How the “smaller is better” credo is transforming cinema in the city.
There’s little that the movie world loves as much as a new wave and its romantic visions of fresh-faced auteurs overturning musty conventions with works that brim with vitality. France gave birth to the most famous in the late ’50s—since then, places as diverse as Brazil, Taiwan, and Iran have all enjoyed their own. Hell, even Toronto had one in the ’80s, when the bold debuts of Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Bruce McDonald, and others wowed crowds here and abroad.
It’s a tantalizing notion that the local film scene may currently be experiencing a similar generational shift. Since embryonic artistic movements are so easily smothered by hype, it may be wiser not to utter “new” and “wave” together, lest we jinx its chances of galvanizing into the real deal. Yet the last year has seen a groundswell of activity by emergent talent. Along with an abundance of superb shorts and first features like Kazik Radwanski’s Tower—which plays this week at the Royal—the proof includes the increasing prominence at international festivals of these movies and their makers. Events like the 1K Wave—a unique initiative by filmmaker Ingrid Veninger and Royal programmer Stacey Donen that funded five new feature projects at $1,000 a piece—also point to the value of developing new filmmaking models beyond the often slow-moving cogs of the Canadian industry.
In that respect, Tower feels very much like a representative work. A carefully wrought character study about a socially awkward 30-something living in a very identifiable Toronto, it’s the kind of smart, provocative debut that appeals to festival programmers. Sure enough, Radwanski’s film premiered last summer at Locarno, the same fest that also accepted a similarly idiosyncratic local effort, Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here, two years earlier.
Like You Are Here and Igor Drljača’s Krivina—another strong debut feature by a Toronto-based filmmaker that just travelled to Rotterdam—Tower was preceded by a series of impressive shorts by the same team. Indeed, the festival-prize cash that Radwanski and producer Dan Montgomery earned helped finance Tower. A fundraising campaign, grants from the Toronto Arts Council and Canada Council, and finishing funds from Telefilm provided the rest of the film’s budget, which the director estimates at between $40,000 and $50,000.
Knowing how to work within such tight parameters is ever more crucial for new filmmakers, especially with the increasing pressure on funding bodies to back more commercially viable projects rather than the riskier, more personal work we might associate with the early days of the Toronto new wavers. When Radwanski and Montgomery were at Ryerson’s film school, the contemporary Canadian filmmakers who most inspired them were Denis Côté and Nicolás Pereda, two other young directors who’ve been startlingly prolific. Their growing international cred is encouraging other new filmmakers to be as adventurous as they are budget-conscious.
Here in Toronto, the Royal has been a haven for this breed, devoting recent runs to Côté’s Bestiaire, Krivina, and Tower. Donen has also started a distribution company, College Street Pictures, to get many of these films in front of more audiences. He cites the growing ease of digital filmmaking tools and the abundance of talent out of York and Ryerson as more factors contributing to the groundswell.
The excitement generated by the 1K Wave challenge is further proof that something’s afoot. The idea of making a movie for $1,000 is daunting even to the most dogged veterans of micro-budget productions. For Nadia Litz—who starred in, wrote, and co-directed one of the 1K Wave features, Hotel Congress—the experience was liberating, a chance to work without the second-guessing by peers, producers, and funding bodies that’s inevitably part of trying to get financing for a bigger film. As she says, “You can follow your intuition as an artist and test it when there’s only $1,000 at stake.”
The result—which premiered with the other 1K features at the Royal last October and should resurface later this year—feels as vital as it ought to. And even though Litz is not so keen to see her fellow upstarts lumped together as a movement, she does “see a community building that seems pretty new and fresh.”
One of the next steps is getting more moviegoers to overcome any of those persistent preconceptions about Canadian films and get them out to watch, a task that’s still a “challenge,” as Donen admits. Perhaps it’ll take a few more movies as strong as Tower for Toronto’s emergent filmmakers to enjoy the same kind of loyalty that peers in more robust corners of the cultural scene have long enjoyed. Really, it’s up to the audience to make a wave from these ripples.