Playing with the big kids 

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

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"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.

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