Canada's "Coolest" Film Festival

A look at the recent Whistler Film Festival

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Canada's "Coolest" Film Festival

Every year as I make my annual pilgrimage to the Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia, I vow to take up some wintry pursuit such as skiing (or bobsled racing!), in between screenings, but sure enough, each time I get easily sidetracked by the films, industry panels, parties and misadventures. Can you really blame me? One of the festival’s virtues (and vices) is how casual it all feels, even as it manages to attract industry leaders like Voltage’s Nicolas Chartier and Cineplex’s Michael Kennedy.

Whistler, known as a perennial home to ski bunnies, mustachioed muscular men, and a disproportionate number of Australians, has been home to the Whistler Film Festival for 15 years. This December, the festival opened its five days of festivities with a gala screening (and Canadian premiere) of Oscar contender Carol, written by Phyllis Nagy, herself one of last year’s Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch.

The festival often feels more like a retreat with your industry friends than a serious industry gathering—one minute you’re listening to Chartier talk about movie piracy, the next you’re sipping vodka off of a ski in a -30c room. Still, deals and meetings do happen and great movies do get shown—the kicker is that you don’t have to wait in endless lines to see them.

That’s a big part of the festival’s attraction and why it has been growing each year, attracting bigger movie titles and brighter luminaries. (Recent guests include Ivan Reitman, Melissa Leo, Donald Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, Rashida Jones and Daniel Radcliffe.)

This year, the festival featured three more honorees of note: Robert Carlyle, who was also having the Canadian premiere of his BAFTA-award winning directorial debut, The Legend of Barney Thompson; Kiefer Sutherland whose Western, Forsaken, has him acting side-by-side with father Donald; and Bruce Greenwood who—besides excelling at being very funny all whilst maintaining a presidential decorum—was starring as a curmudgeonly British theatre director in the world premiere of Carl Bessai’s Rehearsal at the festival. Greenwood received the festival’s Career Achievement Award, and all regaled audiences with stories.

Under programmer Paul Gratton’s leadership, the festival has ambitions for becoming a mini-Sundance, particularly for Canadian film, which accounted for about half of WFF’s selections. Those selections were an eclectic mix, ranging from films like Legend, Trumbo, A Royal Night, Born to be Blue, and Lady in the Van to the likes of cult-filmmaker Frank Henenlotter’s first non-genre film, Chasing Banksy, to Gaspar Noé’s intensely sexual Love in 3D. There was even a feature film made entirely by a single person, Daniel Robinson’s Nestor. And filmmakers can even experiment in how they present their films. Case in point, Ingrid Veninger, a spirited DIY queen of indie filmmaking if ever there was one, had a different musician do an improvised live performance of the score for her film, He Hated Pigeons each night.

In contrast to bigger, more formal festivals like Cannes or TIFF, the real charm of the Whistler Film Festival is that it lets adults play. Whether in the snow, or in the cinema.

Exploring the Film Industry’s Most Neglected F-Word
This year, the Whistler Film Festival had eight features directed by women—and many more short films. While no one would claim complete parity, compared to the single such film in competition at Cannes, it’s something. The festival, which is largely female-ran, also hosted several initiatives such as Women in the Director’s Chair WFF Industry Immersion, the third annual Women in Film and TV Vancouver WFF Film Market Preparation Mentorship, a Five Filmmaker Pitch for the MPPIA Short Film Award, and the juried Alliance of Women Film Journalists EDA Awards for best female-directed films. This year, the awards went to Hui (Jane) Wang’s documentary Last Harvest, about the impact of massive industrial development in China; Carline Deveaux’s witty animated short, Sunday Brunch; and Valerie Weiss’ A Light Beneath Their Feet, about a daughter (Madison Davenport) whose life is deeply affected by the struggles of her mother (Taryn Manning) with bipolar disorder.

In addition, the festival invited Mary Walsh to be this year’s keynote luncheon speaker—and she delivered a pretty hilarious, feminism-laden speech.

“We’re still celebrating something we like to call International Women’s Day,” she noted, “Even root vegetables get a whole week. Yes, International Turnip Week, October 7th to 14th. And the entire month of May is International Pecan Month, a whole month for nuts, and women only get a day.”

In her 40 years in the film industry, the actress points out that “women are still just as criminally underrepresented in key roles” as when she first started. “So few of our stories get on the screen,” said Walsh, calling for gender parity. “We’re always the important person’s girlfriend, or mom, or nurse. We’re the props or the prize, or chained to a wall screaming in some dank basement.”

Walsh urged women not to give in to disappearing by surviving off of Diet Coke and the “odd Kleenex tissue for roughage” unlike their male counterparts who are encouraged to gulp down steroids and lift weights, “trying to take up more room.”

Her words were met with applause, a standing-ovation even, but afterwards the discussion amongst some guests turned into a duel of opinions. Some ignited by the call for parity in representation, others wondering if forced parity is even respectful to women? (Obviously, these are questions beyond the scope of a five-day festival to answer.)

Whistler Film Festival likes to refer to itself as “Canada’s coolest film festival,” and by virtue of temperature, it is an apt description. But over the years it has grown to earn that title beyond the mere measurement of a thermometer. Though still in its teen years and going through some growing pains, the fest’s casual, inclusive quality, combined with solid programming and quality guests, keeps people coming back each year. It may not be a Sundance, but it is most definitely a Whistler.