Arts + Culture » Film + TV

Stick to your guns, filmmakers

Screw the Toronto data-readers. Filmmaking is expensive and time-consuming, but the way ahead in 2017 is to find a middle ground.

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JESSICA HARTJES
  • JESSICA HARTJES

Of all the art forms, film requires the most people and the most money. You can start and end a single day and have a finished song or drawing or painting. But films need many more people and you have to feed those people and if some of them are in unions then you have to pay them—not whatever you can scrape up, whatever the union tells you to. It's not like making a record or putting on a show, where everyone just commits to putting in their time and if there's money at the end you each get a little bit.

Halifax's artistic economy is one of barter. Of donated services, of favours, of good old heart. Not of institutionally approved budgets with mandated snack breaks. In "the film business" there's the very top—The Mist—and the very bottom—Film 5—but many things preclude the existence of a middle ground. There's a hierarchy in every art form, but the rules of film—a huge business, bigger than all the rest—make it so damn difficult to put together the people you want to make the thing you want without worrying about overtime or what Telefilm considers regional enough that most people don't bother, or they put their sister in it, or they change it to accommodate what some Toronto data-reader thinks of as "folksy." That is to say: There is a lot of compromising. Yet films still get made. The Atlantic Film Festival has never run out of things to show. But are visions being realized?

Ashley McKenzie has, with her debut feature Werewolf, not just found the middle ground but defined it on her own terms. Sure, she used Telefilm money, but she took less so she could retain creative control. Instead of a bank, she put her own credit on the line and wrote Canada Council grants as alternative funding sources. Her cast and crew were non-union, so if she needed to shoot longer or do something that wasn't scheduled she could without violating any agreements.

None of this would matter if Werewolf sucked. But it's terrific—first-time actors Bhreagh MacNeil and Andrew Gillis are real and impactful, the camerawork is handheld and tightly composed, and the whole enterprise throws a layer of grit over Cape Breton, the seedy side no one wants to talk about. (McKenzie deliberately chose not to show the ocean.) It actively subverts the "Nova Scotia movie." It's a singular artistic vision that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and last week was named to TIFF's Top Ten (the best Canadian films this year). In 2017, more filmmakers need to be willing to stick to their guns—and guts—and create what they want, inside the framework they want, cobbling together whatever resources they can to build out the middle ground. There's some beautiful art in there.

Tara Thorne reviews movies for The Coast and CBC New Brunswick.

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