WHITE LIE - 6 of the best Canadian films at the Toronto International Film Festival by Karen Harnisch

“If you go to film festivals long enough… it becomes clear that for political reasons, programmers are often pressured to support filmmakers from the country where the fests take place,” Peter Debruge, chief film critic for Variety, wrote in a review of Jasmin Mozaffari’s Firecrackers earlier this year. “Venice is the wrong place to see Italian films. And when it comes to Toronto, don’t waste your time on Canadian fare.”

Many took offence to Debruge’s dismissive attitude to local programming, finding it an insult to the integrity of the programmers and the calibre of the films we make in this country. But as recently as three years ago, Debruge’s truism had merit—as any critic who had actually sat through some of those Canadian films at TIFF could tell you. The industry was truly beleaguered by expensive mediocrities and a lot of big, splashy movies that premiered in Toronto, almost as a courtesy, and went on to play nowhere else.

Things have changed. Radical new policies at Telefilm and other funding bodies have completely redefined how money is awarded to filmmakers across the country; instead of bankrolling two- or three-million-dollar epics by washed-up directors who have been phoning it in since middle age, they are now giving a few hundred thousands of dollars to dozens of different projects each, a shake-up that is already transforming the landscape of Canadian film in a fundamental way.

We have entered an era of Canadian cinema, where it’s finally possible for new and exciting voices to emerge with strange, dynamic, interesting, or otherwise compelling independent features. As a result, for the first year that I can remember, the Canadian films at TIFF are not only not to be avoided, but they are some of the best films at the festival, period.

White Lie

A robust drama that shifts slowly into tense, throat-tightening thriller, White Lie, by Toronto-based directing duo Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, plays like The Talented Mr. Ripley for present-day Southern Ontario. This rousing film concerns Katie (Katie Rohl), a college undergraduate in Hamilton who has become the star of a lucrative crowd-funding campaign to raise money to help her fight malignant melanoma, a disease we quickly learn she doesn’t actually have. When we first meet Katie, the sympathetic cancer-faker is in way too deep already with her scam, and is justly terrified of being exposed as a liar and a fraud. Compelled to buy black-market meds from a local drug dealer (Connor Jessup) to help maintain the pretence, she soon resorts to having ersatz medical documents mocked-up and side effect-inducing injections procured, a process Lewis and Thomas relish with morbid interest, which we watched with clenched teeth and through laced fingers. As the desperation mounts, and as the cunning young woman’s efforts to prolong the charade become increasingly outrageous, the movie cleverly challenges our desire to identify with and root for its complex anti-hero. The directors calibrate the tension perfectly, and without moralizing indict an age in which, thanks to the internet and social media, the line between public and private lives has blurred, and we are all trying our best to keep up appearances.

Canadian shorts 'at the forefront of the medium,' says TIFF filmmaker by Karen Harnisch

TORONTO — At the Toronto International Film Festival sometimes the biggest gems are the shortest.

Though feature-length projects tend to eat up much of the spotlight, some of the short films also go on to Oscar glory, including many Canadian ones.

"I think Canadian shorts are expected to be strong," says Amenta… "And the level of quality and the number of strong projects that are produced in Canada, I think outweigh a lot of other countries."

The Canadian TIFF shorts lineup this year has several… projects with well-known names, including "Please Speak Continuously And Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You" by "Antiviral" director Brandon Cronenberg, son of acclaimed filmmaker David Cronenberg.

"Typically short films are quite contained, so you're allowed to really dive deep and immerse yourself in these worlds and these characters and commit to that," Amenta says.

"There's no time to waste, ever. So I think actors really enjoy that process."

For audiences, shorts provide a chance to experience the emotions of a story without worrying as much about the logistics in the way one would with a feature, he adds.

"You're allowed to do things that are completely new, you can show new worlds, new characters, new forms of storytelling and the audience is still digesting what you're showing them before they have the opportunity to judge it," Amenta says.

"So you are free in the length, in what you're showing, how you're showing it, and I'm in love with the capability of closing a moment at the end of a film where it's unresolved and forces the audience to fill in the gaps."


