Report on the 39th World Film Festival Montreal

Having the privilege of being one of four jurors of the Ecumenical Jury responsible for selecting which film would be awarded the Ecumenical Prize at the 39th Montreal World Film Festival I want report about my personal impression of the town and its famous film festival. 

Montreal, the setting for the festival, beckons one into a French Canadian culture with its French only road signs and marvelous French cuisine. French food artistry on display in the many patisseries demanded regular and frequent visitation!

Montreal thrives as a city of students. With McGill University, Concordia University, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the University of Quebec Montreal Campus all located near downtown, the streets and transportation systems seem to carry an inordinate number of young people. There is a palpable vibrancy in the air.

Montreal is home to a significant number of recent immigrants. The magnificent hues of skin tones, intoxicating sound of languages from afar and the fragrant street smells of restaurants featuring world cuisines elevates the Montreal experience into the realm of the exotic. 

Living near Washington D.C. with its aging and neglected public transportation system, one is spellbound by an underground metro system of modern, clean stations, well-kept train cars, never waiting more than 1 minute for a train during rush hour and a polite population that readily offers seats to pregnant women and the elderly. Meanwhile, the potholed streets above ground remind one of the difficulty every major metropolis faces in keeping its infrastructure in repair.

Evidence of the city’s Catholic culture permeates the landscape. Churches and cathedrals built for permanence from stone seem to fill every other block. With a population less committed to church attendance these days, many of these would now be neglected if it were not for the province stepping in to assist with upkeep and repair. The Basilica of Montreal features an abundance of statuary and wood carving, an impressive place of worship.

The setting of the festival

The Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF) ranks among the most prestigious festivals in the world and is the only festival in North America recognized by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. An Ecumenical Jury nominated by SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication) and INTERFILM (International Inter-church Film Organization) is there present (after Locarno 1973 and Cannes 1974) since 1979.

While the festival is centered in the magnificently restored Imperial Cinema theatre near the Place des Arts, the artistic center of Montreal, it spills into other nearby theatres as well. Each summer Sainte Catherine Street is closed to motor traffic, becoming the place where both Montreal residents and tourists gather around fountains, restaurants, museums, and performing arts venues. In this hub of activity the Montreal International Films Festival takes place. 

As a jury member one receives a pass that allows entry to social events where the producers, directors and stars of the various films mix daily. I had the opportunity to speak with a number of directors, quizzing them on their productions. Many are first time directors. Others are veterans of exceptional filmmaking. This particular festival is not one where many distributors show up, so few distribution deals get made here. Rather, this festival showcases the creative art of filmmaking. While all films showed creative imagination, it was clear that some would likely have difficulty in gaining a popular audience. Their brilliance lay in their artistry rather than their mass appeal.

With the advent of wide screen technology and its implementation in most homes, filmmakers are exploring what to do with the extra screen width. Several used compositions that split the screen in two, allowing competing or parallel parts of the story to be told at the same time. Audio tracks were not exempt from experimentation. With many home theaters now equipped with modern low frequency speakers, filmmakers are taking advantage of a spectrum of sound not previously available to them. Low, rumbling sounds were used in several films to represent the turbulent state of a character’s mind.  

Great diversity of films

Popular themes emerging from the films in competition at this year’s festival included end of life and dying, the futility of modern existence, and blatant hypocrisy of middle and upper class living. Many entries were heavily influenced by the French New Wave of filmmaking, marked by long scenes, examination of the dark psychological state of the characters, and storylines that exhibited little hope for meaningful lives. 

Films from the Middle East tended to explore difficult social issues highlighted by the confluence of traditional social customs and contemporary ideals of personal freedom and human rights, especially of the plight of young women caught in these conflicts. 

Russian and some eastern European filmmakers used the film medium to examine their country’s Soviet past. In several cases it was clear that the current state of unbridled capitalism without rule of law was seen as giving no more hope to the population than had Soviet era communism. In one case, a Russian filmmaker explored the corrosive effect of espionage on the human psychic. These examples show that film artists remain vitally interested in delving into social issues of great consequence, determined to hold a mirror from which society sees a reflection of its inner self. 

Many of the darker films were cast in the manner similar to some biblical parables where a story is told representing the negative in order to highlight a positive.  

And then there are those films that celebrate the ability of humanity to seek redemption, to reach across personal, social and cultural divides to form common bonds. In rare instances the ecumenical jury finds few entries suitable for its award. That was not the case this year. While three or four quickly rose to the top during the selection processes because of the storyline of their narrative and their remarkable production values, at least an equal number were strong contenders. All this points to the great diversity that is present in the international film community where all film artists are, in some manner, exploring the human condition. 

The awards of the Ecumenical Jury

The Ecumenical Jury, composed of four members from different cultures and backgrounds, and renewed each year, are nominated by SIGNIS and INTERFILM. Being part of this jury was a personal highlight. Watching three feature films each day was a great way to compare the visions of a disparate group of screenwriters and directors. The styles of cinematography represented by the Directors of Photography and cinematographers showed imagination and a sincere effort to enhance the director’s vision through creative manipulation of the visual image. With the advent of universal wide screen technology filmmakers are experimenting with what the expanded screen size should contain. Several used composition techniques that split the screen into multiple sections, allowing the story to be told from more than one point of reference at a time. After watching 29 feature films in competition during the ten day festival, it was clear we had some outstanding candidates for the ecumenical prize. It was good to see producers, scriptwriters and directors engage in artistic endeavours that reflect basic human values. 

Midnight Orchestra by Jerôme Cohen Oliver (Morocco 2015), a film examining the intractable problems existing between Muslims and Jews, took home the ecumenical prize.  In awarding this film the prize, the jury noted that the film “uses the creative device of music in telling the story of how an estranged son’s memories are transformed when he learns about an unknown part of his father’s life. The film takes on the difficult topic of Jewish/Muslim relationships, with all its complexities, in an engaging and creative story that smashes common stereotypes with humour and compassion. We are drawn into a narrative that gives hope where there is often despair. A strong script with great characterizations allows us to see beyond the impasses that often pass for the status quo to a new world where the Midnight Orchestra composed of all peoples will play a tune of common humanity.” 

The jury also commended Havana Moment by Guillermo Ivan (USA, Cuba, Mexico, Clombia 2015) a story of two brothers separated for 23 years when their mother flees Cuba for the United States with the younger boy. The film shows how pardon and reconciliation are possible when the American brother returns to Cuba and the two discover the best of each other, despite how much separates them.

A second commendation went to Russian film, On the Road to Berlin by Sergej Popov (Russia 2015), a touching story of a young lieutenant keeping his integrity during the ravages of WWII when he is condemned to death for failing to deliver his orders in a timely manner to his superiors. A new relationship develops between the young lieutenant and his guard that brings to mind the story of Dirk Willems reaching out to save his pursuer from the icy waters into which he has fallen, knowing he will be put to death when he does so.