Atom Egoyan — in praise of Whistler film festAtom Egoyan, one of Canada’s most celebrated filmmakers, never went to film school. Instead, he went to film festivals. “I wouldn’t have had my career if I hadn’t gone to film festivals,” he says, on the phone from his adopted hometown of Toronto. “That’s where I met the people who became my crew eventually, and the actors I work with... The festivals were my film school.”
It’s evident from the B.C.-raised Egoyan’s lengthy history of award-winning films that the decision to eschew traditional education for on-the-job learning paid off handsomely. He garnered international acclaim with 1997’s Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter, and has continued to craft intelligent, acclaimed art-house fare.
It’s Egoyan’s belief in the important role festivals play in fostering Canadian cinema that’s made him a prominent supporter of the Whistler Film Festival (WFF). Since its inception, he’s been a regular jury member and has used the fest to host advance screenings of new works, such as last year’s Chloe. Egoyan returns this year for WFF’s 10th-anniversary edition, facilitating a discussion with celebrated cult director — and Quentin Tarantino mentor — Monte Hellman, best known for early Jack Nicholson vehicles The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, as well as the 1971 drag-race drama Two-Lane Blacktop, starring singer-songwriter James Taylor.
According to Egoyan, who calls Hellman “a hero of any independent filmmaker,” it’s these kinds of events, where emerging filmmakers can learn from pillars of the community, that make WFF uniquely positioned to pick up where the Toronto International Film Festival — which began as a scrappy upstart but is now a key part of the Hollywood mainstream’s social calendar — left off. “These [emerging Canadian] filmmakers get lost in the bigger events, where it’s about a certain type of glamour,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen over and over again in Toronto and the other big festivals: The young filmmakers get really excited to be invited, and then it’s not what they expected; they kind of feel lost once they’re there.
“There was a time when Toronto really served emerging filmmakers, but that was before Toronto became what it is now. Whistler has the opportunity to really brand itself where emerging filmmakers working in new technologies will have attention, will really feel they’re the focus.”
Egoyan has witnessed firsthand how TIFF has changed over the years, and his hope is that WFF stays true to its focus. “[WFF]’s been able to do an extraordinary job of keeping a specific identity, and my hope is that it doesn’t become a victim of its own success,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy now in Toronto. Because of the accumulation of press and attention here, it’s being used by the industry for junkets for films that aren’t even in the festival. It’s so absurd. There’s a whole buzz around films that haven’t even been invited into the [festival] that are just being screened at the same time!”
But TIFF has played a significant role in what Egoyan calls an “incredible revolutionary shift” in attitudes toward Canadian cinema over the last 15 years. With TIFF now taken over by bigger-budget fare, WFF is stepping up, but Egoyan knows there are still plenty of challenges facing Canadian films.
“There are a number of filmmakers who have established there is a Canadian identity, and when you look at our best films as a group, we’re as good as the output of any country, really,” he says. “If you make a list of the most important and most lauded Canadian films, it’s a pretty impressive list. And these are films that have been made under very difficult circumstances. We’re neighbours with the most aggressive film industry in the world, so for us to hold our own — and I think we have — I find it really astonishing.
“We have a great industry... but we will always have the problem of being able to create as much of a marketing presence for our domestic product as the American product that’s also being shown in our theatres. It’s something we’ll always have to contend with, and it’s a fight that becomes harder as traditional audiences have changed.”
Hopefully, this is what festivals like WFF will continue to do: help filmmakers find audiences. And if the past does in fact repeat itself, festivals will also help build beneficial relationships between emerging artists and influential people already established in the industry — the way Egoyan did over two decades ago. In 1987, filmmaker Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire won the top prize at the Montreal Festival for New Cinema. Wenders promptly insisted the cash be given to Egoyan instead, which allowed the budding filmmaker to create his second feature, Family Viewing.
“It changed my life,” Egoyan says, laughing like he still can’t believe it. “He was my mentor, and certainly kind of a hero. That’s the classic festival dream-come-true experience.”
The 2010 Whistler Film Festival runs Dec. 1-5. Visit WhistlerFilmFestival.com for more details and a complete schedule, and see next week’s WE for more coverage.