Québécois cinema is winning over festival juries and audiences around the world. Melanie Goodfellow visits Quebec’s cultural hub Montreal to look at the global reach of the region’s film-makers
Barely a festival or awards ceremony goes by these days without a Québécois picture in the line-up: the cinema of Canada’s eight million-strong, French-speaking community has an incredible global reach.
Recent months have seen director Denis Coté’s Vic + Flo Saw A Bear (Vic + Flo Ont Vu Un Ours) win a Silver Bear in Berlin and Kim Nguyen’s Congo-set War Witch (Rebelle) [pictured] become the third Quebec-produced title to make it onto the foreign-language Oscar short list in as many years, after Monsieur Lazhar in 2012 and Incendies in 2011. Last summer, Rafael Ouellet picked up best director for Camion at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Recent international theatrical releases from Québécois film-makers include War Witch, Café De Flore, Laurence Anyways and sperm-donor comedy Starbuck, which drew more than 200,000 spectators in France, and sparked US and French remakes.
Québécois films expected to make a splash internationally this year include Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ psychological drama Whitewash, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this month, Louise Archambault’s Gabrielle, a coming-of-age tale about a mentally challenged young woman, Sébastien Pilote’s rural drama Le Démantelement and psychological thriller Tom At The Farm (Tom A La Ferme) from I Killed My Mother director Xavier Dolan.
Fans of Denys Arcand, who won the foreign-language Oscar with The Barbarian Invasions in 2004, will have to wait until 2014 for his next work, Two Nights (Deux Nuits). Other pictures in development or pre-production include Nguyen’s next project L’Origine Du Monde and L’Affaire Dumont director Podz’ Miraculum, a ensemble film set in the wake of a plane crash featuring Dolan, Anne Dorval and Marilyn Castonguay in the cast.
“There’s definitely something in the water in Quebec right now… they’re turning out some wonderful films,” says Charlotte Mickie, Toronto-based head of sales at eOne Films International, which is handling Gabrielle and Whitewash on behalf of production company micro_scope — the production house behind Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar.
“A decade ago, we were happy if one Québécois film broke out internationally annually; this year we’ve got six or seven pictures with international potential,” says Francois Macerola, president of Quebec’s cultural fund SODEC, the key backer of Québécois cinema. SODEC invests $34m (can$35m) in roughly 25 to 30 features a year, alongside Canadian state-backed audiovisual fund Téléfilm Canada, which adds roughly another $14.6m (can$15m).
“When we were making C.R.A.Z.Y. 10 years ago, foreign sales agents told us no-one in the world would be interested in a Québécois film,” recalls War Witch producer Pierre Even, co-head with Marie-Claude Poulin of Item 7, referring to Jean-Marc Vallée’s 2005 hit. “Now people approach us to find out what’s being made in Quebec… the change in attitude is enormous.”
‘This year we’ve got six or seven pictures with international potential’
Francois Macerola, SODEC
Item 7 and micro_scope are among some 50 production companies operating out of Montreal alongside the likes of veteran producer Roger Frappier and daughter Félize Frappier’s Max Films, which is shooting an English-language remake of 2003 Québécois classic Seducing Doctor Lewis (La Grande Séduction); Starbuck producer André Rouleau’s Caramel Films; Denise Robert and Daniel Louis’ Cinémaginaire, the production house behind Arcand’s features; and Martin Paul-Hus’ Amérique Films, which focuses on international co-productions such as the upcoming Canadian-Irish picture Stay.
The city is also home to cutting-edge production boutiques turning out low-budget films with festival appeal. Prominent among these is Sylvain Corbeil and Nancy Grant’s Metafilms, which produces Coté’s works, and frequent collaborator Stéphanie Morissette of Coop Vidéo de Montreal, who often works with Ouellet.
“Over the years, we have built up a network of contacts and know-how which enables to get our films made on small budgets,” says Corbeil.
Such low-budget film-making has its perils, notes Corbeil wryly. The rusting ship that acted as a set for Metafilms’ recent Diego Star started taking on water on the last day of shooting. “We couldn’t afford to stop shooting — we patched it up and pushed on. The cast and crew were slightly stressed, but it worked quite well in terms of the scene. Half the boat sank the next day,” he recalls.
