How 10 Legendary Canadian Filmmakers Reached Their Someday
Celebrating local celluoid heroes, from their humble beginnings to historic careers
Getting a movie made takes grit, determination, favourable circumstance, and, sometimes, extraordinary good luck. On the occasion of National Canadian Film Day 150, we salute 10 of our country’s most celebrated filmmakers, who, despite the odds, rose to the occasion to make their stories come to life. TIFF’s passion for Canadian cinema endures with free screenings throughout the year, as part of our Canada on Screen series.
RBC is a proud Presenting Sponsor of Canada on Screen.
1. Alanis Obomsawin
THEN: Alanis Obomsawin was a singer-songwriter and schoolteacher who’d spent her formative years on an Abenaki First Nations reserve in Odanak, Quebec. In the mid-1960s, she decided to hold a series of concerts to fundraise for a swimming pool to be built in the community. (The children of Odanak weren’t able to swim in the Saint-François River because it was too polluted, but were also restricted from using a nearby pool because it was for white residents only.) She was profiled for her work as an activist by CBC television’s documentary Telescope, which led the National Film Board to appoint her as a consultant on Indigenous programming. She made her first documentary, Christmas at Moose Factory, in 1971.
NOW: At age 84, Alanis Obomsawin has made over 40 documentaries with the NFB, tackling Indigenous rights. Her work has received career retrospectives at the Hot Docs Film Festival and Museum of Modern Art. The ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival even named the “Alanis Obomsawin Best Documentary Award” in her honour. In 2008, Obomsawin received the Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. She is still actively making films. Her latest documentary, We Can’t Make The Same Mistake Twice, premiered at TIFF in 2016.
SEE: Trick or Treaty?, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
2. Deepa Mehta
THEN: Originally from Punjab, Deepa Mehta studied philosophy at the University of Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She started making short documentaries before immigrating from India to Canada in 1973, where she embarked on a career as a screenwriter for children’s films while continuing to make docs. Her feature directorial debut, Sam & Me, generated an Honourable Mention at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
NOW: Since 1991, Mehta has made 12 features, including her acclaimed Elements trilogy: Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005). Water opened the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival and went on to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. She has since collaborated with the novelist Salman Rushdie (on an adaptation of his novel Midnight’s Children, released in 2012), and received a Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement that same year. Her recent films Beeba Boys (2015) and Anatomy of Violence (2016) both premiered at TIFF.
SEE: Water, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
3. Sarah Polley
THEN: Sarah Polley was acting professionally by the age of four, and made her feature film debut in the Disney movie One Magic Christmas (1985). She gained early notice with her lead roles in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and on the CBC’s Anne of Green Gables spinoff Road to Avonlea (1990–96). Her work with auteurs both local (Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ) and international (Gilliam; Doug Liman's Go) secured her status as an intuitive and emotionally intelligent young actor. After directing her first short in 1999, Polley attended the Canadian Film Centre’s Director’s Lab. Her short film I Shout Love screened at TIFF in 2001 and won the 2003 Genie Award for Best Live Action Short Drama.
NOW: Polley is an acclaimed writer/director with two original features (2006’s Away From Her and 2011’s Take This Waltz) and one documentary (2012’s Stories We Tell) under her belt. Away From Her, her adaptation of the Alice Munro short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2008 Academy Awards. Stories We Tell, which chronicled Polley’s search to find out the real identity of her father, won the Best Feature-Length Documentary prize at the 2013 Canadian Screen Awards, and the Toronto Film Critics Association Prize for Best Canadian Film. She currently serves as the showrunner of Alias Grace, the forthcoming CBC miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel, which will stream internationally on Netflix.
SEE: Stories We Tell, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
4. David Cronenberg
THEN: The Toronto-born David Cronenberg’s early interest in cinema was sparked by the Canadian film Winter Kept Us Warm, made by his University of Toronto classmate David Secter in 1966. Upon graduation, he went into business with fellow Canuck Ivan Reitman and started making cheap and edgy black-and-white movies with the Toronto Film Co-Op, an experimental film cooperative inspired by the New York underground art scene. Reitman secured tax shelter financing and government funding so Cronenberg could make his first three films. His debut, Stereo (1969), ended up a silent film because the camera he was shooting on made too much noise. By the time he made his third feature, Shivers (1975), his signature style of “body horror” was already in place. The film, about a Montreal apartment building consumed by flesh-eating parasites, garnered both damning and glowing reviews, including a favourable notice by Roger Ebert.
NOW: Cronenberg is one of the world’s greatest living directors. Having made 21 features between 1969 and 2014, his films have received top honours at Cannes, the Berlin Film Festival, and TIFF. In 1999, he was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame and received the Governor General’s Performing Awards Award. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002, and received Cannes’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. In 2014, after a worldwide exhibit of his film’s artifacts titled David Cronenberg: Evolution was held at TIFF, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada for his contribution as “Canada’s most celebrated internationally acclaimed filmmaker.”
SEE: Scanners, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
5. Guy Maddin
THEN: Guy Maddin was born and raised in Winnipeg, the son of a hairdresser and a grain clerk. He studied economics at the University of Winnipeg, graduating in 1977 taking on jobs ranging from house painter to bank manager. He eventually went back to school, this time the University of Manitoba, to study film. Inspired by his professor Stephen Snyder and the early short films of Winnipeg Film Group member John Paizs, Maddin started work in 1982 on his first short, The Dead Father, which was shot on black-and-white 16mm with a budget of $5,000, and signalled the director’s signature surrealist style. The film premiered three years later at TIFF (then the Festivals of Festivals). His first feature, Tales from Gimli Hospital, was released in 1988.