Ethan Vestby's WHITE LIE TIFF 2019 Review by Karen Harnisch

If a certain trend has emerged within the past half-decade of indie films, it’s the cinema of the grifter; very small-scale titles like Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard or Adrian Murray’s Withdrawn charting millennial malaise manifesting into economic malpractice. These films seem like a true meeting of form and content, as the desperate measures that come from living in a late-capitalist hellhole and the emaciated filmic settings of many low budgets perfectly complement each other. And White Lie, a film predominantly taking place in septic waiting rooms and halls with life-changing decisions depending on convenience store ATM machines, convincingly depicts a world in which one would take drastic measures. If anything, it’s a film deserving of serious praise for capturing how truly depressing Ontario can be in the wintertime–Hamilton’s landscapes haven’t been so vividly rendered since Olivier Assayas’ Clean

Occupying this dead setting is Katie (Kacey Rohl), a university student we catch in media res in an elaborate scam: faking cancer. Having become somewhat of a campus celebrity with posters featuring the hashtag #Fight4Katie spread around its halls, there’s still a next step for her to take, or rather a finish line to cross. Hosting a GoFundMe to finance a trip to Seattle for an “experimental treatment” that can best what’s available from Canadian healthcare, Katie is, despite her celebrity, coming up short. And a serious crack emerges with one key person seeing through the ruse; her father (Martin Donovan, appropriately tired looking) who refuses to lend her the needed $2,000 for the treatment even after she presents a compelling sob story. 

Despite the aforementioned septic quality or discordant musical score giving the impression of a capital A art film, the pleasures here are classical; say squirming in your seat as you see someone bluff their way out of a situation, whether it be to an anonymous figure or her worried girlfriend (and the only person we truly see her exploit) Jennifer (Amber Anderson). Shot and paced with a confidence lacking in much of contemporary Canadian cinema, one almost expects a thriller to break out any point, which is certainly more interesting than another local film regurgitating festival cliches. 

Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis’ latest feature is genuinely pulling off something tricky, in that Katie isn’t defined as strictly likable or not, as what exactly she wants (well, beyond money or to feel a little important or loved) never feels truly articulated. Helped by a strong lead performance that’s neither too big nor too small (just look at the pitch-perfect pinched reactions from Rohl every time she’s challenged on her lie) the film maintains a strong sense restraint amidst all the deliberate discomfort. Furthermore, look at how it seems to carefully tiptoe around obnoxious social media commentary, as if always avoiding potential reactionary-leaning statements on victimization or trite statements on technology and the way we live now. 

Though it gets a little less interesting as it inevitably heads towards a certain conflict, even with the interactions between Katie and Jennifer seeming to border on Fassbinder-like emotional cruelty. It’s here where we realize a bit of a limitation to the concept; as it seems to only have a few scenes or ideas to actually run through. It’s a film strongly conceived if still headed to somewhat of a foregone conclusion. But with all that being said, the acute sense of time and place will likely stick beyond any serious reservations. 

White Lie screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.


WHITE LIE: TIFF19 REVIEW by Karen Harnisch

It lacks the same insane manic energy (most films do), but if you squint at Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis’ White Lie it’s possible to see a sliver of the 2017 classic Good Time. I say this as the highest of high compliments. Both films are built around the absolutely absurd lengths their protagonists will go to secure their future, even in the shortest of terms. Where White Lie differs is in its approach, a not ineffective one.

With a dispassionate eye, we regard Katie as she shaves her head in preparation for another day at school spent fundraising to help her beat cancer. Immediately, we understand the con. No one in her world, save confidant Owen (Connor Jessup) knows the deal—not her dancer troupe friends, nor her university’s administration, and definitely not her girlfriend Jennifer (Amber Anderson). To keep her subterfuge going, Katie is forced to expand her inner circle and face down people like her estranged father (Martin Donovan) and others. In watching White Lie we’re pushed to identify with Katie’s struggles—why can’t she just get what she wants?—even as we’re repulsed by her actions. It’s all a tad ridiculous, and yet… not.

Thomas and Lewis maintain their cool approach, slowly tweaking the pressures exerted on Katie to see if she’ll break. We hang in suspense too wondering if she will indeed get away with everything. While White Lie isn’t quite as captivating as, yes, the Safdie brothers’ masterpiece, it is a harrowing experience in its own way. And to its credit: it ultimately becomes difficult to resist.


‘White Lie’ Clip: Cancer Scam Slowly Unravels In Drama Starring Kacey Rohl – TIFF by Karen Harnisch

EXCLUSIVE: The feature White Lie joins the ranks of dramatic features that puts a seemingly innocent, yet low-key horribly delusional hero front and center who manages to scam people into giving her money because she makes them believe that she has a terminal illness. But in the clip above, her father sees through her lies which makes for some anger-driven tension.

The film, which was originally titled Baldy, stars up and comer Kacey Rohl (Hannibal, Wayward Pines, Arrow) as a university student who fakes the aforementioned cancer diagnosis for financial gain and her struggle to maintain her fabrication. Martin Donovan (Ned Rifle, Inherent Vice, Big Little Lies) stars as her father who can be seen in the clip above unapologetically calling his daughter out on her lies.

The feature was written and directed by Toronto-based Amy George and The Oxbow Incident duo Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis. Karen Harnisch served a producer and Playtime is handling international sales for the film. The film will make its world premiere at TIFF on September 7. Watch the clip above and the trailer below.


