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NYC Film Festivals

Canada Front and Center at MoMA

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinset in Sarah Polley's Away From Her, opening MoMA's Canadian Front series (Photo: Lionsgate)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

In all the decades of globetrotting film programs and surveys shuffled in and out of the Museum of Modern Art, one of the world's most chronically overlooked national cinemas may have also been the most surprisingly absent. Considering its proximity to New York, anyhow -- at last glance it shares a border -- the odds of Canada not having its own MoMA spotlight until 2004 seem, in retrospect, almost incalculable.

So the decision that year to launch Canadian Front, an eclectic series of narrative, documentary and experimental features that begins its fourth annual run tonight at MoMA, boiled down to more than just good timing. For the museum's Senior Curator of film and media, it was about time.

"It seems to me that Canada, even though it is a close neighbor and shares a lot of the concerns and preoccupations of the States and indeed has provided a lot of the sites for many American films, was not known as a national cinema in the US," Kardish told The Reeler in an interview Wednesday. "I thought it would be a good idea to present films that were made in Canada -- that use Canadian landscapes, Canadian actors and spoke about Canadian issues that would appeal to an international audience."

In doing so, Kardish (himself a native of Ottawa) arranged eight titles ranging from actress/director Sarah Polley's mainstream indie Away From Her to the documentary journeys of filmmakers on quests for lost artists (Looking for Victor Pellerin) and even themselves (Stone Time Touch). Other selections include glimpses of the late experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett and a French-language biopic about Montreal hockey legend Maurice Richard.

Working with a mandate to spotlight both new and "recent" Canadian works (Maurice Richard was released in Canada in 2005), Kardish acknowledges the program has some catching up to do. "Americans know very well certain Canadian actors and directors who have gone on to celebrity in the US," he said. "My concern was to indicate a vibrant and talented industry back in Canada. And also to indicate to our audience that Canadian filmmaking is spread throughout the geographic area that is Canada. It's not just Toronto and Montreal. There's interesting work being done on the West Coast and in the Maritime Provinces."

Among them, Kardish cites Immigrant, about a pair of Balkan immigrants struggling in exile in Vancouver. Further inland -- in a suburb outside Calgary, specifically, Canada's largest city by area -- the festival hit Radiant City explores the epidemic of sprawl that has overtaken the hometown of filmmakers Gary Burns and Jim Brown. Away From Her, tonight's screening of which will feature a Q&A with Polley, adhered closely to writer Alice Munro's source material set in rural Ontario. Ultimately, Kardish told me, the notable thematic overlap with contemporary American film gives way to more conspicuous stylistic breaks between the two cinemas.

"It's not a cinema that calls attention to itself as being necessarily Canadian, except for perhaps being more reasonable and measured than many American films," Kardish said. "Part of the problem is that so many talented English-language filmmakers and actors and screenwriters work as well in the States, and so the works become quite hybrid. Even though Sarah Polley's film is such a hybrid, I try to find something that is still, at heart, Canadian. Even though Julie Christie is British and Olympia Dukakis is American and the winter landscape could be Vermont or New Hampshire, there's something about the pacing and the rhythm's that could be said to be Canadian. Whereas in a film like Maurice Richard, it is definitely Canadian. And Remembering Arthur, the documentary about Arthur Lipsett, again, it's a film about a troubled Canadian artist, but it could be about a troubled artist/genius anywhere. And we have two films that talk about immigration and having roots elsewhere -- Immigrant and Stone Time Touch -- which is also part of the Canadian experience."

Posted at March 14, 2007 11:47 AM

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