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Playing with the big kids

At five years old, the Whistler Film Festival strives to define its identity

Amidst the hazy ephemera of childhood memory, turning five is something that generally stands out bold and bright as a red nose on a birthday clown. Sure you may not look all that different from when you were four. A couple pounds, a couple missing teeth, a couple sizes in moon boots, give or take. But it’s more about what’s inside that makes five count. It’s the inner awakening, the realization that you are someone significant and unique. You have your own ideas about things and your own view about how you wish people to take you. Are you the class buffoon? The bully? The flirt? The strong silent type? The peacemaker? The instigator? Or something else altogether? The world is yours in which to define yourself and one thing’s for certain, you’re not a simpering toddler anymore; you’ve made it to real school and you’re sharing a playing field with the big kids now.

It’s not just the young ’uns that start coming into their own at five. The Whistler Film Festival celebrates the five-year milestone this year and in doing so, is claiming its own spot on the playing field. But what kind of identity is the Whistler festival growing into? A glitzy, glamorous celeb-a-thon? A sober cinematic affair? A casual celebration of local talent and mountain culture? Or something else altogether?

As is the case with real kids, whatever identity develops will be largely influenced by existing power players that already rule the school. And right now the most popular, influential, untouchable kid on the Canadian landscape is the Toronto International Film Festival, an event so cool and powerful it’s even got a nonchalant nickname – the TIFF.

This year’s TIFF was a landmark of sorts. At the distinguished age of 30, the festival was lauded as being on par with France’s Cannes Film Festival in terms of international significance by none other than leading film critic Roger Ebert. Few would find fodder for argument. Over the 10-day run, Sept. 8 to 17, the 2005 TIFF presented 335 films (described by one Toronto film writer as an "orgiastic" offering), among which were 129 world premieres. Within the hive of buzz-generators screening were: Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line , human rights drama North Country , mathematical brain teaser Proof , animated macabre tale Corpse Bride and countless others. A-list principals flooded the red carpets, VIP rooms and press conference head tables. Stratospheric one-name starlets like Gwyneth, Charlize, and Reese. J-men du jour Joaquin Phoenix, Johnny Depp and Jake Gyllenhaal. Éminences grises such as Sir Anthony Hopkins, and Shirley MacLaine. Steve Martin shopped his Shopgirl . Heath Ledger came out for Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain . Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom checked in for Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown . No less than an Us Magazine’s worth of Madonnas and Diazs and Downey Juniors came to town for the TIFF.

In the backrooms, away from the blinding light of paparazzi flashbulbs, the business side of the TIFF flourished too. Bidding warfare broke out among attending distributors, the most high profile battle being between Paramount Classics and Fox Searchlight over director Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking . The biting satire about shady goings on in the world of big tobacco lobbying starring Aaron Eckhart ended in cunning Fox’s favour.

All in all, the official post-TIFF film sales tally is touted as a record-breaking $52 million (that’s an average of $5.2 million per day for you non-metric system users). The figures were officially announced with a statement from TIFF’s co-director Noah Cowan, declaring the results "confirm Toronto's status as a top-tier festival for international business and deal-making." And that: "international buyers clearly recognize Toronto as one of the world's premiere festivals to discover and buy the best cinema from across the globe."

It’s not just smoke and mirrors; insiders will tell you to believe the hype. "Toronto’s a whirlwind," says Whistler Film Festival co-founder and director Shauna Hardy Mishaw, who chalked up four TIFFs with last September’s attendance. "It’s 10 days. It’s full on. It’s from morning to as late as you’re willing to go. And you’re going from film screenings, to sessions, to meetings, to events. You need a lot of energy. But it’s great. You get an opportunity to connect with top people in the industry. It’s the place to be. You have to go."

Just where was the host country at TIFF 2005? Lost in the international star-studded, mover and shaker shuffle? Au contraire. More like the main event. A higher profile Canadian filmmaker cage match could not have been dreamed up by Don King himself, with Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies in one corner and David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence in the other. On top of that, the festival opened with a splash with a screening of Water – prolific indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s highly anticipated addition to her elemental film triptych.

But for the Egoyans, Cronenbergs and Mehtas of tomorrow the TIFF is a much tougher go. Despite making space with film categories Canada First! and Short Cuts Canada, the unassailable truth is that less well-known and up and coming Canadian filmmakers, whose monikers lack the cachet of a certain Armenian surname, can be easily overlooked amidst the massive TIFF hype machine.

"Toronto is overwhelming," admits Ann Marie Fleming, a Vancouver-based filmmaker who premiered two films – Room 710 and The French Guy – at the recent 2005 TIFF, and who is looking forward to her first appearance at the Whistler Film Festival this year, where she will be screening The French Guy , and serving as a judge for the festival’s Short Scripts competition. A veteran of 16 Toronto International Film Festivals over the course of her 18-year film career, Fleming says she has observed in recent years a general suffocating of the undiscovered indie Canadian cinema that was formerly the TIFF’s raison d’être. "When I started going to Toronto it was very much an independent Canadian film festival. And then it went ballistic," Fleming remarks. "I really like that festival and I like the people there and I’m lucky enough to get some press, but it’s pretty fucking hard to get press in Toronto."

According to Whistler Film Festival programming director Bill Evans, the unheralded Canadian filmmaker’s pain is the Whistler Film Festival’s gain, and a key factor in how the five-year-old event is choosing to define itself in the North American film festival landscape.