TIFF 2019: Review WHITE LIE // The Gate by Karen Harnisch

Andrew Parker of The Gate reviewed WHITE LIE by Calvin Thomas & Yonah Lewis for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and gave it a score of 9/10.

White Lie, the latest and most straightforward effort from Canadian filmmakers Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis (Spice It Up, The Oxbow Cure), is an emotionally devastating look at a young woman who’s learning the hard way that the deception of others is a road that could lead to ruin.

University student and dancer Katie (Kacey Rohl) is a major celebrity on the McMaster campus. Katie’s story of overcoming cancer has endeared her to classmates who readily open their hearts and wallets to contribute to the young woman’s quality of life. The only problem is that – for some reason or another – Katie is making all of this up. She’s on the verge of being found out when she’s asked to provide medical records to receive and lucrative bursary. Her estranged father (Martin Donovan) is convinced that Katie is lying, while her loving girlfriend (Amber Anderson) remains faithful and ever loyal.

White Lie might sound like spending ninety minutes with an unsympathetic antihero, but Thomas, Lewis, and Rohl remarkably finds ways to humanize Katie’s underhanded actions and mounting desperation without ever letting her off the hook. It’s a delicate balancing act that pays off massively, with White Lie adopting a tone and pacing that’s like being stuck inside a pressure cooker, thanks to the crisp cinematography of Christopher Lew and remarkable editing and scoring from frequent collaborator Lev Lewis. It’s an expertly designed, written, and remarkably realized thriller that’s brought to the next level by Rohl’s unforgettable performance.

Whether one ends up loathing Katie or feeling somewhat sorry for her by the end of White Lie is up for debate and will likely change depending on how the viewer chooses to read such emotionally loaded material. However, no matter where a viewer comes down on the moral and ethical arguments at the heart of White Lie, it’s undeniably impressive work.

Saturday, September 7, 2019 – 3:00 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Friday, September 13, 2019 – 6:30 pm – Scotiabank Theatre 4


It Takes an Army by Karen Harnisch

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army to launch a film festival. This is about more than the staff and volunteers at TIFF, or any other film festival for that matter.

But sticking to TIFF 2019 as an example, when you take into account the dozen or so people involved in making a short film and the hundreds involved in making a feature film and multiply that by the number of films submitted (7,926), you begin to get an inkling of how much time, effort and money goes into the making of a major film festival.

But this is also about the bits and pieces that make up a festival. One of the statistics we like out of TIFF is if you sat down and watched every film on the schedule you’d get to stand up again about 20 days later. A total of 28,264 minutes of film.

Sticking with shorts, in TIFF’s Shorts Programme 1, a mix of great international films, look for films by Montréal’s Emilie Mannering, Brandon Cronenberg and the previously mentioned Karen Chapman... Brandon Cronenberg’s title is long for a short, Please Speak Continuously And Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You. It runs 10 minutes and is a psychiatric patient with a brain implant that allows her to relive her dreams. She discovers that her reality is being encroached upon in unappetizing and surreal ways. TIFF’s writers describe it as a “psychedelically retro thriller.”


TIFF's Rising Stars on Being Part of the Changing Face of Film by Karen Harnisch


This Vancouver actress has amassed several TV roles over the past decade in series including AMC's "The Killing," CW/Space's "Arrow," NBC/Citytv's "Hannibal," and Fox/Citytv's "Wayward Pines," and is currently shooting CBC's upcoming spy thriller, "Fortunate Son."

In her new TIFF film "White Lie," Rohl dominates nearly every frame as a young woman who becomes a campus celebrity after pretending to have been diagnosed with cancer.

Directed by Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis, the film is billed as an examination of social media's impact on contemporary culture, including the alarming proliferation of manipulation and falsehoods across the internet.

The 28-year-old Rohl plays the attention-hungry Katie, who finds herself unable to give up the fantasy world she's created even as it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the elaborate ruse.

Co-stars include Martin Donovan of HBO's "Big Little Lies," Connor Jessup of ABC/CTV's "American Crime," Amber Anderson of Netflix's "Black Mirror," and Sharon Lewis of Global's "Private Eyes."


