Streaming Site MUBI Screens Best (and Bleakest) of Emerging Canuck Cinema

By Liam Lacey

This month MUBI, the international art film subscription streaming site, is offering a selection of 10 Canadian films shown over the course of the summer. Given that MUBI has around eight million registered members around the world, this represents significant exposure for films that might otherwise screen only at film festivals and for short theatrical runs. 

A scene from Ashley McKenzie's award-winning Werewolves.

A scene from Ashley McKenzie's award-winning Werewolves.

The MUBI service works like this: Each day, a new film is introduced into the catalogue and is available for 30 days. The cost is $9.99 a month (or $6.99 if you buy a full year) which is comparable with streaming services with a much bigger catalogue (Netflix, Crave, Sundance) but less specialized taste. The subscription also provides access to MUBI’s film rental service and online film magazine, Notebook. You can have a free one-week trial to test out the service.

The program is entitled Canada’s Next Generation, by which it seems to mean filmmakers under 40.  I’m deeply skeptical about generalizations about Canadian cinema, not only because of the French-English divide but because our contemporary filmmakers, spread thousands of miles apart, exist in an international soup of disparate influences.

Still, one can’t help but notice that four of the 10 films conform to a certain downbeat Canadian 1970s stereotype: Stories of poverty, addiction, loneliness, and abuse. Do these reflect national character or do government funding agencies feel mandated to finance “socially relevant” films? And don’t filmmakers in most countries try to offer realistic alternatives to Hollywood’s upbeat narratives?

MUBI’s first entry, Werewolf (2016) — which the Toronto Film Critics Association gave the $100,000 award as best Canadian feature of the year — is plain impressive. Ashley McKenzie’s disciplined debut chronicles the separate trajectories of Blaise (Andrew Gillis) and Vanessa (Bhreagh MacNeil), two young recovering heroin users living in New Waterford, Nova Scotia. Shot claustrophobically close to its subjects, this documentary-style portrait of co-dependent romance has lots of generic antecedents (from Days of Wine and Roses to The Panic in Needle Park) but Makenzie finds a raw edge of sadness and anxious frustration.

Shot in the same New Waterford community, Winston DeGiobbi’s unsettling Mass for Shut-ins (2017) looks at a similar social milieu with a more jaundiced lens, reminiscent Harmony Korine’s or Gus Van Sant’s portraits of lower-class misfits. DeGiobbi’s character study of a candy-stuffing, TV-watching, baby-faced 25-year-old who lives on his grandfather’s couch rides a line between empathetic and squirm-inducing. 

There are similarities between the mordant tone of Mass for Shut-ins and Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer (2015), the film which seems to be at the centre of the somewhat nebulous “New Canadian cinema” idea. Low-budget, low-incident, and drab, the film follows a middle-aged lower middle-class father, Erwin, who’s obsessed with a computer war game that involves the mass death of small sparkling animated beings.

Eventually, he separates from his family for no good reason except that he’s tired of his wife who keeps trying to communicate with him. Erwin’s belligerent isolation is borderline comic but the “heaviness” he carries is not only Erwin’s pitiable fantasy life but the void of meaningless that threatens to engulf him.

The fourth film on our grim list is The Stairs (2017) Hugh Gibson’s documentary, shot over five years, about three harm reduction workers in Toronto’s Regent Park Health Centre, dealing with people struggling with drug use and trauma from street sex work. Reviewers praised the film for being “compassionate” toward its subjects, though it should be no real surprise they’re colourful human beings with stories to tell. More importantly, The Stairs provides a useful insider’s look at the pragmatism of harm reduction as opposed to the fantasy of miraculous cures. 

As for the rest of the films, we can note that Quebec shows less enthusiasm for the subject of grinding poverty.  Quebec director Sophie Goyette’s Still Night, Still Light (2016), in contrast to the previous films, is unabashedly enthusiastic about beauty, even of a melancholic variety. Her film, impeccably framed and lit, follows a young piano teacher who goes to Mexico, and then to China, with the father of one her students. The film is filled with speculative conversations about grief and unfulfilled dreams, often with the characters shot from behind. Still Night, Still Light aspires to a kind of spiritual cinema, though in practice, sometimes settles for warm haziness.

Also great to look at and thought-provoking is Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Maison du bonheur, a portrait of a 76-year-old Parisian astrologer, Juliane, shot not in talking heads interview but with the narration imposed over images of Juliane’s possessions and accessories, emblems of her memories.  Reminiscent of the work of the doyennne of French cinema, Agnes Varda, Bohdanowicz’s film is a portrait of a life well-lived, of life as an art form.

A couple of other Quebec entries are underwhelming: Chloé Robichaud’s Boundaries, about a Canadian government delegation negotiating mining rights with a fictitious island-nation. The film focuses on the work-life issues of three women politicos (Emily VanCamp, Macha Grenon, and Nathalie Doummar) but lacks the vicious wit that would make this kind of material come alive.

I confess I gave up on Les arts de la parole (The Art of Speech) by Olivier Godin, an arch theatrical fable about a man assigned to teach poetry to policemen. He’s also in search of a Bible annotated by the late Pierre Maheu (documentary filmmaker and key figure in the Quiet Revolution). Characters appear in dark colourful rooms and speak cryptically. The dialogue is heightened and, at least in translation, painfully stilted.

The poignant short Historytelling.

The poignant short Historytelling.

Finally, we have two short films: Guillaume Colin’s straightforward 11-minute short, Historytelling, contrasting answers to the same questions posed to white Quebec kids in the Sainte-Claire Elementary School in Chicoutimi, Quebec, and Innu kids in the Nussim Elementary School in Pessamit. It’s no surprise they have a different view of history; what’s alarming is how bleakly the Innu children see their future.

Finally, there’s Idizwadidiz, a seven-minute experimental film from Isiah Medina, whose long-form film above poverty in Winnipeg, 88:88, made a big splash in the art film world in 2015.  Medina works with philosophical concepts which I don’t understand and pays a lot of attention to rapid, precise stuttering edits: There are recurrent rectangles and circles, both drawn and found in nature, fragmentary shots of two young women walking in the city, walking, drawing, dabbing finger marks on a deck and drawing in a notebook and, by way of sound, a couple of attention-grabbing “pings.” I suspect Medina’s a genius but to quote the film’s title, Idizwadidiz (It Is What It Is.).

The MUBI list:

Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie) – July 20
How Heavy This Hammer (Kazik Radwanski) – July 24
Still Night, Still Light (Mes nuits feront écho) (Sophie Goyette) –July 25
Boundaries (Pays) (Chloé Robichaud) – July 31
The Stairs (Hugh Gibson) – August 9
Historytelling (Guillaume Langlois) – August 15
The Art of Speech (Olivier Godin) –August 16
Mass for Shut-Ins (Winston DeGiobbi) – August 23
Idizwadidiz (Isiah Medina) — August 29
Maison du bonheur (Sofia Bohdanowicz) –August 30