Published On: Fri, Jan 12th, 2018

At Sundance, Canada’s eye on the planet — and also on the dogs

Canadians will be roaming the planet at the Sundance Film Festival — and also going to the dogs.

Four Canuck features — two documentaries and two dramas — are scheduled to premiere at Sundance 2018, which runs Jan. 18 to 28 in Park City, Utah, but they’re not visions of Canada as a country.

They look at problems and fears outside our national borders, which is “sort of a natural thing” for Canadians to do, says Sundance director John Cooper, in an interview from Los Angeles as he prepares to travel to Utah.

“(Canada) is a country of observers . . . They have a real curiosity about the world outside of them and how it pertains to them, a more global view. I wouldn’t shy away from that; I’d be proud of that, actually.”

Anote’s Ark, directed by Matthieu Rytz, premiering in the world cinema documentary competition, visits the Pacific atoll of Kiribati, which is steadily sinking beneath rising waves caused by global warming and other human-caused environmental damage.

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The Oslo Diaries, another doc premiering in the same competition, is an Israel/Canada co-production directed by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan. It investigates the untold story of secret efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians in 1992.

The Oslo Diaries investigates the untold story of secret efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians in 1992.
The Oslo Diaries investigates the untold story of secret efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians in 1992.  (Government Press Office/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)  

Canadian fiction at Sundance is also grounded in global reality. In the world cinema dramatic competition, there’s Un Traductor (A Translator), co-directed by Cuban-Canadian brothersRodrigo and Sebastian Barriuso. It’s based on the true story of a Russian literature prof at the University of Havana, played by Rodrigo Santoro. In the 1980s, he was ordered by the Cuban government to translate for child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, who had been relocated to the island from the former Soviet Union.

Then there’s Summer of ’84, which is straight out of the nightmare fears of everybody, no matter where they’re from. Co-directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann Whissell, the Quebec trio behind Turbo Kid, this Vancouver-shot Canada/U.S. co-production is a horror film premiering in Sundance’s Midnight program. Set in an American waterfront retreat called Ipswich Bay, it’s a story about a 15-year-old conspiracy theorist and his pals who set out to catch a serial killer who is terrorizing their town.

Carolle Brabant, the executive director of Telefilm Canada, the national funding and promotion, agrees that Canadians have a unique worldview.

“I believe that Canada is increasingly taking its place not only in telling Canadian stories, but also in telling stories from around the world with a Canadian sensibility,” she says via email.

“Diversity is now part of our DNA. Our millennial children are the creators of today and their interests are indeed random and eclectic. That’s what makes our cinema so beautiful.”

Our DNA seems to be part canine, as well. Sundance 2018 will also see the world premiere of the virtual reality installation Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes. It’s a VR making-of film, created by Montreal duo Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël at their company Félix & Paul Studios, about the whimsical stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs by American filmmaker Wes Anderson. The eagerly anticipated film features the voices of Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and more.

“The (VR) experience shrinks the viewer down to the size of the stop-motion animated puppets while simultaneously giving a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes environment as the animation is created,” Lajeunesse says via email. “The experience not only gives you the unique opportunity to meet the characters face-to-face, but it also gives you an understanding of the unique and curious way that big and small and fast and slow all combine to create the magic of stop-motion animation.”

Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes has another distinction. It’s the first time Sundance has premiered a making-of film about a movie that is itself about to premiere at a different festival: Anderson’s full Isle of Dogs, which is about a boy’s quest for his lost pooch, is set to open the Berlin fest on Feb. 15. (It’s scheduled for a March 23 commercial release.)

Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes is a VR making-of film, created by Montreal duo Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael.
Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes is a VR making-of film, created by Montreal duo Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael.  (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)  

“I just love this VR piece,” Cooper says. “I’m dying for this movie!”

He’d hoped to snag Isle of Dogs for Sundance, but Anderson lives in Europe and doesn’t like to fly, so Berlin had the edge.

“We’re giving people a taste,” Cooper says of the VR exhibit. “We’re supporting Berlin by promoting their opening-night film!”

Canadian filmmakers used to have the reputation of embracing unusual people and subjects — “weird” was the frequently used adjective — and the seven Canuck shorts premiering at Sundance seem to uphold that tradition.

The offerings include For Nonna Anna by Luis De Filippis, a TIFF 2017 premiere about a transgender girl bonding with her grandmother; My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes by Charlie Tyrell, about a son’s trawl through his late father’s porn stash; and Manivald, an animation by Chintis Lundgren about a love triangle between foxes and wolves — the animal kind, not human.

The Slamdance Film Festival, Sundance’s crosstown rival running Jan.19-25, will also host a slew of Canuck pics — two features and six shorts.

The features are both about unusual romances: Pascal Plante’s punker love pairing Fake Tattoos and Drew Lint’s M/M, which the program calls a “dark fixation of assumed identity.”

Several of the Canuck shorts have sex and gender themes: Do I Have Boobs Now?, directed by Milena Salazar and Joella Cabalu, follows a transgender activist’s fight against social media censorship; The Things You Think I’m Thinking, by Sherren Lee, chronicles a date between a male burn survivor and amputee with a regularly abled man; and Slap Happy, by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dustin Mancinelli, about a kinky couple’s attempt to square their sexual fantasies with their crumbling relationship.

There’s a free-spirited feel to the Canadian slates at Sundance and Slamdance this year, and that seems to appeal to programmers at both fests, says Telefilm’s Brabant.

“Both Sundance and Slamdance love bold (edgy) topics and we have a knack for meeting the preferences of their programmers. When we look at the production of short films in Canada we are continually overwhelmed by the quality.”

Canada’s Top Ten: You don’t have to travel to Utah to see great Canadian features and shorts. TIFF is showcasing them at its 17th annual Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, running Jan. 12 to 21 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. In alphabetical order, the features screening, many of them with directors and talent in the house, are: Adventures In Public School (Kyle Rideout); Allure (Carlos Sanchez, Jason Sanchez); Ava (Sadaf Foroughi); Les Affamés (Robin Aubert); The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (Simon Lavoie); Luk’Luk’I (Wayne Wapeemukwa); Never Steady, Never Still (Kathleen Hepburn); Our People Will Be Healed (Alanis Obomsawin); Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World (Catherine Bainbridge);and Unarmed Verses (Charles Officer). More details at

Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic. His column usually runs Fridays.

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At Sundance, Canada’s eye on the planet — and also on the dogs