Montreal's Festival du Nouveau Cinéma isn't the biggest film festival in town, but thanks to its eclectic programming-a balance of the well-known and the obscure-it is possibly the best. Celebrating its thirty-fifth year with a 189-film program, the festival should not disappoint.
This year's headliners include Spike Lee's four-hour documentary on post-Katrina New Orleans, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. And Congorama, the much-anticipated drama by Philippe Falardeau, (whose debut film La Moitié gauche du frigo scored a Jutra in 2001) will be screened, following an enthusiastic reception in Venice and Toronto. John Cameron Mitchell's already-infamous Shortbus promises to expose our collective sexual neuroses by exposing us to lots of unsimulated sex. Also, Montreal audiences will at last get to see Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, which has already earned near-universal acclaim on the festival circuit.
But the FNC is most anticipated for the little movies on its programme-those with the potential to take everyone by surprise. There are many lesser-known international films worth checking out. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-lian) is a slow, hypnotic tale set in a poor, multiethnic district of Kuala Lumpur. Darkon (Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel) probes the teenage subculture that inspires kids to dress up in full mediaeval regalia (like those who wage mock battles behind the Tam Tams every Sunday on Mount Royal). Paprika (Satoshi Kon) is a highly-anticipated, surreal animated thriller from Japan and Tachiguishi retsuden, an experimental animated film about food in post-war Japan, by Mamoru Oshii, director of Ghost in the Shell.
For the first time, the festival has dedicated an entire chunk of programming to Canadian cinema in a series entitled: New Focus Quebec/Canada. As new technologies make filmmaking cheaper and more accessible, the number of Canadian films being made each year has exploded. Hoping to encourage this phenomenon, FNC programmer Nicolas Girard Deltruc says: "We would like to contribute to the development of Canadian cinema-to develop an audience."
Deltruc has a unique perspective on Quebec and Canadian film. Originally from France, he worked for the Toronto International Film Festival before moving to Montreal two years ago. "[Canadian film has] a very strange identity, something that is a mix of everything. It's not as formulaic as in France. Here, there is a mix of different cultures," he says.
This cultural diversity is evident in the Focus Quebec/Canada lineup. In Between Days, by So Yong Kim, tells the story of a young, alienated Korean immigrant who falls in love with her Vietnamese best friend; Manufactured Landscape (Jennifer Baichwal) follows photographer Edward Burtynsky to China, where he documents the economic upheaval wrought by globalization; and Le Fugitif ou les vérités d'Hassan, by Jean-Daniel Lafond-Canada's vice-regal consort-examines African-American Islamic extremist Hassan Abdulrahman.
Many of the Focus Quebec/Canada films are set in Montreal. On the Trail of Igor Rizzi, the first feature-length film from Noël Mitrani, is the work of a newly minted Montrealer, who immigrated here recently from France. His film is the slightly ponderous tale of a disgraced soccer star who moves to Montreal to chase both the ghost of his lost love and a mysterious man he has been hired to kill. Mitrani's Montreal is an anonymous landscape of look-alike triplexes, icy alleyways and vast, empty, snow-filled spaces. A sparse soundtrack adds to the wintry feeling of isolation.
Much warmer, in every respect, is Garry Beitel's Chez Schwartz, a lively bilingual documentary that observes a year in the life of Schwarz's, the Mecca of smoked meat. Chez Schwartz falls into the great tradition of movies and books that document the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that give Montreal its cultural richness. (More often than not, they relate to food: Ezra Soiferman's Man of Grease, about the odd Greek owner of Cosmos, an NDG greasy spoon, comes to mind, as does Don Bell's delightful 1971 book Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory.) For Deltruc, Chez Schwartz depicts an essential part of the Montreal experience. The best way to experience Montreal's past, he points out, is to head down to the Main and bite into a warm smoked meat sandwich.
Another film that delves into Montreal's pop culture is Punk the Vote, the directorial debut of Éric "Roach" Denis, a homeless punk whose career in film was launched when he appeared in Daniel Cross' documentary: Squeegee Punks in Traffic. Fed up with the state of post-sponsorship-scandal Canadian politics, Roach and his friend Starbuck Le Roi du Rock decide to crash the 2006 federal election and run for office. Naturally, they bring along their camera to document everything that happens during their campaign in Outremont, a riding that is home to everyone from freshly-arrived immigrants to Anglo hipsters to Hasidim to the French-Canadian elite.
The Festival du Nouveau Cinéma has always been reliably good. This year-with a new emphasis on innovative local cinema-it looks set to be great