Creating a hothouse: CFI unveils a film festival with a future

The 1962 Crawley Film feature Anamita Pestilens will be screened at the first ever IFFO.

From about 1923 to 1956 when the National Film Board moved production to Montreal, the city of Ottawa was the filmmaking capital of Canada.

Now that the city is on the cusp of a cinematic leap forward with the expected arrival of a major soundstage project, the Canadian Film Institute is creating a new festival that will try to link up with the local developments in the moving images industry, says CFI executive director Tom McSorley.

So from March 25 to 29, the CFI is hosting its first ever International Film Festival of Ottawa.

The festival, McSorley said in an interview with ARTSFILE, is not just as a way of showing what kinds of films are made here but also an effort “to create a link between what we do, which is public presentation of international cinema, and bringing in  producers and artists to have them meet local producers and artists. Hopefully in five years or so this will create a hothouse environment that will be yield all kinds of activity.”

CFI knows this works with animation. Their Ottawa International Animation Festival does just that every September.

“A lot of business gets started here and a lot of series get triggered by people meeting at the Animation Festival. That business is both local and international. We are looking to do that on the live action side.”

This first festival will screen some 20 feature films along with 20 short films made by Canadian and international filmmakers.

It’s about time, he believes.

“We forget that this city used to be the capital of filmmaking in Canada. Between 1923 and 1956 you had the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, the NFB and Crawley Films. People making films lived here. When the NFB moved to Montreal in 1956 that began to change. Crawley is still here but over time production has concentrated in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.”

With the plans for a soundstage, McSorley said, suddenly the potential exists for people who make moving images for a living could actually live and work in Ottawa instead of leaving.

“That’s a huge difference in terms of where the city’s cultural life is,” he said.

A similar transformation is happening in the Ottawa music industry. Both are a reflection of a more culturally mature city, McSorley believes.

“I’ve lived here now more than 30 years and the change in the city at that level is dramatic.”

The CFI started showing international films at festivals in 1971 with an event called Filmexpo. It debuted before any of the other major festivals started in Canada, McSorley said.

“It was done at the NAC and was a survey of that year’s international films — the award winners from Cannes and Berlin and Venice.”

That event presented films that wouldn’t get here, he said and that’s what is intended with the new event.

“I’m lucky enough to travel around and go to festivals. I see stuff that doesn’t get distribution or doesn’t get here for whatever reason. We are trying to fill that gap. We are not trying to compete with the ByTowne, or the Mayfair or commercial cinemas.

“We are trying to do what a festival is supposed to do and that’s to expose people to work they wouldn’t have a chance to see. Even in this era when you can see tons online, there are things that just don’t appear. We hope these films will turn people onto filmmaking and cinema as art.”

The festival will present a survey of films that have played at festivals around the world during past 12 months. There will be a Canadian component and the festival will screen new Canadian films. Organizers are introducing idea of having a short film paired with a feature and international and Canadian shorts will screened.

The film Anamita Pestilens is a horror thriller about a strange mushroom that sparks a feud among neighbours.

To celebrate Ottawa’s history as a film production centre the festival will screen a 1962 Crawley film called Anamita Pestilens which has been digitally restored by Library and Archives Canada.

“We want to celebrate Ottawa’s film history as a place of production in the first iteration of festival.

The festival is starting small but that means, McSorley says, there’s lots of room to grow.

“I’m curious to see how it will all unfold. It’s a pilot but we have some great guests including Atom Egoyan on closing night.” The festival will screen Egoyan’s latest called Guest of Honour.

There will also be a one-day screen summit which is geared at the production sector in Ottawa. The event is bringing in guest speakers to meet with local producers.

He is confident the festival will be supported by the film audience in Ottawa.

“The audiences are amazing for the size of city that we are. We see that in the support we get for our European Union and Latin America festivals.”

A scene from Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour.

McSorley said he believes it is important to keep the festival “Ottawa style and Ottawa scale. We are not going to be TIFF; we are not going to be a massive 400-film festival.”

In Toronto, he said, there is a fetishization of status and power. “We want to keep our event egalitarian. We will try to bring in filmmakers like Atom Egoyan who make films a certain way without having to worry about their publicists. You waltz with those people and they take over. The gatekeeping is insane.”

He hopes it will become a destination festival such as one might experience in Europe.

“This is the world coming to Ottawa, boutique style, with an emphasis on Canadian. Every year we would hope to have a local production we could premiere. Part of the role of our organization is to say that there are things being made here.”

A scene from Matthew Rankin’s The 20th Century.

Another featured screening is for The 20th Century by Matthew Rankin who will also be attending. It won TIFF’s Best Canadian First Feature prize at TIFF. The film is about William Lyon Mackenzie King. “It’s a Guy Madden style bio pic of a strange prime minister.

“In five years I hope that people in the film world know about Ottawa as a destination for live motion films. It’s exciting … a bit of a risk, but it’s fun. I was visiting Milan in October which actually has about same population as Ottawa. There is a small Milan film festival. We need something of that order.”

Here is the full schedule of screenings and their locations at the IFFO.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.