The Whistler Film Festival: the Hot Tub of Canadian cinema

There’s not much snow, but Donald Sutherland, Patricia Rozema, Bruce McDonald and Tom Green bring sparkle to the festival that’s aiming to be Canada’s Sundance

Why do I keep coming back to the Whistler Film Festival? The cynical answer would be: it’s the skiing, stupid. And yes, for the past four years I’ve been attending this event, the skiing has been remarkably good for early December. But this year the snow is sparse. And it’s been raining steadily. So for the first time, I’ve come to Whistler and not put on a pair of skis.  But this festival is still well worth the trip.

Each year I attend much larger film festivals in Toronto and Cannes—massive engines of publicity and marketing that launch some of the year’s most important films. But a small, growing film festival can afford a luxurious, salon-like intimacy, and a sense of magic, that’s long gone from these juggernauts. Whistler’s festival has that. It’s the kind of event that makes film folk nostalgic for the pioneering days of Sundance or TIFF.  It goes by in a flash, just four days from start to finish. But there’s a terrifically dynamic vibe here. Aside from the slate of public screenings, Whistler throws together filmmakers from far and wide like no other film festival of its scale in Canada. You might call it the hot tub of the Canadian film industry. (I’m speaking metaphorically; I have  not actually stepped into a hot tub here, although there’s one steaming into the night air just below my hotel room window.)

Most smaller film festivals in Canada are regional affairs. And the B.C.  industry is certainly here in force. But Whistler, which is partnered with Toronto’s Canadian Film Centre, is not just a regional event. Just look at the high-powered jury that was put together to judge the Borsos Award for Best New Canadian Film—a $15,000 prize dedicated to the memory of B.C. director Philip Borsos (The Grey Fox).  This year the jury president is Donald Sutherland, who formed an indelible friendship with Borsos while on location in China shooting his ill-fated epic, Bethune:  The Making of a Hero. Sutherland’s two fellow jurors are veteran Toronto filmmakers Patricia Rozema and Sturla Gunnarsson.  Also here to present new films arec Toronto filmmakers Bruce McDonald (Pontypool) and Ron Mann (Know Your Mushrooms)—plus  comic provocateur Tom Green, who stars as an ex-NHL goalie in a prairie town overrun by aliens in Freezer Burn: The Invasion of Laxdale.

What’s wonderful about this festival is that everyone ends up at the same party at the end of the evening. There’s no roped-off VIP area. No publicists wearing headsets. The atmosphere is relaxed, and there’s time to talk.

Take Friday night. One minute I’m at the annual Whistler party for Brightlight Pictures at Araxi restaurant, eating endless oysters from Victoria Island and chatting with Rozema and McDonald about their new projects. Rozema tells me she’s making one of a series of seven $400,000 feature films that are being produced for the Winter Olympics. (Each one is about a Canadian city; hers is about her home town of Sarnia.)  Then programming director Bill Evans regales me with a story that came from Donald Sutherland earlier in the day. Sutherland jokingly asked if he could prorogue the jury if they were deadlocked. Bill was surprised the actor had even heard about our little proroguing crisis in Ottawa. But Sutherland—who was, after all, once married to Shirley Douglas, daughter of NDP founder Tommy Douglas—hadn’t just heard about it. He’d been  on the phone to Adrienne Clarkson. Apparently, he told her she must be glad she’s no longer the Governor General. But Clarkson said she wished she were, because she would have flatly rejected Harper’s request to shut down the House of Commons.

Around 1 a.m. I follow Bill Evans out the door to the theatre across the square, where he’s about to moderate a Q & A with Tom Green, who has been drinking steadily since 5 pm. Green, who has already fallen over some furniture, is watching the movie in the back row, drinking beer with some women he found at the bar next door. As the credits come up for Freezer Burn: The Invasion of Laxdale, Green takes to stage with his producer, and he’s out of control, which seems to suit the audience just fine. The first questioner asks him to name his famous cereal (Count Chocula).  Although no one really asks him about it, inevitably Green regales the audience with tales of his ball-removal operation for testicular cancer, “You don’t have to cut the scrotum,” he explains. “It’s like shucking oyster.” As he went on to boast that he can still get erections and ejaculate, some voices in the crowd yelled for a demonstration, which he declined to provide.

And the films? I’ve seen some good ones, notably two documentaries: Ron Mann’s Know Your Mushrooms and Brett Gaylor’s RiP: A Remix Manifesto. More on that later, and on the Whister tribute to Donald Sutherland . . .