November 26, 2004 Features & Images » Feature Story

Heir independent 

The Whistler Film Festival and the Sundance ambition

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Vancouver-based filmmaker Carl Bessai concurred. "Whistler has everything Park City has times 10," he said.

In Sundance in 2002 with his film Lola , the veteran director came to Whistler last December to screen the film Émile starring Sir Ian McKellen, as well as to moderate a script analysis workshop. The fledgling fest struck a chord with Bessai and in 2004 he enlisted as the chair of the board of directors. He has since spearheaded several initiatives to go beyond locale and start building Whistler’s reputation for launching, discovering and promoting independent Canadian film, including the juried Borsos competition. Bessai was also instrumental in hiring programming director Bill Evans, formerly a director of showcases and of the NSI Film Exchange Festival at the National Screen Institute.

None would know better than the independent filmmaker that when calibrating a festival’s success in the eyes of the industry festival ticket sales are secondary to discoveries – and having the biz’s movers and shakers make money off the discoveries. A random search of Sundance is guaranteed to bring up mention of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh, whose films Reservoir Dog s and Sex Lies and Videotape respectively are two of that festival’s most significant discoveries to date.

While Whistler’s 2003 program offered several premieres, there was a significant portion comprised of previously viewed films from Toronto, Vancouver, and other festivals. Looking around, Bessai noted several industry people who had obviously seen most of Whistler’s program at different festivals earlier in the year, yet were happily in Whistler simply for the destination. Imagine, he mused, if new films could be added? Industry buzz plus Whistler locale would make for a potent combination he claims is badly needed in Canadian independent cinema.

"Sundance’s number one preoccupation is launching yet unseen new American cinema," Bessai emphasized. "Where’s the Canadian response? What festival in Canada is the place to really take its own cinema seriously? You know what the answer is? There isn’t one.

"I’m being an opportunist, in a sense, because I see how a place like Whistler can help Canadian film," he continued, "because Canadian film needs a positive spin. It needs an image shake up. Sundance has done that for American independent film. American independent film was suffering 15-20 years ago. It was in trouble. A lot of great directors, like Tarantino, came out of the Sundance experience. We’ve got to do that for our people... we’ve let a lot of our artists and our creators ‘leave town’ in Canada because we discovered them last."

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