TIFF times: Festival helps nourish Canadian filmmakers

Movie-goers will see a rare site this weekend, as Canadian films will dominate two downtown Toronto theatres.

Now in its fifth year, the Canadian Film Fest provides Canadian filmmakers a rare chance to have their work played in mainstream theatres.

Two Toronto theatres, Varsity Cinemas and Carlton Cinemas, have played host to the festival this week and will wrap up on Saturday. Unlike the Toronto International Film Festival, the CFF exclusively features Canadian films, providing them with big-market venues while exposing Canadians to homegrown talent. Bern Euler said he founded the festival because he felt Canadian films were not getting the respect they deserved.

“I really just got sick of bumping into these amazing Canadian movies in the video store, never having heard of them, and wanting the chance to see them on the big screen,” he said. “As an audience member, that’s where I really would prefer to see them.”

Canadian filmmakers struggle to compete with the deep pockets of the American film industry, often resulting in less flashy fare that lacks the elaborate marketing campaigns funded south of the border. According to Euler, giving domestic audiences access to films they might not otherwise see allows them to judge how Canadian talent measures up to its international competition.

“There’s … a stigma attached to Canadian movies that they’re boring, or they’re too intellectual, or too artsy, or sometimes just bad,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore and that’s one thing that we’re showing.”

Tiffany Burns, who makes her directorial debut with the documentary “Mr. Big,” represents the type of filmmaker who benefits from a Canadians-only festival. “Mr. Big” derives its title from the name of a sting operation used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to coerce suspects into giving confessions – whether they’re guilty or not. The operation is considered entrapment in many countries and has been outlawed in the United States and United Kingdom. Burns said she’s grateful to the festival for providing her with a venue to voice her concern about the issue.

“This is the Ontario premier this weekend and I’m very excited to be showing the film in Canada’s biggest city because … I think this is an issue that Canadians should really be talking about,” she said.

After her brother was convicted of murder in 2004 due to a confession he gave during a Mr. Big sting, she felt compelled to inform Canadians about the details of the RCMP’s operation. However, when she began pitching the idea to various sources, she ran up against a problem facing many Canadian filmmakers: lack of funding. The film, which has received strong reviews from the festival circuit, might never have been made if not for Burns’ resiliency and passion for the project.

“Even though I’d been in TV news reporting and producing for a decade, I was still a first time filmmaker,” she said. “So I’m sure no one was keen to give money to a first time filmmaker taking on the RCMP.”

According to Euler, the difficulty filmmakers have securing funding in this country stems not from a distaste for Canadian films, but simply a lack of infrastructure. He believes that both Canadian cinemas and audiences want to see more domestic content in theatres, but neither has the means to help filmmakers get there.

“We can’t get the word out that our movies exist; nobody knows about them so nobody’s going to go see them,” he said. “There are tons of filmmakers; there are tons of Canadian films here. But we just have a hard time getting things going.”

Just as Canadian filmmakers have trouble securing funding, Euler has similarly sacrificed to provide them a venue in which their films can be seen. But, he said he’s proud to bring Canadian filmmakers and Canadian film fans closer together.

“Every year we’ve grown in audience numbers (and) in screening numbers in spite of our limited budget,” he said. “I’ve gone into personal debt because of the festival, but I believe it’s important. We need to have this.”

For more information, visit www.canfilmfest.com.