NOW: Maddin is a visiting lecturer at Harvard, and his films have played at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlinale, and the Toronto International Film Festival. Over the course of 11 acclaimed features he has collaborated with such actors as Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, and Mark McKinney; his latter-day films The Saddest Music in the World (2003), My Winnipeg (2005), Keyhole (2011), and The Forbidden Room (2015) all gained acclaim for their hauntingly poetic (and distinctly Canadian) storytelling. Maddin was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2012
SEE: My Winnipeg, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
6. Patricia Rozema
THEN: Patricia Rozema grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, in a strict Dutch Calvinist household. She was forbidden from watching television and was not allowed to see a movie in a theatre until she was 16. After studying philosophy and English at Calvin College in Michigan, she briefly pursued a career as a TV and print journalist. At 30, Rozema directed her first feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, a dizzying comedy about a socially awkward, daydreaming temp worker’s entrée into Toronto’s art world.
NOW: I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing went on to win the Prix Jeunesse at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. The film broke all sorts of boundaries as Rozema was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 1988 Genie Awards, the first of its kind for a female filmmaker. Today it is listed as one of the Best Canadian Films of All Time by the International Film Critics Association. Rozema has directed for film and television, and received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special for her co-write on HBO’s adaptation of Grey Gardens. Her latest film, Into the Forest, starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood, premiered at TIFF in 2015 and was selected for the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival.
SEE: Into the Forest, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
7. Denis Villeneuve
THEN: Always balancing his interests in science and cinema, Quebec director Denis Villeneuve studied science in CEGEP and went on to film school at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He started collaborating with the NFB, shooting the short film REW FFWD in Jamaica in 1994. After directing music videos for local bands, he created his first feature Un 32 août sur terre, which appeared at Cannes and was Canada’s first official entry for the Oscars in 1998. However, it was two features at the turn of the 2010s that established Villeneuve as a leader of world cinema: Polytechnique (2009), a dark drama based on the real-life Montreal massacre, was a stirring portrait of a national tragedy which awarded the filmmaker his second Best Director award at the Genies; and Incendies (2010), an adaptation of play by Wajdi Mouawad, received universal acclaim, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, and has since been distributed in over 30 countries.
NOW: Villeneuve continues to reach new heights, transitioning to making movies in the Hollywood studio system with actors that include Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, and Ryan Gosling. His latest film, Arrival, was nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards. His Blade Runner 2049, the official sequel to Blade Runner, comes out this year, and he is also slated to film an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
SEE: Incendies, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
8. Jean-Marc Vallée
THEN: Jean-Marc Vallée studied film at the Université du Québec à Montréal and gained early attention with his early short films, including 1992’s Stéréotypes. After making the genre thriller Liste Noire, which became the highest-grossing Quebec film of 1995, Vallée moved to Los Angeles, where he made two low-budget genre pictures, the 1998 western Los Locos, and the 1999 erotic thriller Loser Love. Disheartened with the work he was being offered, he started developing a more personal story with his friend and collaborator Francois Boulay. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) was a semi-autobiographical story about Vallée and Boulay’s own experiences growing up in big French Canadian families during the Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. The film took a decade to realize, and nearly $600,000 of its $6.5 million budget needed to be allotted to securing its ambitious music rights.
NOW: After C.R.A.Z.Y. went on to international success, including an official Best Foreign Film nomination at the Academy Awards, Vallée established himself as one of the world’s most in-demand filmmakers. His 2013 film Dallas Buyer’s Club became the first work by a Quebec filmmaker to earn an Academy Award for Best Picture. He would continue his Oscar-nomination streak with Wild, an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, starring Reese Witherspoon. Most recently, he directed every episode of the HBO series Big Little Lies, starring Nicole Kidman, Lauren Dern, and Witherspoon.
SEE: C.R.A.Z.Y., playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
9. Clement Virgo
THEN: Writer/director Clement Virgo came to Canada from Jamaica when he was 11, settling with his family in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. His interest in men’s fashion later led him to find work as a window dresser for clothing stores, yet a deep-seated passion for film remained. In 1991 he was accepted into the first Summer Lab directing workshop at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre, where he developed what would become his first feature film, Rude. His short film Save My Lost Nigga Soul, also developed through the CFC’s Short Dramatic Film Program, received top honours at the 1993 Toronto International Film Festival.
NOW: Rude premiered at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, played at TIFF that same year, and was nominated for eight Genie Awards. Virgo’s second film, The Planet of Junior Brown, based on the novel by Virginia Hamilton, premiered at TIFF. Since then, Virgo has staked a career in both film and television, directing episodes of The L Word, The Listener, American Crime, and The Wire, as well as the CBC miniseries The Book of Negroes, on which he was co-creator (with author Lawrence Hill), showrunner, director, co-writer, and producer.
SEE: The Book of Negroes, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.
10. Andrew Cividino
THEN: After graduating from Ryerson University, Cividino made several acclaimed short films on minimal budgets. After the financing for his first feature, Sleeping Giant, pulled out at the last minute, he made a short version of his film, which premiered at TIFF 2014.
NOW: The 2015 feature version of Sleeping Giant went on to play Locarno, Cannes, VIFF (where it won Best Canadian Film) and TIFF where it earned Cividino the Best Canadian First Feature Award. He is the current Len Blum Resident at the Toronto International Film Festival and is developing his second feature, an adaptation of his short film We Ate the Children Last. Sleeping Giant is considered one of the best Canadian film debuts of the past decade — and Cividino one of this country’s most promising talents.
SEE: Sleeping Giant, playing across Canada as part of National Canadian Film Day.