The Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF), which kicked off yesterday and runs through to September 2, is a particular gem in the festival circuit, widely respected for its cosmopolitan scope and 37 years of illustrious, intelligent programming.

The festival (website here) capitalizes upon Montreal’s position as a city that looks outwards as well as inwards – contextualizing itself anew every year in the global culture with a selection of international films (and the Montreal International Film Market) as well as homegrown and student works. MovieMaker spoke with Martin Malina, former film critic for The Montreal Star and now senior programmer at the festival, whose eloquent answers take us back to the origins of MWFF and the history of foreign cinema’s presence in the city: from the Czech New Wave to Chinese luminaries.


MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Give us a taste of MWFF’s 37 years of history, and what your personal history has been with the festival.

Martin Malina, Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF): When the short-lived [1960-1968] Montreal International Film Festival collapsed due to political and internal squabbling, the absence of a world-class film event was quickly felt. But it took another nine years before anyone was brave enough to launch a successor – in this case, Serge Losique, who had already had some experience bringing foreign films and filmmakers to Montreal through his Conservatory of Cinematographic Art at Concordia University. And right from the very first year, 1977, it was evident that he was thinking big. The first edition’s invited guests – Gloria Swanson, Fay Wray, Howard Hawks (I was fortunate to be able to interview him that year for The Montreal Star; it may have been the last formal interview that he gave; he died four months later), Jean-Luc Godard the Taviani Brothers, Nagisa Oshima and Eddie Constantine – give us a taste of the eclectic range that the festival has endeavoured to maintain over its 37 years.

MM: MWFF is very much dedicated to World Cinema, as evidenced by its highly internationally-oriented sections (including World Competition, Hors Concours, and Documentaries of the World), as well as its recognition by the International Federation of Film Producers’ Associations. What makes MWFF such an apt venue for the showcase of global film?

MWFF: Montreal is a North American city – Canada is considered “domestic” territory for the Hollywood majors, and we get all the US TV networks –  but it is a very international North American city, majority French-speaking and with large ethnic communities – Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Haitian, North African, Vietnamese, Latin American, etc. So its cinemas have always shown probably more “foreign” films that any other North American city save New York. And it has a long tradition of art cinemas and cinematheques. All of which makes an event like the MWFF perfectly at home. And, unlike Cannes or Venice or Locarno, it does not take place in a resort or vacation venue. It is a big-city event. A very cosmopolitan big-city event.

The MWFF was one of the first North American events to showcase the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige etc.) and it was an early venue for the presentation of the Iranian masters. But the festival doesn’t try to copycat other big international events. Most of all, it has tried to remain true to its name, showing films from countries – and filmmakers – that would otherwise never get screened on this side of the Atlantic. It does pick up films from Cannes and elsewhere, but it gives priority to new films, to world or international premieres and to new filmmakers. This makes us very adventurous. We are pleased when established directors return with their latest films but we are especially delighted when we help discover a new talent. When we premiered Departures by Yojiro Takita from Japan in 2008, we knew it was a very fine film and we were very happy to see our choice confirmed when several months later the film went on to win the Oscar for best foreign language film.

MM: That said, how does MWFF bring notice to important Quebec cinema?

MWFF: Of course, being a Quebec event, we always give priority to Quebec films. This year we have half a dozen new Quebec films: Another House, directed by Mathieu Roy, Summer Crisis by Alain Chartrand, The Martin Girl by Samuel Thivierge and Riptide by Pascale Ferland in the competitive sections, three of which are first features; along with three other first features in the non-competitive section: The Voice of the Shadow by Annie Molin Vasseur, The Effect by Jocelyn Langlois and Redemption by Joel Gauthier. As well we have the international premiere of Jappeloup by Quebec-born Christian Duguay, a Hollywood veteran who happens to be making his first French-language film.


MM: Can you tell us about the Canadian Student Film Festival, and how it integrates with and adds to the rest of MWFF’s programming?

MWFF: The Canadian Student Film Festival, now in its 44th year, is actually older than the MWFF. It was begun by Serge Losique when he was still at Concordia University and when the MWFF was established, the student event became a permanent tenant. Over the years many young filmmakers at the student festival went on to bigger and better things, in Canada and abroad. So we consider that it squares perfectly with the larger festival’s mandate – to encourage new talent.


MM: What screenings can audiences look forward to especially at this year’s festival?

MWFF: What films to look forward to, this year? That’s like asking a parent which of his children he prefers. I could name some of the films I personally saw and programmed, but I think I’ll switch by saying that a film I haven’t seen but eagerly look forward to viewing is Jiri Menzel’s The Don Juans. Menzel, who is the president of this year’s jury, was one of the key members of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s and 70s along with Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Vera Chytilova, Vojtech Jasny, Jan Nemec, Jaromil Jires, et al. His first film, at 28, the wonderful Closely Watched Trains (1967), won the foreign language Oscar and became a kind of standard bearer for Czech cinema. Menzel’s vision combined a devotion to the poetry of the commonplace with his own special brand of wry comedy and satire, a vision that he has maintained throughout his long career. I have no doubt that I will be smiling a lot in the dark.


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