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Long before Canada sought greater diversity for its homegrown films in recent years, its movie industry depended on a web of international co-production treaties to get indie fare into the global market.
Now the Canadian industry is looking to marry that diversity drive with international co-production coin as racially diverse filmmakers converge at the Berlin Film Festival and its European Film Market (EFM).
Take Toronto producer Shehrezade Mian of Markhor Pictures, who is targeting foreign sales for Antoine Bourges’ Concrete Valley, an English- and Arabic-language immigrant drama anchored in Canada. Chronicling the struggles of a Syrian family attempting to make a life in the Great White North, the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and will screen in the Berlinale’s Forum program.
While in Berlin, Mian will fly the Maple Leaf for a new generation of Canadian filmmakers eager for career-expanding moves abroad — including securing a foreign-sales agent and deals or lining up co-productions — after financing and launching their breakout films at home.
“The best way to propel these films forward is by getting your footing here [in Canada], and then taking them to the wider world,” Mian tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Canadian indie film has been about adaptation from the start, as local directors mined books, family stories, film festivals and markets, even Hollywood, for plots and financing partners. But now Canadian filmmakers from diverse backgrounds are thinking globally and acting locally as they take a big swing in Berlin for higher budgets and star talent via co-productions and international partners.
Shant Joshi, a Toronto- and Los Angeles-based producer with Fae Pictures, will attend EFM to complete financing for an upcoming biopic drama, Granny Lee, about an elderly white woman in 1980s apartheid South Africa who cared for dying AIDS patients. Only after her death was it revealed that she was Black and assigned male at birth.
Joshi has structured his film as a Canadian-Irish-South African co-production to tell a story at the intersection of race, politics and gender, and says that co-production financing is a vital tool for getting more diverse Canadian filmmaking into the world market.
“It’s definitely been an advantageous piece of the pie and helps increase the budget without increasing the risk,” he says of lining up multi-country co-production financing.
Anita Lee, chief programming officer at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which promoted many of the Canadian titles screening in Berlin as part of its recent Top Ten 2023 spotlight, says the drive for more diverse and inclusive storytelling, coupled with foreign-language films shining at the Oscars, has created new opportunities for Canadian storytellers. “That has created room for more independent and diverse voices to be amplified,” Lee argues.
But the lucky few Canadian filmmakers who have earned prestigious awards in Toronto and other marquee festivals quickly exchange one whirlwind for another as they suddenly land on Hollywood’s radar, take meetings with talent agencies, streamers and American producers in Los Angeles, and chase elusive U.S. distribution deals.
Anthony Shim, whose English- and Korean-language immigrant drama Riceboy Sleeps earned the Platform prize in Toronto, will be shopping the film in Berlin via his sales team, Sphere Films International. He says that there are now more opportunities for filmmakers who might have struggled just a few years ago. “There is a greater demand than ever for Korean content from Hollywood and there is a higher demand than ever for Korean filmmakers and storytellers, especially if you speak both languages. And I am benefiting tremendously from that,” Shim tells THR.
Similarly, Aziz Zoromba, whose family came to Canada from Egypt, drew on his experiences for Simo, which earned the best Canadian short film award at TIFF and will follow a screening in Sundance with a European premiere in Berlin as part of the Generation sidebar. “It’s hard to grasp what’s happening now. I tried to make a film so authentic to myself and my people, and to see that resonate on a big scale at festivals — I hope the film continues to travel,” he says, adding that he is in the process of expanding his short into a feature.
Another TIFF title bound for Berlin is Vietnamese-Canadian director Carol Nguyen’s Nanitic, a short about two young girls and their relationships with their ancestors that will screen in the Berlinale’s Generation Kplus section.
“Stories about people living in a land they immigrated to, or have uprooted from one place to another, are common and important,” Nguyen says. “We just haven’t been able to lift those storytellers to hear those stories.”
Other Canadian filmmakers are building awareness for and interest in their films for greater traction with foreign audiences, including on streaming platforms. Nisha Pahuja – whose TIFF best Canadian feature prize winner To Kill A Tiger also grabbed the documentary award at the Palm Springs Film Festival – continues to tout her National Film Board of Canada production about a farmer and father in India who launches a legal fight to secure justice for his 13-year-old daughter, the victim of a brutal gang rape.
“The media has to take the film to the public. And more festival attention is important. And the third thing are champions, people that have the stature and the power to align with the message and subject of the film. If those people got behind it, it would be a different story,” Pahuja explains about further amplifying her Canadian documentary in the world market.
That world-facing sentiment is echoed by Montreal Girls director Patricia Chica, who will be in Berlin pitching Wolverine Hotel, a genre pic featuring a woman of mixed race in the lead, to the JETS co-production initiative, which creates opportunities for indie producers from select countries, including the United States and Canada. Chica will also participate in the Producers Without Borders program at EFM.
“I’m certain that this is exactly what the market is looking for, because underrepresented audiences want to see themselves on the screen,” Chica explains.
This will certainly be the case with Shamim Sarif’s fifth feature, Polarized, which was shot in Manitoba and screens in the Perspective Canada sidebar. The film tells the story of a white farmworker in a small town who is fired for racism by her Palestinian boss, only to then fall in love with her.
“My movies are all female-led, often with women of color or LGBTQ characters in leads,” Sarif says. “You don’t see a Palestinian immigrant story which has a queer character, a young businesswoman [or] a scientist, and that was a really interesting juxtaposition to have in a small Canadian town.”
Capote producer Kyle Irving, who co-owns the Indigenous film and TV producer Eagle Vision, will be back in Berlin to line up pre-sales for his latest movie, 1989. “That’s our job as producers, to get the market excited about a project. That’s why we’re sharing it with them, to have them buy in and believe in a film,” Irving said of lining up co-production partners, foreign distributor pre-sales or more equity investment for 1989 at EFM.
Of course, not all diverse Canadian directors see their films embraced by Berlin and other marquee festivals, and turn to smaller, niche festivals for launches. See series actress Murry Peeters will see her debut short film, Woman Meets Girl, premiere at the Toronto Black Film Festival and Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney, Australia.
“For diverse stories, queer stories, there’s still a reticence or a feeling that they’re too niche, or won’t appeal to a broad audience. But there’s a universality to be found in most stories,” Peeters, whose directorial debut stars Enuka Okuma and Chelsea Russell, insists.
But the idea that film financing and promotion for Canadian movies can create a racially inclusive industry at home and resonate globally is shared by Telefilm Canada, the country’s biggest film financier, which is backing a large contingent of Canadian filmmakers in Berlin under the umbrella of its traditional Canada Pavilion at EFM. In an effort to boost inclusion, in mid-2021 Telefilm began accepting applications from films in any language (prior to the decision, films had to be in English, French or an Indigenous language to qualify for financing).
“Canada is poised to take over the world,” says Francesca Accinelli, interim executive director and CEO of Telefilm Canada. “Our cinema represents this ability to create stories in a filmmaker’s own language. It’s that freedom to be able to tell those stories, unencumbered, that’s going to be a giant differentiator for Canada.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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