“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.
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.