Since 1977, the Montreal World Film Festival has been run by its original founder and president, the nearly 80-year-old Serge Losique. The MWFF, according to Losique, is the largest fully independent film festival in the world. In the 1980s, the festival was in its prime, with international acclaim and influence on the world stage. In the past two decades, the Toronto International Film Festival, which began in 1976, has been nimble in adapting to a modern environment, and now eclipses its sister festival in prestige and industry attendance. With the two festivals opening within days of each other, there's competition for films and guests in the Canadian marketplace, with an increasing preference for Toronto.
Local wisdom has it that Toronto is in bed with Hollywood, wooing celebrities and plotting Oscar campaigns with studios, while Montreal's Losique is resolute and steadfast in his original vision, remaining dedicated to truly independent filmmakers the world over, this year plucking titles from Panama to Dubai to Singapore. Critics, though, maintain that Montreal's emphasis on breadth dilutes the quality of its offerings and drives away press and industry, who instead flock to the concurrent Venice and Telluride festivals or fly directly to Toronto.
Nonetheless, Montreal's ambitious program is attracting lines of theatergoers to several cinemas around town. The Imperial Theater, a majestic old vaudeville house, is pulling in a slightly older crowd, while the Quartier Latin Cinema multiplex, within a student village near a few local universities, is drawing in more of the younger set. The Hyatt Regency Hotel, in the Complexe Desjardins shopping mall is the hub for festival activity, with a nightly happy hour, press room, executive offices, and a press conference setup located just steps away from the mall's food court.
This year's program includes 430 films from 80 countries and features 277 features and 113 world or international premieres, and it kicked off on August 26 with Route 132, a road movie set on Québec's longest highway, by local filmmaker Louis Bélanger. The festival emphasizes volume, with new work by first-time filmmakers and such masters as Carlos Saura, Bertrand Tavernier, Otar Iosseliani, and Zhang Yimou.
A noticeable number of entries arrive from Francophone nations, such as Haiti, Belgium, Cameroon, and Switzerland—appropriate for the local audiences in this French-speaking province of Québec. Before each screening, festival representatives wish attendees, "Bon cinema!"
Technology is a topical theme that appears throughout the program. Miss Mouche (Miss Fly), a competition selection by Belgian writer-director Bernard Halut, follows an adolescent girl armed with a cellphone video camera. Curious about sex and the personal affairs of her parents, she records everything, either openly or on the sly. Through snatches of conversations and illicit moments, her videos expose her parents in a dodgy moneymaking scheme initiated to support their superficial, bourgeois lifestyle. Though the story is farfetched, it does present an honest portrayal of the concerns and behavior of a girl on the verge of adulthood.
Addiction to Internet pornography is the downfall of a 40-year-old Bolognese garbage man in Amore Liquido (Liquid Love). In his debut feature in competition, Italian director Marco Luca Cattaneo cast character actor Stefano Fregni in his first leading role, as a quiet man who lives to take care of his infirm mother. In a naked performance (in every sense of the word), Fregni pursues a relationship with a young barista, whose smallest sign of affection leaves him overjoyed, but his isolated existence with porn, his constant companion, does not prepare him for a real-life relationship.
Avatars and cyborgs make for fascinating subject matter in The Singularity Is Near, a True Story About the Future, an American documentary by British director Anthony Waller. The film has the amateur look and feel of the New Age doctrine What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, which mixed animation and dramatizations with scientists interviewed in talking-head style, and ended up grossing almost $11 million at the box office. Based on a book of the same name by futurist Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near depicts an avatar named Ramona who acquires consciousness and even legal "personhood," visualizing the questions that may arise in the convergence of man and machine. Though full of interesting ideas and theories, the film is incohesive and unsubstantial.
In Neil LaBute's short film Sexting, Julia Stiles plays a woman who receives a lusty text message from her lover, meant for his wife. She meets the wife for a face-off and her cocky self-assurance turns to panic, then tears, and finally humiliation. Simple black-and-white photography and a lingering close-up of the actress, in what is essentially an auditioning monologue, make the eight-minute film a good choice for viewing on a mobile device.
Other short films in competition included Sektemberi (September) by Georgian graduate student Vako Kirkitadze, whose deft filmmaking packs an emotional punch in 10 minutes, with a story that follows a boy who refuses to surrender a locket to Russian soldiers in the Georgian War of 2008. Also notable is Colette, by Britain's Nicola Morris. The 13-minute film about very young lovers nods to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in its graphic depiction of abortion, and includes a moving, tenuous love story and apt music as well.
The feminine perspective is also on view in the documentary The Fall of Womenland by Chinese-Canadian director Xiaodan He. The filmmaker makes a personal journey to her ancestral homeland in southwest China, where the Mosuo people live in a matriarchal society. Children live with their mothers for their entire lives and have spousal relationships without marriage contract or cohabitation. This practice of "walking marriage" can end at any time and each partner is always free to pursue others. With improvements in roads and an infrastructure for tourism, outsiders now come to the village and misperceive the culture as one of open prostitution. The director includes herself in the story as a conflicted outsider who doesn't want to live among her people but wants to see their culture preserved.
Hollywood culture is the subject of The Land of the Astronauts, starring David Arquette and Bijou Phillips, in competition from the U.S., by Belgian-born filmmaker Carl Colpaert. Arquette plays a movie composer trying to make a comeback while earning money as a limo driver to the stars. Playing his landlady, Lin Shaye practically reprises her hilarious role as an over-the-top muumuu-clad hausfrau in There's Something About Mary. A few unnecessary flashbacks and fanciful scenes mar the well-cast film that pulls back the curtain on the unscrupulous world of show business, and the battle between art and commerce.
The Montreal World Film Festival runs from August 26 to September 6.
You can follow Rania's work on Week of Wonders or on Twitter.