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Canadian Cinema, Festivals and Conferences

BIFF 2013 #11: MDF Films of Toronto

Two of the 'users' for whom the daily visit to the pharmacy is part of a social routine.

Two of the ‘users’ for whom the daily visit to the pharmacy is part of a social routine.

BIFF19logoThis screening offered a double bill of recent films from the Canadian independent film producers MDFF or ‘Medium Density Fibreboard Films’. Trying to research the group online I’ve found http://www.mdfproductions.com/ a ‘crossplatform production company based in Toronto’, which I think is connected and a Facebook page which certainly is. I think I need to put my cards on the table here. I’m a fan of many aspects of Canadian culture and I’m always happy to when I see that Bradford has programmed something Canadian since it’s often hard to find the films elsewhere. So I’m pre-disposed to look kindly on this double-bill. But there are some things that can put me off.

The first film screened was East Hastings Pharmacy (Canada 2012) by Antoine Bourges. This a 46 minute fictionalised observational documentary. In other words what we see is a ‘drama’ played out by a pair of actors playing the pharmacists in a dispensary for methadone users in Vancouver. The users are ‘real’ and members of the local community (which, according to the Montreal Documentary fest is the district in Canada with the highest proportion of drug users). The pharmacy was built as a set a few doors down in a shopfront close to the real pharmacy (see an interview with the director here). So, while the film looks like a classic slice of the Direct Cinema school of US documentaries of the 1960s it’s actually much calmer with some of the stress taken out of the encounters at one level, allowing the audience to gradually understand what is happening and reflect upon the lives of the methadone users – which aren’t all grim, even if they are stories of loss. Shauna Hansen as the dispensing pharmacist is very good. She has both strength and vulnerability and we get to understand what the job entails as well as what is happening with the users. The whole film is non-judgemental about the issue of drug dependency and I found watching it a rewarding experience. Here is a brief trailer that conveys the calm observational style (you can also use this link to see the a trailer for the next film, Tower:

 

 

Tower (Canada 2012) is rather different. This is the first feature-length film from MDFF at 78 mins and it has been seen in cinemas, first at the Royal in Toronto. It’s directed by Kazik Radwanski, one of the founders of MDFF with Dan Montgomery. I had no problem with the subject matter of the film but I found it almost unwatchable because of the visual style. Now this may also be associated with watching the film on the IMAX screen, i.e much bigger than it would usually be (standard format films take up roughly a third of the IMAX screen, still much bigger than in a small arthouse screen). Radwanski films everything and everybody in Tower in medium close-up/close-up, even BCU, in shallow focus using a handheld camera. There are just the occasional mid-shots and perhaps a couple of long shots in the whole film. I can see that there is a logic to this and it takes us into the cheerless world of ‘Derek’ a thirty-something man, losing his hair and getting nowhere in terms of work or his social life. We spend the entire film with Derek, still at home with his parents and working part-time for his uncle in the construction business when he isn’t painstakingly creating a computer animation in his basement. We follow him to clubs, desultory dates and social gatherings and in his war against a raccoon which is attacking the dustbin at his parents’ house.

A rare composed MCU of Derek (played by Derek Bogart)

A rare composed MCU of Derek (played by Derek Bogart)

Several of the reviews contrast Canadian cinema’s approach to characters like Derek with their Hollywood equivalents, who would either be ‘redeemed’ or there would be another kind of real ‘closure’ of the narrative. Derek is also compared to literary fiction’s anti-heroes. Again, I can see the connections but I found the visual style so alienating that I couldn’t engage at all. Towards the end of the film I found myself very worried that something bad was going to happen – and I feared most for the raccoon. I should mention also that in the opening scenes Derek gets drunk at a club and when he comes to on the floor of his parents’ home he has a deep gash near the bridge of his nose. This stays with him as a livid scar (as his mother predicted) throughout the rest of the film (i.e. over several weeks). Alas, poor Derek! I think I’ll pass on Tower. The filmmakers clearly have talent and ambition, so it’s probably my loss. The film was presented in English with French subtitles. I wondered if this was a requirement for screenings in certain Toronto or Montreal cinemas? Anyway, it meant that I could practise translations when I found the screen image too off-putting.

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