Canadian Producers Hit the Ground Running at the Toronto Festival

With a full year of creative pauses and improvisational workflow behind them, Canadian producers hit the 2021 Toronto festival bullish that in-person screenings and heightened fall fest excitement will focus critics and sales buzz to connect their films with audiences beyond their home turf.

Luc Dery and Kim McCraw of Montreal’s micro_scope, who introduced Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” and Philippe Falardeau’s “Monsieur Lazhar” to North American audiences at TIFF, return with Ivan Grbovic’s “Drunken Birds” (pictured), one of eight titles screening in Platform, the festival’s juried competition program.

Jorge Antonio Guerrero (“Roma”) stars as a Mexican drug-cartel worker who falls in love with his boss’s wife and whose pursuit of her lands him in rural Quebec, where he gets mixed up in his host family’s troubles. The film is exec produced by Nicolas Celis (“Roma”), with Wazabi Films selling.

“The marketplace is quite brutal right now, and distributors still have shelves full of movies to release, but we humbly believe ‘Drunken Birds’ has the potential to appeal to audiences around the world,” says Dery, adding that he and McCraw were “blown away” by the first draft of “Drunken Birds,” which Grbovic co-scripted with Sara Mishara, its cinematographer. “The way the story is told with flashbacks, interwoven storylines and puzzle-like structure — we said yes right away.”

Premiering in Special Presentations, Bent Hamer’s “The Middle Man” — an adaptation of a Lars Saabye Christensen novel and an official Norway, Canada and Germany co-production — was shot in Northern Ontario and its cast, led by Pål Sverre Hagen (“Kon-Tiki”), includes a host of Canadian actors as well. “There is a similar spirit and humor in the kind of stories we’re drawn to that made Canada and Norway great creative partners,” says Simon Urdl, who’s produced many Toronto-premiering titles such as “Away From Her,” with Film Farm partner Jennifer Weiss.

One of the first Canadian productions to receive significant funding from Eurimages shortly after Canada joined as an associate member in 2017, “Middle Man” was shot in 2019 but navigated pandemic complications as post was split between countries. Film Farm is working closely with Canadian distributor LevelFilm and sales agent the Match Factory to maximize exposure in Toronto, with Hamer and cast here to lend support.

“There are always challenges in the arthouse film market, and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and the loss of important independent cinemas and of film reviewers, exacerbates the problem,” says Urdl. “But I have been impressed by the extent to which our industry has risen to the challenges and think we will emerge more resilient and doing some things differently (and better) than pre-pandemic”

Director-producer and TIFF regular Michael McGowan premieres his latest at the fest, “All My Puny Sorrows,” starring Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon and Mare Winningham, an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ acclaimed novel about the close but stormy relationship of two sisters from a Mennonite family. “Miriam Toews wrote an incredibly powerful novel out of her lived experiences that presents suicide in a way I hadn’t considered before,” McGowan says. “She also created three roles that I knew could attract the kind of cast that would elevate the film.” Voltage Pictures has international sales.

Bowing in Contemporary World Cinema, “Maria Chapdelaine,” director Sebastien Pilote’s adaptation of French author Louis Hemon’s beloved Quebec-set 1913 romance novel, found its lead actress, Sara Montpetit, via an open casting call that attracted 800 submissions. “Casting a young actor always involves chance and, at the end of the day, a leap of faith,” says veteran Quebec producer Pierre Even, adding, “It is a great moment to witness the beginning of a career.”

Like his fellow producers, Even says substantial government funding and pandemic-era top-ups are helping his projects manage the dramatic changes in traditional production and market practices: “Bringing a French-language film to the market is always challenging. My hope is that people be moved by these characters, that they see themselves or their parents, or grandparents, in this story of resilience.” Wazabi Films is handling foreign sales on the film.

Vancouver writer-director Blaine Thurier, whose previous five films have screened in Toronto, shifts vampire lore to a group of weary hipsters in “Kicking Blood,” premiering in Contemporary World Cinema and repped by Elle Driver for foreign sales. “The idea of a vampire — someone who has lost all connection with their humanity, living in the shadows to feed their addiction — who tries to reconnect with their lost soul felt like it had a lot of potential to talk about who we are as individuals,” says Thurier. The film is produced by Jennifer Jonas (“Born to the Blue”).

The Discovery program delivers a strong Canadian contingent this year. “Scarborough,” screenwriter Catherine Hernandez’ adaptation of her award-winning novel, is named after the culturally diverse suburb of eastern Toronto where the film was shot last year. LevelFilm has nabbed Canadian rights.

Co-directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s documentary chops helped them manage a 60-member cast of mostly first-time actors, as well as the lean budget and pandemic hurdles. “We are grateful we were able to finish this film, let alone play it to a hometown audience at one of the world’s most prestigious festivals,” says Nakhai, who also  produced. “It’s a real trip to be playing against the like ‘Dune’ that was made for 1,000 times our budget.” Williamson both lensed and edited the film.

In her debut feature “Quickening,” writer-director Haya Waseem explores the tension between cultural traditions and personal freedom through the story of a young Pakistani women who falls in love with a classmate. “The Discovery program acknowledges new voices, and to have a place in a prestigious global festival is a major milestone” she says. “There always will be challenges in getting your film noticed and distributed, but what does not change in my mind is the power of a strong voice, point of view, and the audacity to create work that you believe in. To me that outweighs any challenge.” “Quickening” is produced by Yona Strauss.

Thyrone Tommy’s debut feature, “Learn to Swim,” a romance set in the jazz milieu, scored a coup in the music department. “All the music that is performed in the film had to be written in advance of production, and getting the right sound was hugely important,” explains producer Alona Metzer. On a whim, they reached out to Chester Hansen and Leland Whitty, of Grammy-winning jazz-hip-hop instrumental combo BadBadNotGood, who were interested and available since touring was postponed. “Once we started collaborating, we knew we had something special.”

Living legends and emerging talents in jazz assemble in “Oscar Peterson: Black and White,” a “docu-concert” celebrating the late Canadian jazz pianist, one of the music’s greatest artists. “Last fall I was in a reflective mood looking at the shape of the world and I listened to Oscar Peterson’s epic recording of ‘Hymn to Freedom’ and could not believe how moving and relevant the song is 60 years later,” says director-producer Barry Avrich. “I knew then the world needed more Oscar Peterson.”

Avrich is optimistic that his TIFF Docs premiering film, repped by Fremantle, will find an international audience. “COVID has ignited an insatiable thirst for content. Advance interest for Oscar Peterson is strong, as we have a great cast and made him relevant,” he says, adding, “You have to have the skill, respect and fortitude to navigate the myriad of platforms but if you listen and appreciate what the buyers and commissioners are looking for, you will find an audience.”

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