija Tailfeathers’ new film premiering at Berlin, which is a significant thing, co-directed with Kathleen Hepburn, but significant gesture for not only a Vancouver produced film but also for an Indigenous film as well. I think there’s an awareness of the work, more so now, and consequently, when people are aware of it they’re on the look out for it and those stories are more perhaps on curators’ and gatekeepers’ radar now. 

T: I think it may also be a happy side effect of the digital revolution that’s taking over the film industry and independent film, because that is a democratizing shift. The barriers to making film have become less high, when you’re dealing with digital equipment in film.

C: And I think as well there are more beneficiaries of partners that we have – organizations likes Telus and Telus Story Hive – who are empowering storytellers of all different backgrounds, but they have a variety of initiatives that are creating these pathways to having their work seen by people. And the amount of money they put in to creating short work or VR work every year is quite significant and I think gets aligned quite well with people who are able to cut their teeth in digital storytelling or in filmic storytelling, from a relatively young age. It accelerates that development and also the dissemination of those stories. 

An Audience of Chairs

Who funds the Canadian Film Week? 

T: Essentially we are—VIFF. But there isn’t a specific grant associated with this programme. It’s just something that we believe is the right thing to do. The Canadian Film Day program—free screenings on the 17th—is a more collaborative project. So I mentioned Reel Canada before: through Reel Canada’s auspices, we are able to access many of the films that we program for Canadian Film Day through the years for free. So the NFB produced all of Alanis Obomsawin’s films, from the first. She’s been with the NFB for fifty years. The NFB gave is the rights to show these films at no cost, on the understanding that we would also be sharing them with audiences for free. We are paying a fee for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, but I think everybody in the Canadian film industry recognizes that one of the big challenges for the industry is persuading Canadians to watch Canadian films. This initiative is really celebratory and a chance to encourage people to see the riches that are there, in their heritage, and perhaps don’t get the attention that they deserve.

Did you try to have a diversity of genres? 

T: Yeah we try to. In the festival it’s very structured, but year round—it’s not very structured but it’s in the back of my mind. We’re trying to have a balance across the programming that’s very eclectic and hopefully fresh and unpredictable. So we might be showing an Iranian art film one day and a documentary another day and a horror film another day.  [We have] a similar strategy when we’re putting together a week like this: we’ve got romantic comedies, we’ve got romances, we’ve got dramas, we’ve got documentaries and we’ve got some pretty cutting-edge pieces as well. 

C: And I think much like the larger festival where people are going to find their way through it either by the genre of film they’re interested in or like some thematics as well. I think there are some nice pieces in this series as well, where there are some reflections of thematics or concerns. A documentary like Botero—where you’re looking at an artist who’s showing technical liberties with the representation of the human form—in a sense can be offset with something like Happy Face, which looks at certain life representation on screen, for those who, through circumstance, don’t adhere to what would be considered a normal appearance by most people in the world of cinema or encounter people in their life for the lifelong advocacy and activism in Alanis’ films. I think there are these little pieces that reflect or resound off to each other. I assume that if people choose to see more than one film—and I hope they do—they will find interesting ways that the stories do intersect or complement each other. 

What is your favourite film is the programme?

C: I would say that Genesis is a very strong film. It was programmed again at the festival. I’m gonna cheat and I’m not gonna give you one. Bojan [Bodruzic]’s film, The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs, is an incredibly personal work, shot over a long period of time. It’s an incredibly moving piece as well, that I think connects with audiences on so many different levels, whether it be the place that you tie your heritage to or the elements of family and how relationships change overtime. And I do think that Happy Face, it was a film that when I saw it and told about it after, it’s a film that had my feelings on a change scene from scene. But I found myself still considering it now, more than a month after having seen it and kind of wrestling with that film. I think it’s a very provocative film but in the best possible way for a film being provocative. 

T: I’ll cheat too. I’m particularly proud of the Obomsawin programming day for Canadian Film Day. So we’ve got three programs and it’s five, six films by Alanis and she’s going to be here. The first one is three short films, including her very first film from 1970—it’s a thirteen minutes short. It’s been a revelation for me digging into her back catalogue and discovering these other sides to her that I didn’t know were there, that are really charming. The first programme we are aiming at elementary school students and that’s been a preoccupation of hers right from the beginning—the need to connect with Canadian youth, educate them and share stories with them. I think it’s going to be a very special event. We’ve already sold out that program to students and in fact we’ve added a repeat program for the next day because the demand from teachers has been so high. Outside of Canadian Film Day, there’s a really small film—it’s a first film and it’s only about seventy-eight minutes, it’s called Touched—which was showing back to back with Happy Face (which I concur with what Curtis was saying). Touched is a film that’s really easy to overlook I think. It’s a quite subtle film about—it’s kind of a psychological thriller but it’s more of a character piece—about a caretaker who becomes concerned when one of his regular tenants just seems to vanish overnight. And he starts to see what may be her ghost but as a young girl rather than as a woman, and to talk to her and is drawn by the mystery of what really happened. It’s a work that shows real command of the medium and I’m really excited to see what this filmmaker does next, but I hope that people will come and check him out now. 

Canadian Film Week happens from April 14 – 23. For showtimes, guests and tickets, click here.

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