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Get your fest

Checking in from the back of a movie theatre, where he’s been living for the past week, with a mid-point report on the Atlantic Film Festival.



"Desperately disappointing" is how Peter Greenaway was describing the contemporary corpse of film to a luncheon audience of Canadian filmmakers, producers, broadcasters, distributors and their international guests.

The iconoclastic British director went on to say that the death of cinema really occurred on September 31, 1983, with the invention of the "zapper"—the television remote control—and that these days, children are "born with the buttons in their mouths."

This was before Greenaway went on to talk about his own movie, Nightwatching, screening at the festival.

Oh yes, the rhetoric of the provocateur—it's what film festivals were made for, even if the paradoxical occasionally goes off-road into the hypocritical. We're spending our days watching movies and talking about movies and that's what's important. With so many international entries on our screens, it really feels as if the stories of the world are being told to us every night of the week.

This year's festival is notably light on Hollywood, which is not necessarily a bad thing. What we miss in glamour and star appearances we make up for in homegrown and co-pro pictures, ones we probably won't get to see later on in the multiplexes.

The question is, do we go and see the new French romantic comedy Hunting and Gathering, starring Amelie's Audrey Tautou, or Paolo Barzman's Emotional Arithmetic, a film about holocaust survivors reuniting 40 years later in Quebec, starring Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow and Susan Sarandon?

It's a tough call, but unlike some past years, the Canadian film is a very good bet.

The sheer quality, not to mention quantity, of Canadian production finding its way onto screens at this year's festival is startling. The first seven films I saw were Canadian or Canadian co-productions. Even Greenaway's picture was a six-country co-pro, with our flag proudly displayed in the credits as being one of them.

And though Greenaway is probably the most lauded director to be working with Canadian money on his project, his film wasn't my favourite of the bunch. That would be Jeremy Podeswa's Fugitive Pieces, a deeply moving adaptation of the Anne Michaels novel: the story of Jakob, a Jewish boy who in the 1940s is spirited away from his home in Poland to Greece and eventually to Canada. As an adult he becomes a teacher and writer, but can't let go of the ghosts of the past, his family and sister who were taken away by the Nazis. Dark, sad but not despairing, Fugitive Pieces, vaults onto my list of the best movies of the year.

The big local star of the festival has to be Chaz Thorne, with his feature directorial debut, the ghoulish Windsor-shot comedy Just Buried and his script for Poor Boy's Game, the gritty Clement Virgo-directed story of a young, white ex-con boxer in Halifax, originally locked up for having savagely beaten a black man, now re-entering a community taut with racial and class animosity. Of the two, Poor Boy's Game was the one that really resonated with me, at least partly because it was such a thrill to see a film set in a recognizable Halifax, not a town whose problems are glossed over with a quaint, "We Love the Past" touristy charm. It's a fictional drama, but it is also courageous art, and Thorne should be proud of that. I also predict leading man Rossif Sutherland will have a career to compare with older half-brother Kiefer...he has that star thing that demands your attention while he's on screen.

Other notable Canadian entries were The Stone Angel (a three-hanky weepie, rooted in another sterling Ellen Burstyn performance), Shake Hands With The Devil (Roy Dupuis is The Man) and The Tracey Fragments. (No, actually, Ellen Page is The Man.)

And, as usual, the documentaries have really impressed. Though they remain unseen by me, I've heard good things about Canadian docs The Bodybuilder and I and Willard: The Hermit of Gully Lake. Of the docs I did catch, it was Zoo that left me most unsettled. Phrases that I'd never expected to see sharing space in a blurb I'd write, "extraordinarily beautiful" and "true story of death by bestiality." But there they are.

Finally, the Danish horror pic, Room 205, scared the shit right outta of me. It felt really good.

The Atlantic Film Festival runs until September 22.

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