Has the World Film Fest always been shit? Part 2

The festival’s peak came in the mid ’80s to early ’90s, but even that period was marred by absurd programming choices.

See Part 1 of this article here.


As a kid growing up in Saguenay before the era of streamable content (and even, in a lot of cases, availability of films on DVD), my filmic education came piecemeal. There were a couple of video stores that offered 99 per cent dubbed VHS tapes; I’d bike around town trying to find things in other video stores, but not too many video stores in Jonquière invested in stuff from the Criterion Collection even at the beginning of the DVD boom. I had a very bizarre, skewed idea of what the film canon was as a teenager, one that I’d culled from the movies they always played during the PBS movie marathon (Jeremiah Johnson, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), whatever I could find at video stores (I saw Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagus before I saw any George Romero zombie movies) and whatever was broadcast on Télé-Québec. Télé-Québec has (or had, since I haven’t really kept up) a remarkable slate of film programming — one, however, that I’m beginning to realize seems heavily informed by the Montreal World Film Festival — but we’ll get back to that in a few.

If the MWFF could’ve ever boasted of having its finger on the pulse of world cinema, it would’ve been in the mid-to-late ’80s. This strikes me as less of a conscious choice and more of a happy coincidence, as Hollywood (and in fact, pretty much all of pop culture — just look at Paul Simon and Graceland) was going through its “world phase.” Hollywood was all over internationally accented epics like The Last Emperor or The Mission; filmmakers like Kurosawa were more mainstream than ever and, even if those films weren’t exactly shattering box-office records, they were exactly the kind of middlebrow success that the MWFF had already been championing. (Speaking of middlebrow, the MWFF did a career retrospective of James Ivory’s oeuvre in 1987. The stately films of Ivory and his partner, Ismail Merchant, are to my mind the best representation of the MWFF’s audience and general purpose at the time.)




A Room With a View (1985), classic Merchant Ivory


In a 1989 preview article in Le Devoir, 20 under-the-radar filmmakers with films at the festival are profiled: the list includes Roberto Benigni, Mika Kaurismaki (who actually returned with his latest film this year, one of the only “names” in this year’s program), Jiri Menzel, Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Sokurov, Susan Seidelman and Shohei Imamura (who had already had a film in competition 10 years prior, but was at the fest with his biggest film, Black Rain). This is a surprisingly strong list, international without being pandering and surprisingly devoid of the titans-on-their-way-out that dominated the early years of the festival.

That having been said, this isn’t necessarily true of directors whose films are in competition; both of Le Devoir’s 1984 and 1985 first-week round-ups showcase mostly disappointing outings and outright turds in competition. This is in part due to the festival’s insistence that films in competition be world or (at the very least) international premieres. Early in the ’80s, the festival had enough clout to attract big international names, but as time progressed, this made the official selection increasingly bizarre and scattershot. (There’s also a bizarre article from 1986 that claims director Franco Zeffirelli wrote Losique to complain about not being invited — ostensibly for his filmed version of Othello, starring Placido Domingo — and that the telegram came from Richard Gere’s NYC apartment. I haven’t the slightest goddamn idea what it means, why this was deemed paper-worthy or what came out of it, but it seems like this memory should be worth preserving.)

What truly strikes me about this period in the MWFF’s life, however, is the way that it forged an international canon for Quebec that stands alone. Films that played at the MWFF, and more often than not won awards, became mainstays on Télé-Québec and Radio-Canada, even if in some cases they never gained much visibility in other countries. I grew up thinking films like La lectrice, Salaam Bombay!, Betty Blue, Princes in Exile and Rambling Rose were considered must-sees the world over, when in fact they were simply things that went over well enough at the festival to fall into the good graces of programmers and Mediafilm, the venerable institution that provided reviews for TV schedules and guides in Quebec. This has allowed some filmmakers like Ettore Scola or Majid Majidi to benefit from way more visibility than they have in other tastemaking circles, but it also doomed the festival in a way, giving it the so-called trailblazing MO that has more or less fucked it in the last 10 years.

Writing in The Nation in 1997, Jeffrey Wells (now known as a fucking dickhead with a propensity for foot-in-mouth shenanigans — the last one involved Amy Schumer) says of the fest: “It’s a respected place for new films to be seen and talked about. Every year it generates a lot of ink and keeps itself in the game, even with the somewhat grander, certainly edgier Toronto International Film Festival opening in its wake, breathing down its neck.”

Another 9 and a Half Weeks

Another 9 1/2 Weeks


Wells isn’t exactly a critic (he’s more into pointing out which stars were there and how much they looked like his platonic ideal of themselves) but he nevertheless outlines about half-a-dozen films, many of which fit under the post-Tarantino mold of hip crime thrillers (the grand prize, however, was won by Majid Majidi’s Children of Paradise). He also points out that Mickey Rourke was in town because the festival was screening Another 9 ½ Weeks (!!), the belated sequel to his erotic 1986 hit. It boggles the mind that this movie (which was released straight-to-video) could even end up in any festival, but it seems the MWFF was so eager for names that even Rourke at the lowest point in his career seemed to be a draw.

It’s around the late ’90s that things seem to unravel. The line-ups grow increasingly schizophrenic; intimate dramas and “classy” international cinema live side-by-side with scuzzbucket post-Tarantino crime films, middling Québécois genre films like La conciergerie and the occasional left-field mainstream choice (like Wicker Park, the forgettable Montreal-shot Josh Hartnett thriller, which premiered at the festival in 2004).

By this time, the MWFF has fallen victim to both the increasing power and popularity of festivals like TIFF (which is not competitive, and therefore not beholden to the same kind of arcane premiere rules — or, at least, wasn’t at the time) and Sundance (prime breeding ground for the kind of indie movies that started to dot the MWFF programming at the time) and the newfound ubiquity of video stores. What used to be a film buff’s only way to see tons of films suddenly became a bizarrely curated amalgam of everything available in the film world, an attempt to seek a broader audience that somewhat backfired on the resolutely middlebrow audience that the MWFF attracts.

It’s undeniable that the fest had at least a few good years in there. While it never truly shook its local reputation as being constantly on the cusp of a total shitshow, it bred some goodwill internationally and showed at least a couple of major works by major filmmakers every year until roughly 2004. That’s when the shit really, truly hit the fan that it was so precariously perched on top of for nearly 30 years.

But that, my friends, is a story for next week.

Stay tuned for the final installment of “Has the World Film Fest always been shit?” next week. We’ll talk about the past decade years of the festival and what’s in store in the future — if the fest makes it to the end of the week. Also keep your eyes peeled for a special MWFF-themed Made in MTL later this week.