TIFF 2015: Why there's no Canadian-themed program

Championing Canadian films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year means not waving the flag at all — this 40th edition will be the first in decades to not include a single Canuck-themed program.

But films by Patricia Rozema, Atom Egoyan, Deepa Mehta feature heavily in high-profile programs

Canadian film director Atom Egoyan speaks during a press conference in Cannes in 2014. His Nazi revenge thriller Remember with Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau is one of four Canadian films among 20 gala presentations. (Alastair Grant/Canadian Press)

Championing Canadian films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year means not waving the flag at all — this 40th edition will be the first in decades to not include a single Canuck-themed program.

The feature film section Canada First! was eliminated after the 2011 fest, and now Canadian shorts have merged with the international shorts section introduced last year.

"It's the problem with every minority, right? Do they have a women's section? Would I want to be in that women's section or would I just want to be a film among films?- Patricia Rozema

Festival CEO Piers Handling says the move "speaks to the strength of these films" and "better serves the films and our audiences."

Several filmmakers agree, with veteran director Patricia Rozema questioning how many of her colleagues were keen to highlight their nationality so strongly.

"The idea is that Canadian cinema is strong enough to swim in international waters and I'm fine with that," says Rozema, who returns this year with the survival tale Into the Forest in the prestigious special presentations section.

"It's the problem with every minority, right? Do they have a women's section? Would I want to be in that women's section or would I just want to be a film among films?"

Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF speaks during the Toronto International Film Festival press conference announcing the 2015 Canadian features and shorts lineup in Toronto in August. Handling says eliminating Canadian-focused programs 'better serves the films and our audiences.' (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Shorts director Connor Jessup says he's keen to be seen alongside foreign cinema as he introduces his ghost story Boy to audiences.

"There's something about putting films in a Canadian section that felt a little ghettoized to me," says Jessup, who also stars in the Newfoundland-set coming-of-age feature Closet Monster, slotted in the Discovery section.

"It felt like that was a whole section of movies people could write off."

A glance at this year's lineup suggests Canadian films have never been stronger — homegrown projects feature heavily in high-profile programs treated to the best venues and time slots usually dominated by Hollywood.

They include Atom Egoyan's Nazi revenge thriller Remember with Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau; Deepa Mehta's gangster flick Beeba Boys with Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda; and Lenny Abrahamson's Irish/Canada co-production Room, based on Emma Donoghue's bestseller of the same name, starring Brie Larson.

Egoyan returns to the circuit hoping to redeem himself after back-to-back flops The Captive and Devil's Knot.

Back in May, he discussed reuniting with Plummer, who starred in 2002's Ararat. He praised the veteran stage and screen star for turning in an "amazing" performance in Remember as an Auschwitz survivor suffering from early stages dementia.

"It's just an extraordinary role for him. It's one of the most complex characters I've ever presented in a film," said Egoyan, going on to outline a layered story written by Benjamin August.

"The writer came up with this whole new parable, a way of talking about this very dark chapter of history, the Holocaust, but in this completely unique way."

4 Canadian gala presentations

The Canada/Germany co-production is one of four homegrown features among 20 gala presentations. The others include Mehta's crime thriller, Jon Cassar's Western adventure Forsaken with Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, and Paul Gross's war tale Hyena Road, starring himself, Rossif Sutherland and Allan Hawco.

Six other Canuck films are in the special presentations slate, which includes 57 films overall.

In addition to Rozema's and Abrahamson's films they include Robert Budreau's Canada/U.K. jazz film Born to Be Blue with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker; John Crowley's U.K./Ireland/Canada period piece Brooklyn with Saoirse Ronan; Guy Edoin's relationship drama Ville-Marie; and Robert Eggers's Canada/U.S. mystery The Witch.

Ellen Page (above) and Evan Rachel Wood play sisters in Into the Forest, a film by Canadian director Patricia Rozema that will be featured in TIFF's prestigious special presentations section. (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood play sisters in Into the Forest, in which a massive power outage forces them to fend for themselves as society collapses.

Rozema says Page was the driving force behind the film, based on Jean Hegland's novel of the same name. The Juno star found the book and pitched it to Rozema, who immediately joined the project but soon questioned whether she could make something both "raw and elegant."

"I was afraid as a filmmaker that I wouldn't be able to make it beautiful, because the forest, by nature, is a mess. It's not ordered, and I love a clean line," says Rozema, known for Mansfield Park and I've Heard the Mermaids Singing.

"But in B.C. (there are) these giant old-growth (trees) with Old Man's Beard, it's called. It was really remarkable. It was very easy to make it look fabulous."

Canadian documentaries are also particularly strong this year, says senior programmer Steve Gravestock, who touts one of the largest selections in recent memory.

They include Brian D. Johnson's portrait Al Purdy Was Here; Mina Shum's look at one of Canada's most violent student protests in Ninth Floor; and Avi Lewis's climate change campaign This Changes Everything. Meanwhile, Toronto-based doc maker Alan Zweig is the only North American to make it into the exclusive Platform competition with Hurt, a portrait of disgraced runner Steve Fonyo.

1,225 Canadian submissions

Overall, TIFF's slate of 399 films has 39 Canadian features, including co-productions, which is up from 31 features in each of the two previous years. Programmers sifted through 1,225 Canadian submissions this year, up from 1,114 last year and 1,042 in 2013.

Rozema said the appetite for Canadian film seems to have grown.

"There's been a kind of inherent bias against Canadian films for many years but I feel a shift in that," she says.

"People are ready to think maybe we have a perspective on life that's worth listening to."

TIFF's other Canadian programs over the years have included Perspective Canada from 1984 to 2003, Canadian Retrospective from 2003 to 2007 and Canadian Open Vault from 2000 to 2011.

The Toronto International Film Festival begins Thursday.

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