The National Screen Institute's Film Exchange. (Festival Wraps).
Winnipeg in February. Only in Canada, you say, would they hold a film festival in Winnipeg in February. Known as Local Heroes, Winnipeg last year (not to be confused with Local Heroes, Edmonton which is still a going concern in March) the National Screen institute (NSI) in order to avoid any confusion in the future renamed its festival FilmExchange the all-Canadian film festival.
Festival director Bill Evans says FilmExhange is the largest festival dedicated to 100 per cent Canadian films, and this year's program included 14 features 40 shorts, seminars, luncheons, invited guests and an opening night that featured SnowScreen, a hand-carved mound of snow shaped into a screen for a free outdoor showing in Old Market Square in the heart of the Exchange District Screened were the works of top Winnipeg animators Cordell Barker (The Cat Came Back), Richard Condie (The Big Snit), and Strange Invaders, Barker's 2002 Oscar nominee.
Guy Maddin's visual stunning and innovative Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (see Take One No. 36) was only one of the few films to be shown that hadn't played in earlier festivals. It was screened as a fundraiser for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet two days before its premier on CBC-TV. Other galas included the multi-Genie winner, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), Robert Cuffley's Turning Paige, Carl Bessai's Lola Denis Chouinard's Tar Angel, Helen Lee's The Art of Woo and Dwayne Beaver's The Rhino Brothers. A series of industry events were offered at the Fort Garry Hotel, which served as festival headquarters, where delegates, mostly young and enthusiastic film-makers from the thriving Winnipeg film community, could benefit from insider knowledge from the likes of director Gary Burns (waydowntown), producer Sandra Cunningham (The Sweet Hereafter) and writer Karen Walton (Ginger Snaps). Atom Egoyan talked at length with Geoff Pevere. The Toronto Star's movie critic, and Jacques Bensimon, the newly appointed Government Film Commissioner, gave a lunchtime address.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the festival was the closing night gala screening of Paul Gross's curling saga, Men with Brooms. The timing was brilliant as the Men with Brooms promotional tour coincided exactly with the dates of the festival. The tour swung into town Friday with Gross, Peter Outerbridge, James Allodi, Leslie Nielsen, Michelle Nolden, Kari Matchett and Alliance Atlantis PR staffers. On Saturday, Winnipeg's Granite Curling Club, the oldest in the country - formed in 1880 just 10 years after the province was founded - was the site for a media-staged event, two ends of celebrity curling with the cast and some local heroes, including Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and Manitoba Premier Gary Doer. Afterwards everyone retired to the bar upstairs, presentations were made, and the assembled were told once again that Winnipeg is the curling capital of the world. The Alliance Atlantis PR types were working the room, making sure the media got the choice bits and understood the unique effort they were putting into promoting the film. Outerbridge told one Winnipeg Free Press reporter. "Everyone here has been involved with a Canadian film that was really good and had huge critical acclaim, then it went into the theatre for a week and disappeared. Canadian films don't get buzz. So let's give this movie a lot of buzz and let's tell everybody about it. If it works, then maybe it will start a trend."
The screening that night was packed and the audience buzzed. If Winnipeg is, indeed, the curling capital of the universe, then the film could not have found a better, more forgiving audience. From the opening strains of "The Land of Silverbirch," a campfire song everyone seemed to know, to the closing beavers and a standing ovation, it roared its approval. They simply got it, loved it and laughed at every corny curling joke. In the 30 years I have spent watching Canadian films, I never have experienced such a joyous reaction. Gross stood up after final credits for Q&A and the handsome leading man had them eating out of the palm of his hand. When one fan asked a few question from the second balcony, she shouted, "Do you have a date for tonight?" Then, in a move that brought the house down, she ran down the stairs and planted a kiss on his cheek as flashbulbs popped.
After the festival, Playback, the Canadian industry biweekly, reported that the attendance nearly double from last year, which is a good sign that the festival organizers at the NSI are on the night track. They're making an effort to court the local and national press, and by offering a 100 per cent Canadian film festival they can carve out an important niche in the growing Canadian festival circuit. Surprisingly, it hasn't been done before. Not surprisingly, it's being done in Winnipeg - in February.