Whistler Film Festival Shines Spotlight on Filmmakers

Relying on auteur directors rather than star wattage is a deliberate gamble.


The Whistler Film Festival won't have with A-list candy in all directions when its tenth edition kicks off Wednesday in the luxury Canadian ski resort.

"It's not about celebrities and glamour or glossy photo shoots. We want to get back to what festivals are about, and they're about celebrating cinema," explained Stacey Donen, Whistler artistic director.

Relying on auteur directors rather than the star wattage as at rival festivals like Toronto or Cannes is a deliberate gamble.

"We're looking to have our vision with new films with new filmmakers," Donen insisted.

So the white carpet in Whistler will host Canadian directors and producers with less familiar names than the actors in their films like Montreal producer Daniel Cross of EyeSteelFilm, Luc Dery of micro_scope, Vancouver-based director Julia Kwan, veteran Toronto doc maker Ron Mann, and director John Zaritsky of Point Grey Pictures in Vancouver.

And Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) is headed to the mountain resort to lead a writer's workshop.

Also on tap this week is a tribute to U.S. indie filmmaker Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter) and Canadian colleague Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo), who will discuss their craft on Friday with Atom Egoyan (Chloe), a past Whistler honoree.

Hellman also executive produced Quentin Tarantino's 1992 movie Reservoir Dogs.

Promoting dialogue among filmmakers in Whistler stands in stark contrast to Toronto, which has become a cattle auction for Hollywood stars marketing their latest studio or indie pictures to American and other foreign buyers.

Whistler fest executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw likes that distinction.

"We're not going to be that massive festival like Toronto. If you look at the other festivals, Cannes and Berlin with their market, and Sundance, they're small and intimate and important for the industry. That's where we want to be," she explained.

Mishaw points to the attendance this week of Egoyan, a critic of Toronto for allowing big-budget movie promotion to overshadow its indie film lineup.

"The [Whistler Film Festival]'s been able to do an extraordinary job of keeping a specific identity, and my hope is that it doesn't become a victim of its own success," Egoyan said in a recent interview with Vancouver's Westender newspaper ahead of his Whistler festival appearance.

"It's kind of crazy now in Toronto. Because of the accumulation of press and attention here, it's being used by the industry for junkets for films that aren't even in the festival. It's so absurd," Egoyan added.

The reality among Canadian film festivals is, of course, more nuanced.

Most Canadian films were overlooked by the paparazzi in Toronto in favor of star-driven Hollywood films.

But U.S. buyers noticed Canuck films in Toronto just enough to eventually ink distribution deals unveiled at the recent American Film Market.

So this week producers of homegrown films like Steven Silver's The BangBang Club and Larysa Kondracki's The Whistleblower will be in Whistler to show their newly sold films happy as hunters seeing their retriever return with a game bird clenched in their teeth.

Canadian festival support for local film producers in Whistler, Toronto and elsewhere countrywide underlines another reality: a local film industry built on government funding needs to showcase its wares at domestic and international festivals to keep those subsidies flowing.

After all, continuing government intervention remains essential to the Canadian film industry, especially during the current indie film downturn.

Most of the Canadian filmmakers showing their films in Toronto and Whistler owe their careers to state subsidies and tax credits, and domestic festivals rely on government marketing funds to promote tourism and an indigenous film industry for operating funds.

The Toronto International Film Festival has managed impressive dexterity by being able to spotlight Canadian films while triggering distribution deals with U.S. and other foreign buyers.

That's a space Whistler wants to share in closer proximity to Los Angeles.

"This is an opportunity for us to showcase Canadian film. And the Americans are partners for us, and some of the most aggressive people in the industry and they're right across the border," fest topper Hardy said.

Whistler has also brought over a delegation of Chinese film execs to do business, including film producer Tiger Hu (Iron Road), Deng Meng, co-production director of the China Film Group, and a group from the Beijing ZiJingQuan Culture Communication Company.

Films for foreign buyers and producers to screen in Whistler this week include a world premiere of Bruce McDonald's Hard Core Logo 2, and North American bows for Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere, starring Tygh Runyan as an obsessed Hollywood director, and German director Baran bo Odar's TheSilence.

The opening night film is Mike Goldbach's Daydream Nation, a Kat Dennings-starrer that bowed in Toronto and recently saw Anchor Bay Films snag its distribution rights for the U.S., British and Australia/New Zealand markets from Joker Films.

Artistic director Donen, a former Canadian film programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival, insists Whistler looks to balance its film lineup between Canadian and foreign titles, while giving a spotlight to the local fare.

"We still celebrate Canadian cinema. We don't put them (Canadian films) at the back of the bus," he said.

"We did it for the Olympics, and now we have to start doing it for the arts and culture," Donen added of the need to foster Canadian talent in the wake of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Whistler and Vancouver.

The Whistler Film Festival runs to Dec. 5.