Frederick Pelletier’s film, about an African seaman billeted in a desolate port on Quebec’s St Lawrence Seaway, premiered in Rotterdam’s Bright Future section earlier this year to critical acclaim.
In another sign of Quebec cinema’s burgeoning international reputation, a 20-strong European industry delegation visited the annual Rendez-vous du Cinema Québécois (RVCQ) at the end of February on a fact-finding mission backed by the festival, SODEC and distributors’ group Europa Distribution.
Sales companies Films Boutique, Urban Distribution International and Memento Films International and distributors Cinéart, Soda Pictures, Epicentre Films and Europafilm were among companies attending a series of market screenings, presentations of upcoming productions such as Robert Morin’s 4 Soldiers and ambitious transmedia romantic-comedy project Emilie, and meetings with local producers.
The international success of Québécois cinema, however, is not replicated back home. 2012 was a poor year for local films, which garnered just 4.5% of the box office after a number of commercial titles such as Pee-Wee 3D failed to live up to expectations. It was the worst performance for Québécois cinema since the 1990s. Local cinema usually takes around 10% of the market.
The issue was a hot topic at the RVCQ. A panel discussion on the international success of Québécois film became a soul-searching debate over why local audiences were ignoring home-grown films.
“Bestiaire has screened at some 60 festivals around the world but in Quebec, it’s only sold some 350 tickets,” commented film-maker Coté on his contemplative animal documentary.
Alarmed by the fall in receipts for local films, Quebec’s minister of culture and communications Maka Kotto recently asked SODEC’s Macerola to set up a committee to examine the challenges facing Québécois cinema. “It remains to be seen whether this year’s figures are a temporary blip or the beginning of a negative trend for Qué-bécois cinema at home,” Macerola says.
Whatever 2013 holds for Québécois films at the local box office, it looks like it will be another fruitful year internationally at least.
Upcoming hot projects from Quebec
4 Soldiers (4 Soldats)
Dir Robert Morin
Acclaimed avant-garde director Morin adapts Hubert Mingarelli’s novel Quatre Soldats about young conscripts waiting to wage war.
Contact Coop Vidéo de Montreal - www.coopvideo.ca
Dir Nicolas Roeg
A First World War romance between a British sniper and a wealthy French landowner behind enemy lines.
Contact Amérique Films - firstname.lastname@example.org
Dir Sébastien Pilote
A sheep farmer sells off his flock to help his daughter, who is in serious financial difficulty.
Contact ACPAV - email@example.com
Dir Rafael Ouellet
Sequel to Ouellet’s New Denmark in which the young protagonists head off to prom night.
Contact Estfilmindustri - firstname.lastname@example.org
Dir Louise Archambault
About a young mentally challenged woman’s quest for independence and sexual freedom.
Contact eOne Films International - email@example.com
The Grand Seduction
Dir Don McKellar
The inhabitants of a remote fishing village attempt to lure a city doctor into taking up a full-time residency. A remake of 2003 Quebec film Seducing Doctor Lewis.
Contact Max Films - firstname.lastname@example.org
L’Immersion D’Etienne Dersonne
Dir Alexandre Chatrand
A translator of romantic fiction becomes obsessed with a new female neighbour, losing track of fact and fiction.
Contact Metafilms - email@example.com
An ensemble film set in the aftermath of a plane crash, starring Xavier Dolan.
Contact Item 7 - firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom at The Farm
Dir Xavier Dolan
A man travels to his recently deceased lover’s provincial home for the funeral. From the director of I Killed My Mother.
Contact MK2 - email@example.com
Dirs Pedro Pires, Robert Lepage
Theatre director Lepage returns to cinema with an adaptation of his play, Lipsynch.
Contact Lynda Beaulieu, Les productions du 8e Art - firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Nights (Deux Nuits)
Dir Denys Arcand
A happily married architect cheats on his wife, with ruinous repercussions. From Oscar winner Arcand.
Contact Cinémaginaire International - email@example.com