For Bern Euler, there’s no irony in showing, at a festival devoted exclusively to Canadian movies, a 46-minute documentary on why these same Canadian movies never seem to get a break or find an audience in the theatres of our home and native land.
“That’s just the way it is,” he said the other day from his home in Toronto where, as founder and director of the Canadian Filmmakers’ Festival, he was putting the finishing touches on the festival’s fifth annual instalment, which starts tomorrow.
Euler will be screening 14 Canadian-made features and 22 shorts over five days in Toronto, stuff with titles like Confessions of a Porn Addict, Bedwetter and Insanophenia, and it’s a good bet few if any of them will get (or have gotten) theatrical distribution in a country where last year English-language Canuck features accounted for just 1 per cent of the total gross domestic box-office. Even Euler’s festival is something of a pariah. It has survived largely as a labour of love, fuelled by the fumes of hope, with no financial assistance from any government movie-financing body such as Telefilm Canada or the Ontario Media Development Corporation.
“It’s more than just a festival,” Euler asserted. “It’s” – no, not an exercise in futility or sado-masochism or a kind of inverse snobbery re: Hollywood’s slick glick, but, yes – “a cause.”
In this case, to show Canadians – or at least the 6,000 or so who are expected to attend this year’s CFF (“Every single year we’ve seen growth in our audience,” Euler declared. “Last year almost half of our screenings were sold out!”) – that Canuck films “are not boring, are not all artsy, do not all have bad sound. They’re not all about drug-addled fishermen from PEI dealing with their lesbian daughters who are hooking on the streets of Vancouver.”
One of the CFF’s “world premieres” this year is that 46-minute documentary alluded to earlier. Titled Maple Flavour Films, it’s the tale of a cross-country screening tour that Toronto screenwriter/producer/director Michael Sparaga undertook by car in April, 2006, on behalf of his low-budget feature Sidekick. It also functions as an anatomy of the anemic state of Canadian English-language cinema, with Sparaga eliciting risible answers from ordinary Canadians in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Vancouver to questions such as “What is the name of Canada’s annual movie awards show?” “Do you know any Genie winners from the past decade?” and “What was the last Canadian movie you saw?” Providing sober assessments of our cinematic malaise are the likes of critic Richard Crouse, producer Anna Stratton, distributor Brad Pelman and Michael Kennedy, the last executive vice-president of filmed entertainment for Cineplex Galaxy Cinemas.
Sparaga, who graduated 12 years ago from the film production and screenwriting program at Toronto’s York University, originally conceived Maple Flavour Films simply as an extra for the DVD release of Sidekick, not a standalone documentary. But after completing the screening tour and looking at the video that he and his pals shot during “the great Canadian road trip,” he realized the footage could serve as the basis for something larger. In fact, the last interview, with Cineplex’s Kennedy, wasn’t bagged until last summer.
Ironies, of course, abound in the saga of both Sidekick and Maple Flavour Films. For instance, Sidekick – a smart, charming but dark story of a comic-book-obsessed computer geek who ends up mentoring, with deadly results, a feckless colleague with telekinetic powers – was the winner of the people’s choice award at CFF 2006. A month after that, well, “triumph,” Sparaga and the film’s director Blake Van de Graaf were on their cross-country preview-screening tour, promoting Sidekick in an effort to drum up buzz to lure a theatrical distributor. As they did so, they shot the footage that eventually became the backbone of Maple Flavour Films.
Sidekick was originally shot on digital video in 2004 in Toronto for $35,000, virtually all of it paid for with a $10,000 line of credit and maxing out credit cards. “I’d pay off one credit card with another, and as I paid off the balance, they’d raise my limit,” Sparaga recalled recently. “It was great.” The film had its world premiere in fall 2005 at the Calgary International Film Festival where it enjoyed enthusiastic crowds and piqued the interest of several other film festivals, including one in Boise, Idaho. But Sparaga was broke by then. He knew if the film was to have any legs, the digital version needed to be transferred to a 35-mm celluloid print.
Desperate, he sent what he now calls “a Hail Mary e-mail” to Telefilm, begging the federal funder for help. Amazingly, it agreed, giving him $40,000 from something called the alternative distribution fund. In January, 2006, a print consisting of two 35-mm reels was struck and a few weeks later Sparaga was hauling those reels to the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.
After all this, Sidekick did, in fact, get distribution, from Toronto’s Maple Pictures Corp., not as a sexy theatrical release, mind you, but as fodder for the direct-to-DVD and television markets. Still, the movie continues to persevere; the U.S. DVD, for example, is coming out June 10, which means Sparaga and his buddies are planning a “celebratory day trip to Buffalo to get wings at the Anchor Bar and buy a copy at Best Buy.”
Moreover, all the media that Sidekick got has brought Sparaga into Telefilm’s good books. It has actually landed him development money for “a Canadian creature feature” about Bigfoot, tentatively titled Footprints. “Every country’s got a mythological hominid lurking in the forest,” Sparaga observed. “In Canada, I’m betting that next to hockey, Bigfoot is one of the things kids think about the most.”
The hope is that principal photography can start some time in spring 2009. And who knows, maybe it’ll play at some future Canadian Filmmakers’ Festival. But it better be good.
“We’re not going to show any movies that aren’t worth showing,” the CFF’s Euler attested. “It’s very hard to get into the festival. We never say, ‘Well, it’s Canadian; let’s show it.’ At the end of the day, a good movie is a good movie.”
Euler himself got the Canadian film bug earlier in the decade. “I remember one time I went to the video store in the mood for a monster movie,” he recalled. “So I grabbed Ginger Snaps [a female werewolf movie released in 2000] and I didn’t even know it was Canadian until after I watched it. And I just thought, that was such a good movie, I would have paid to have seen that in the theatre. In fact, I would rather have seen it on the big screen. But I’d never seen it until I bumped into it in the video store. That’s the way it seems to go for Canadian movies, y’know.”
Maple Flavour Films will be screened at 3:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday at the Carlton Cinemas in Toronto. A panel discussion, moderated by Richard Crouse, will follow. For information on the 2008 CFF, which concludes March 29, go to https://www.canfilmfest.ca.
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