Canada as a Character at TIFF 2016

Each September, the Toronto International Film Festival offers movie enthusiasts the chance to see big-ticket Hollywood productions months before they’re released in theatres. It’s undeniably exciting to see the world premiere of your favourite movie star’s latest film, especially if said actor is there to chat about the production and answer questions from fans. However, my favourite aspect of TIFF is not the film that I will be able to see in mainstream theatres before the end of the year. I relish the opportunity to catch movies that I may not have the occasion to see otherwise, especially those that we as Canadians can call our own.

This year, while enjoying a sneak peek at a few Canadian films that festival goers will be able to enjoy, I was struck by a reoccurring character in several works: the unmistakable Canadian setting. When displayed in a particular way, setting and scenery can become more than simply the location where a story takes place. In two of the films, the setting became a living part of the work, lending intense symbolism and even unique personality to the piece as a whole. Set anywhere else in the world, and the tone would have been different; shot in any other location, and the film would change so intrinsically as to result in a different piece entirely.

In the first film, Unless from director Alan Gilsenan, a successful writer and mother of three (Catherine Keener) discovers that her eldest daughter, Norah (Hannah Gross), has taken up silent residence on a Toronto street corner. Naturally, she is shaken, confused, and terrified. Unless follows two strong women portrayed by talented actresses as they deal with their unique struggles in the best way each knows how.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada
An Icy Day in Toronto

Unless is a Canadian/Irish adaptation of the final novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian novelist Carol Shields, and stars young actress Hannah Gross—daughter of Canadian acting power couple Paul Gross and Martha Burns—in what is sure to be a breakout role. Not only does the work feature the words of a great Canadian novelist and the talents of a new Canadian actress, but it also displays a snowy, recognizable Toronto setting. Iconic retail landmark Honest Ed’s shelters Norah during her silent vigil, becoming a symbol for all that she is trying to achieve.

Honest Ed’s discount store was founded in 1948 by entrepreneur Ed Mirvish, who was known as “a commoners’ philanthropist” and “a quintessentially Canadian mogul” due to his renowned generosity. Mirvish quickly gained recognition in the city and beyond for donating profits from his giant warehouse store to hospitals and museums, and for distributing free turkeys and fruitcakes to the less fortunate each Christmas.

Just as the massive, highly recognizable retail outlet reflects Mirvish’s ideals and promises fairness and honesty in its transactions, the diminutive, hunched figure of Norah attempts to bring attention to generosity and “goodness,” as she displays a handwritten sign bearing this single word as she sits vigil each day. The film is quiet and unassuming as it follows Norah’s simple quest, but projects its sentiments far beyond the city of Toronto and into the world beyond.

The very different work Two Lovers and a Bear is Montreal-born director Kim Nguyen’s first fiction film following his Academy Award–nominated Rebelle (2012). Lucy (Tatiana Maslany) and Roman (Dane DeHaan) live in an isolated town in Nunavut, where they each face their own demons but are able to lean on each other for support and social interaction. When Lucy is offered a scholarship in the south, however, the fate of their relationship is quickly called into question.

Tatiana Maslany has earned international attention and acclaim for her multi-faceted role in the Canadian television series Orphan Black, and it is not difficult to determine why while watching her perform as Lucy here. Maslany and American actor Dane DeHaan share the screen with little other than snowy scenery and a (occasionally speaking) polar bear, and the talented young actors draw us into their tightly wound and frigid worlds with ease.

The Wonderful Wildlife of Canada's North
The Wonderful Wildlife of Canada’s Chilly North

Like Unless, Two Lovers and a Bear also features a distinct Canadian setting: remote Apex in the territory of Nunavut. The human characters feel comfortably and relatedly Canadian; for example, when faced with a highly distressed man moments from committing suicide via gun wound, a police officer calls for backup in the form of a case of beer. Even our aforementioned talking polar bear speaks with familiar diction and sensibilities.

The frigid scenery is spectacular in its unrelenting harshness and searing in its beauty. The setting acts not only as a place for the action to unfold, but also as a metaphor for the nature of this relationship and these characters, all of which appear physically lovely on the surface but hide a brutal danger that is revealed as the film progresses. This setting is so required that one could say that this work could only be a Canadian film; set anywhere else, and the tone and overall representation could not help but strike a different chord.

TIFF offers movie-goers an opportunity to experience certain films for the very first time: Unless will be making its world premiere during the festival, while Two Lovers and a Bear will be premiering for North American audiences. These films feature undeniably talented Canadian and international actors portraying characters struggling with inner demons and vicariously facing the challenges felt by those they love. However, another character is present within both: two very different but recognizable Canadian landscapes. A Toronto street corner outside a well-known discount store and an isolated town in remote Nunavut come to represent much more than simple settings. Our country is fortunate to not only provide a home to talented actors, but to offer inspiration within the physical characteristics of that home as well.