Canadian filmmakers hope small Toronto film fest slate will help them stand out

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TORONTO — Michelle Latimer was celebrating word that her documentary “Inconvenient Indian” made it into this year’s Toronto International Film Festival when she got a phone call with even bigger news.

TIFF co-head Cameron Bailey got in touch in late July to say her series “Trickster” was also chosen, making the Metis/Algonquin writer-director a major fixture of the pandemic-tailored festival, which has a much smaller slate but possibly provides a bigger chance for Canadian projects to stand out.

“Honestly, my knees started to shake,” says the Toronto-based Latimer, noting she was outside the post-production house for “Inconvenient Indian” with editor Katie Chipperfield, who worked on the doc and edited the second episode of “Trickster.”

“She looks at me and she’s like, ‘Cameron Bailey?’ She was mouthing it: ‘Cameron Bailey, is it about “Inconvenient Indian?”‘ And I shook my head and she’s like, “Trickster?”‘ She’s jumping up and down on the sidewalk, and I’m just kind of crumbling from pure exhaustion and disbelief. It was pretty great news to get.”

Latimer is among a small Canadian cohort at the festival’s 45th edition, which runs Sept. 10-19 with many alterations to suit COVID-19 protocols.

Films will screen mostly online on a platform geoblocked to Canada. Some will also show with smaller, socially distanced audiences at TIFF Bell Lightbox downtown, two drive-ins and an open-air cinema.

This year’s festival has about 60 features in total, compared to the usual hundreds. Of those, about a dozen are either Canadian or Canadian co-productions — roughly half the amount of last year.

“Obviously it’s fewer films than we would usually invite from Canadian filmmakers and that’s tough, because we know Canadian filmmakers depend on a festival launch with us, if that’s something we can do,” says Bailey.

“We’re still really happy with the Canadian films we did invite. And we think that there are some great new voices here as well.”

Those new voices include Tracey Deer, writer-director of the Oka Crisis coming-of-age drama “Beans,” and “Violation” filmmakers Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, whose story of a woman out for revenge is in the horror-filled Midnight Madness program.

Sims-Fewer plays the protagonist and is also among this year’s TIFF Rising Stars.

“For us it’s really exciting being part of TIFF this year because of that extra focus,” says Sims-Fewer, noting they were surprised they made the cut in such a pared-down lineup.

“I think it puts a unique spotlight on the film,” adds Mancinelli. “And then Madeleine being selected as a TIFF Rising Star also gives the film a bit more momentum in a crowded market, especially a micro-budget where this was made with a lot of love and passion, and we’ve invested our own money into it.

“Trying to compete against these big films has always been really challenging. So to have TIFF’s support and the TIFF Rising Stars is just a really great way to hopefully get some attention from some of these bigger buyers.”

TIFF has also been “super supportive of the movie” in a way that perhaps it couldn’t be with a bigger lineup in a normal year, he says.

“Normally with a large lineup, it’s really hard to get the attention of some of the other lead programmers,” Mancinelli says. “But Cameron Bailey’s been really helpful and supportive in connecting us with some important players.”

Other Canadian films in the lineup include “No Ordinary Man” by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, about transgender American jazz musician Billy Tipton; and the crime-noir “Akilla’s Escape” by Charles Officer, which is part of the revived Planet Africa program.

In the documentary “Underplayed,” Stacey Lee looks at gender inequality in the electronic-music industry; and “The New Corporation: An Unfortunately Necessary Sequel” by Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan is the follow-up to their 2003 doc about corporate power.

Latimer’s “Inconvenient Indian” is adapted from Thomas King’s award-winning book, about the cultural colonization of Indigenous peoples in North America. The CBC-bound “Trickster” is based on Eden Robinson’s mythical novel, about an Indigenous teen and his dysfunctional family.

Canadian co-productions include Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, “Falling,” and “Pieces of a Woman” starring Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf.

This year’s Canadian features will be eligible for three Amplify Voices Awards, which will be announced Sept. 20.

TIFF talent will do mostly virtual interviews and press conferences, pre-recorded digital film intros and Q-and-A’s.

But unlike most of the international industry members facing border restrictions preventing them from attending, many of the Canadians are already in the country.

Latimer plans to be at screenings of her projects at the Lightbox and do socially distanced Q-and-A’s onstage.

The Thunder Bay, Ont.-raised filmmaker is also happy films will be online for an audience across Canada.

“Where I grew up, it wasn’t possible to go to a film festival; it wasn’t even possible to access most of that work, because it just never came to our theatres. We had one Cineplex and it played only Hollywood blockbusters,” says Latimer, who has previously been at TIFF with short films including “Nuuca” and “The Underground.”

“Indigenous people who are living in flying communities or living in Iqaluit, how are they seeing work? I think about, if I’m creating work for my community, how are we getting that out there? So in a way the digitization of these films is great.”

Vancouver-based Bakan will also be in Toronto during the festival to launch his new book “The New Corporation” and hopes to participate in a Q-and-A at a Lightbox screening of the film.

And Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli will be at the Lightbox for screenings of their film and Q-and-A’s with stars Anna Maguire and Jesse LaVercombe. Both stars were actually out of the country until recently — Maguire in England, and LaVercombe in Chicago — but returned to their Toronto homes in time to quarantine before TIFF.

“TIFF is well regarded as one of the top festivals in the world and it just means so much to have your film shown there, because it draws a lot of attention to potential buyers,” says Mancinelli.

“And I think when a festival like this champions the work, it makes other festival programmers and other buyers just a little bit more comfortable or more open to it. Especially a film like this.”

Adds Sims-Fewer: “It’s a really challenging film that’s incredibly difficult, and I think the fact that TIFF has got behind is really fantastic. It definitely gives it a legitimacy … that is very valuable as a filmmaker.”