After making a significant jump in total film screenings from 40 in 2003 to 93 films in 2004, the 2005 Whistler Film Festival is staying its hand in 2005 at 90 screenings, with renewed emphasis on promoting a vibrant filmmaker forum element and building on the film biz side of things. One particular session this year features a panel of international sales agents and producers who will be available to meet with participating filmmakers, with the goal of forming partnerships for larger-scale projects down the road. It helps, says Hardy Mishaw, that industry players are generally excited to visit Whistler based on its reputation as a resort vacation destination. One such guest this year is esteemed producer Robert Lantos, who will be the subject of a special tribute evening and will serve as a juror for the festival’s top prize, the $10,000 Phillip Borsos Award for Best Canadian Feature Film. "We want to be more industry centric through our forum and through other activities that we’re exploring, definitely for emerging but also for established filmmakers," Hardy Mishaw says. "We want to bring the established filmmakers here. Because if the established filmmakers come, the emerging filmmakers will have to be here."

In addition to becoming what Evans deems an "incubator" for Canadian filmmaking, the Whistler festival is also trying to establish its reputation as a place where quality independent Canadian filmmaking will be discovered and duly recognized, as exemplified with the two-year-old Borsos Award, which this year has broadened its eligibility requirements. Formerly, Borsos-eligible films had to screen as world premieres at the Whistler festival, but this year, while the films must be new, they can have previous screenings on their dance card. Among the films competing for the prize under the revised regulations is Six Figures by Calgary-based filmmaker David Christensen, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

Evans says the motivation for changing the Borsos requirements was based on the realization that the restrictions left out too many good films, and on reevaluation, it was less important that the films be world premieres, and more important that the films embody the spirit of Phillip Borsos. The late Canadian director of films such as Bethune and the Grey Fox is revered for taking on challenging projects and refusing to compromise his artistic vision, even in the most difficult of circumstances. It’s a sensibility Evans applies to the Whistler Film Festival as a whole. "Each festival has to figure out its niche," he says. "Ours is trying to promote a maverick spirit which is reflected in the community."

That "maverick spirit" includes celebrating your own. While Hardy Mishaw and Evans are both adamant that the Whistler Film Festival not evolve into a mountain-culture event a la the Banff Festival or the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, the overwhelming popular response to former festival fare such as Ski Bums , In the Shadow Of The Chief and Crazy Canucks has inspired a new award this year for Best Mountain Culture Film. 2005 also marks the launch of Whistler Stories, a legacy film competition funded in part by the provincial government that is awarding four $5,000 grants to B.C. filmmakers, one of whom is to be of aboriginal heritage. The short films must be about stories specific to Whistler. Grants will be awarded in each of the years leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Included in the inaugural selection are First To Go Down , by Whistler residents Rebecca Wood Barrett, Lisa Richardson and Lisa Fernandez, about a youngster’s quest to find out who skied Whistler first, and Sojourn , by filmmaker and writer Feet Banks, a film that taps into the mind of Whistler-based underground artist Chili Thom. The third entry, by Vancouver’s Tracy D. Smith, features the outcome of a Whistler one-night-stand. The Whistler Stories films will screen in conjunction with the opening gala presentation of C.R.A.Z.Y. – a Quebecois coming of age film set in the rockin’ ’70s, (and a TIFF 2005 success story to boot).

The "maverick spirit" has as much to do with where the Whistler Film Festival is headed as to where it is right now. While insiders know it’s the business deals that are the building blocks of a festival’s success, the mainstream perception is that a successful fest is the sum of its celebrity guests. But having a high measure of red carpet exclusivity is not necessarily a sign that an event has arrived, and deciding not to actively court celebs can be the road less traveled that makes all the difference. Take, for example, the highly esteemed Telluride Film Festival, in the comparable mountain resort town of Telluride, Colorado, which is known as an egalitarian occasion for true cineastes. There are no free passes for media and stars are made to stand in line with the ticket holding masses. (Don’t try "don’t you know who I am" in Telluride – it will get you absolutely nowhere.) The program, including special tributes, is kept secret, even from the press, until the official festival launch. And for this blatant celebrity blasphemy, this eschewing of the element of glitz and glam, Telluride has not been brushed off, but rather rewarded with a loyal following, a storied 32-year history, buzz-worthy programming and a list of sponsors that reads like a Forbes 500 feature. You don’t go to Telluride to be seen, you go to see films. And for that particular festival, it has worked just fine.

At this point in the life of the Whistler Film Festival Evans will admit he finds the Telluride model very attractive, and somewhat realistic and attainable. "I don’t think our festival is ever going to be a big schmoozy red carpet kind of thing. It’s more about ‘white carpet,’" he quips, adding, "we want to include everybody. No tuxedos; it’s Whistler chic." Although he emphasizes it is definitely too early in the game to officially declare festival policy as such. Should the A-List stars and the resulting paparazzi come calling to future Whistler film festivals, "it wouldn’t be such a bad thing," Evans muses. "I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it."

For first-timer Fleming, there are no expectations, only a vague perception that the four-day Whistler Film Festival lends itself to a party atmosphere and will provide a refreshing opportunity for films that would have to scrape and beg for attention at a larger festival to have their merits duly noted. In any case, she says she is impressed by the ambitious filmmaker forum programming, which has definite potential to turn Whistler into a festival to be reckoned with. "All it takes is a couple of ideas and anything can happen," she says, considering that "in Toronto, the emphasis used to be on independent Canadian films... so who knows what Whistler will be in another 10 years."

Shelley Arnusch is a former Arts and Music Editor of Pique Newsmagazine.