WHITE LIE by Calvin Thomas & Yonah Lewis Receives a 4-Star Rating from The Globe and Mail by Karen Harnisch

Elevator Pitch: 50/50 meets Election

Of all cinematic expeditions to the dark places from which ugliness takes root, Canadian actor Kacey Rohl’s portrayal of Katie, a young girl who resolutely fakes a cancer diagnosis, feels particularly menacing, threatening, even, insomuch as dishonesty is something we’ve all taken part in. Powered by delusions of her own diligent creation and the desperate wish for an identity that makes her special, Katie conceives one little lie after another, her unrelenting stamina for deceit an awakening as to the lengths we’ll go to maintain charades of fulfillment. Rohl’s ability to play a character so committed to hideousness without playing a villain, per se, is an incredible feat of showcasing the complicated scramble that is being alive. White Lie is maddening in its ceaseless chicanery and cautionary in its plausibility — while many of us have never faked having a serious illness, we’ve all found ourselves in too deep at some point or another, perpetuating our own hamster wheels of disgrace. As much about deception as it is the fear of being forsaken, White Lie unfurls to become an unexpected empathy inquest. – Carly Lewis

TIFF 2019 schedule: Sept. 7, 3 p.m., Lightbox; Sept. 13, 6:30 p.m., Scotiabank


TIFF review: White Lie by Norman Wilner by Karen Harnisch

WHITE LIE CWC D: Yonah Lewis, Calvin Thomas. Canada. 96 min. Sep 7, 3 pm, TIFF 1; Sep 13, 6:30 pm, Scotiabank 4. Rating: NNNN

Toronto filmmakers Lewis and Thomas (Amy George, The Oxbow Cure) deliver another incisive psychological drama with this study of Katie (Kacey Rohl), a Hamilton college student who’s been faking a cancer diagnosis. White Lie shadows its anti-hero as she races to keep up the deception on every front.

It’s a character piece that plays like a thriller, with Katie risking everything – her reputation, her academic career, her relationship with her loving, supportive girlfriend (Amber Anderson) – as she doubles and triples down on the lie.

The directors milk remarkable tension by showing us how many holes in her story need to be patched before she’s exposed, and Rohl, who’s distinguished herself in Hannibal, The Magicians and Arrow, is riveting as a young woman who’s as much a victim of her compulsions as any of the people she’s defrauding.


Review: Spice It Up is a weird yet moving Toronto-film-scene project by Karen Harnisch

Spice It Up started in 2013 as a teen dance comedy with filmmakers Lev Lewis, Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas shooting guerilla footage of teenagers Shivali Barot, Samantha Cole, Déjah Dixon-Green, Jennifer Graydon, Becca Willow Moss, Micaela Robertson and Sara Sue Vallee as they ran around Toronto, improvising their way through a series of goofy situations.

Version 2.0 of Spice It Up is a weird little comedy about buried feelings, personal statements and the terror of showing your art to other people. The film student is Rene (Jennifer Hardy CK), who’s struggling to understand why no one likes her thesis project, a GoPro movie about seven teenage girls who flunk a high school dance class and collectively decided to join the Canadian Armed Forces instead of going to summer school. There’s a simple reason: the film is incomprehensible, but Rene refuses to accept that; she made the movie she wanted to make, and she thinks it’s good, so why doesn’t anyone else?


Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis return to TIFF with WHITE LIE by Karen Harnisch

WHITE LIE by Calvin Thomas & Yonah Lewis will have its World Premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film about a university dance major who fakes a cancer diagnosis stars Kacey Rohl, who is also one of this year’s TIFF Rising Stars.

“From a production standpoint, this was a major graduation for us, from shooting on 35mm to working with a professional cast and crew,” Thomas and Lewis say in a joint statement to The Globe and Mail about White Lie, which focuses on an undergrad student who fakes a cancer diagnosis. “Most of all, we’re excited by Kacey Rohl’s performance. We always thought this could be a special role for a talented actor, but what Kacey delivered went far beyond what we expected.”


Karen Harnisch to Executive Produce LGBTQ Family Drama ‘Jump, Darling’ by Karen Harnisch

Academy Award-winning actress Cloris Leachman has signed on to star alongside newcomer Thomas Duplessie in the LGBTQ family drama JUMP, DARLING, written and directed by Phil Connell.

The film from Big Island Productions and Level Film follows Russell (Duplessie), a rookie drag queen who is torn between his precarious future as a queer artist and the comfortable life he’s come to know. He escapes to the country, where he finds his grandmother, Margaret (Leachman), in steep decline yet desperate to avoid the local nursing home. An intergenerational family drama with a juicy queer underbelly, the film examines daunting choices for both Russell and Margaret as the pair must face the consequences that come with choosing unconventional paths.

Jump, Darling also stars Linda Kash (Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show), Jayne Eastwood (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Dawn of the Dead), Marc Caven as well as drag talent Tynomi Banks, Miss Fiercelicious and Faye Slift.

Katie Corbridge serves as producer while Karen Harnisch (White Lie, Sleeping Giant) will executive produce. Casting was done by Jesse Griffiths.

The film is set to start principal photography in early June, shooting in Toronto and Prince Edward County, Canada. The project was a selection at the first annual Inside Out LGBTQ finance Forum in 2017 and is also supported by the Telefilm Talent-to-Watch Fund. Level Film will distribute the film in Canada.