For well over a year I have been saying things at Toronto Film Scene meetings like, “We should do an issue on the New Toronto New Wave.” I am often met with blank faces from our contributors and editorial staff. It’s the face you’re probably making right now.
The faces on the former indicate they have no idea what I’m talking about. The faces on the latter indicate they have no idea how we would do that – and if we did, would anyone care?
By now, I’m pretty used to this, and still, I forge ahead. “Let’s talk about the newest generation of filmmakers to make waves and change Canadian film the way the Toronto New Wave did in the ‘80s,” I say. “Let’s get people really fired up about them.”
So here we are. While there are certainly many factors that influenced the artistic movements in Canadian film, it could be argued that there were three major events that created the cinema landscape that exists today in this country: the creation of the NFB in 1940, with an eye towards connecting the people of this vast country; the creation of the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) in the ‘70s, making way for films to be created as money losers and tax shelters, rather than an artform; and changes to those same tax laws that ended the production boom in 1982.
At approximately the same time as the film tax laws changed, a group of young filmmakers came of age in Toronto and began making films. These filmmakers were entirely unknown at the time, but their films have since gone on to win international acclaim and awards, not to mention changing the way Canadians see themselves in cinema. You might know a few of them: Atom Egoyan, Peter Mettler, Ron Mann, Bruce McDonald, Patricia Rozema, Clement Virgo and John Greyson. This talented and inventive group of independent filmmakers is known as the Toronto New Wave.
But that was 30 years ago. An entirely new generation of independent filmmakers has emerged in that time who are making waves of their own. So who are these filmmakers following in the footsteps of Egoyan, McDonald and Rozema? Who is the “New Toronto New Wave”?
In order to get a good survey of the current film landscape, I called Steve Gravestock, Associate Director, Canadian Programming at TIFF. He is responsible for TIFF’s year-round Canadian programming, with initiatives such as Canada’s Top Ten and the Canadian Open Vault, but also oversees the organization’s ongoing series of detailed written studies on Canadian films filmmakers, which has recently partnered with University of Toronto Press. I feel it’s fair to say that there are few people in this country who have watched more Canadian film than Gravestock.
“I would say in the last five or six years, there’s a real cluster of filmmakers in Toronto that are very simpatico, possibly even more simpatico than the Toronto New Wave group was at the beginning of their career,” Gravestock says when I ask him about the “New Toronto New Wave.”
He mentions Kazik Radwanski, who directed Tower and “…a slew of really incredible shorts,” and Igor Drljaca, who directed Krivina, in addition to a number of shorts of his own. He mentions Brandon Cronenberg, Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas who directed The Oxbow Cure, and Shayne Ehman and Seth Scrivner, who directed and animated Asphalt Watches this year.
He also mentions Hugh Gibson, who produced the documentary A Place Called Los Pereyra, Matt Johnson who directed and starred in The Dirties, and Ryan Noth and Joel McConvey who produced The National Parks Project. Gravestock finishes off this list by mentioning Simon Ennis, who directed You Might As Well Live and Lunarcy!, Jason Buxton who directed Blackbird, and a number of genre filmmakers, such as Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) and Craig Goodwill (Patch Town), although Gravestock admits these filmmakers come from slightly different backgrounds.
If you’re a diehard cinephile with a taste for independent film in all its forms, you’ve probably heard of some, if not all, of these filmmakers. If you tend to lean more towards the populist side of cinema, you may be a little more lost when it comes to the films and filmmakers on that list. If you have seen a film on this list, your feelings about it were likely visceral – you either loved it or hated it. Looking at user reviews for most of these films shows this off well. It’s not rare for feelings about these films to range from “this film had no point” and “I didn’t get past the first 10 minutes,” to “this is a remarkable film” and “I felt like they made it for me.” There is simply no in between.
So what makes these films so special? Why should you bother to head out to your local rental store to find a copy of You Might As Well Live or Tower? The answer is simple: they’re important to the future of cinema in this country. “These are important filmmakers,” Gravestock says, “You’re going to be hearing about them for quite some time.”
Their importance comes in a number of forms. First, they tend to tell intimate stories, with few characters, which look at issues of identity. Tower puts one man’s life and odd behaviour under a microscope, without allowing the audience the benefit of context by which to judge him. Antiviral looks at the loss of self in a commercial and fame obsessed world. Krivina follows a man who has made his home in Canada back to the former Yugoslavia to confront old demons. You Might As Well Live journeys with its main character through the trials required to get the three key ingredients to being a “somebody.”
All of these filmmakers also tend to work on small budgets, frequently micro-budgets. While most films’ budgets remain undisclosed, you can get a sense of the tiny scope of the funding from a few Google searches. For example, The Oxbow Cure raised over $25,000 on their own, including $12,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, while The Dirties was reportedly made for $10,000.
Another similarity of these filmmakers is that they tend to work with minimal set-ups and prefer to work with actors they know, rather than going through casting agencies. Frequently there are few major set pieces in their films, and the foreground is the main subject, as opposed to a film that has a great deal going on in the background. “These films tend to [have] the foreground heavily emphasized,” Gravestock says, “I do think that foreground thing is sort of a fall out from the digital video aesthetic.”
The mention of digital brings up an important question: does Gravestock think that the age of low-cost, widely accessible digital technology has been as big an instigating factor as the end of the Tax Shelter Era? He agrees that an argument could be made for that, but also notes that these filmmakers didn’t start making films until six or seven years after digital started making big screen splashes with films like The Blair Witch Project and Celebration.
“I don’t think it was a call to arms, like, hey we can make movies really cheap,” he says. “It’s also difficult to separate digital video and dogma. It’s not difficult to link up some of the dogma stuff, and some of the dogma concerns and some of the aesthetic in dogma, to say, Kaz’s film, Igor’s film, even Jason Buxton’s movie Blackbird. I think by the time those guys started making films it was part of the landscape. They know this is what they can do.”
Gravestock also notes that in many cases the use of digital technology is more an aesthetic choice than a monetary one. “With Atom and Patricia and Bruce, to some degree, and some of the other guys, I think they were forced to go the Council route. It was the only way to make films. Whereas I think this is as much an aesthetic decision with someone like Brandon or Kaz or Igor or the guys who made Los Pereyra. I think these are the stories they want to tell, and I think these are the techniques they’ve come up with to tell these stories that are the most appropriate.”
It’s obvious that the techniques matter—these filmmakers matter. This group of filmmakers will leave a lasting impression on the writers, producers, directors and actors who come after them. Someday Simon Ennis, Kazik Radwanski, Igor Drljaca, Brandon Cronenberg, Yonah Lewis, Calvin Thomas and the rest will be Canadian household names the way Atom Egoyan, Bruce McDonald, Patricia Rozema, Don McKellar, Peter Mettler and Ron Mann are today.
In putting together issue on independent film, and speaking to so many amazing Canadian filmmakers, we decided it couldn’t be done in one single issue. In January, Toronto Film Scene is starting a series looking closely at these important filmmakers and their work. We hope you’re looking forward to it as much as we are.
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