Postcard from Northern Ontario

Filmmaker Benjamin Paquette stood stoically by the theater lobby with his crew, his friends and collages. He quietly greeted movie goers as they filed in to the premiere of his fourth feature film, (Non) Fiction, at this year’s Cinefest Sudbury International Film Festival in Sudbury, Ontario.

“I just hope they get it,” he said, forcing a nervous smile.

Looking out toward the bleachers at his motion-picture arts students, whose phosphorescent hair and war paint set them apart from the typical festival audience, Paquette expressed reservations. He wasn’t sure if he was going to getting any laughs.

“It’s a comedy,” he said. He then corrected himself. “It’s my idea of a comedy.”

For 23 years, Cinefest has come at the heels of the Toronto International Film Festival. But Cinefest has no red carpet, and the only big name you’re likely to see is on the screen. The lunch-box crowd, decking themselves out in their best bohemian garb, come to the festival for a host of gritty international titles and a slew of Canadian features. The festival has grown from offering a mere handful of films over a three-day span to offering 130 multicultural, local, Canadian and international films over the course of a week, making it Northern Ontario’s premiere film festival.

Cannes Film Festival award winners like Take Shelter and star-studded features like The Women in the Fifth and Gus Van Sant’s latest film, Restless, took top billing. Canadian films like Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz or documentaries like Wiebo’s War spoke to Canadian national identity while films like Les Femmes du 6 Etage, Le Sens de l’Humour and Le Boneur des Autres made room for Sudbury’s yet-thriving francophone community.

The festival is cleverly marketed to the small-town hipster as the city’s big-ticket cultural event. With its boon for the city’s tourism industry, the local shops are more than happy to help, buying up advertising space in the 144-page program guide or, if they have the coin, sponsoring one of the features. And the queuing public came in throngs, in spite of high ticket price; a standard rush ticket costs $11.50 and the gala presentations $21.50.

Most of the local filmmaking talent is featured in the film-shorts competition, which played to a packed house that hoped to hear a familiar accent or see a common face. Sometimes laughably amateurish or excessively conceptual, the shorts are none-the-less authentic Sudbury, just another city suffering from the most typical of growing pains–the loss of its identity. (Before the discovery of one of world’s richest deposits of nickel and the population boom that followed, Sudbury was just another sleepy logging town. As chain stores bloomed from the shattered rocks of a freshly-blasted hillside, one could say the region’s legacy is wasting away bit by bit.)

The examples spanned both culture and time. In Danis Goulet’s short, Wapawekka, a young hip hop artist faces the cultural and generational consequences of departing from his traditional Cree territory. Ben Bruhmuller’s 1883 deals with the aftermath of an accident during construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Yet even with Cinefest, there have been few locally grown filmmakers. And fewer still have delivered as consistently as Benjamin Paquette.

In 2004, Paquette made his first contribution to Cinefest with A Year in the Death of Jack Richards, about a distraught university professor’s choice to commit suicide. In a most unconventional approach to ending his life, the professor gets involved with a cult that worships him like a god for a year, only to use him for a ritual sacrifice. This modest first effort by a novice writer director was later screened at film festivals across North America and Europe. The first in a trilogy that deals with the psychology of romantic love, Paquette followed A Year in the Death of Jack Richards with The Women of Ahhs: A Self-Portrait by Victoria Fleming in 2008. The Anonymous Rudy S., is due out in 2012.

In 2008, Paquette moved to back to his hometown of Sudbury to teach at Laurentian University where he founded a motion-picture arts program. His work has been highly influenced by his academics. (Non) Fiction can be best described as an intellectual exercise on the subject of authorship. Composed of snippets of screen tests from a project whose funding falls through, with seemingly endless monologues, the film is a rubik’s cube. It’s a complex maze, whose main characters are set adrift with only the most tenuous connection to each other. The audience is blasted with hysterics as one of the main characters loses her mind. Though it stands detached from the trilogy, (Non) Fiction still delves deeply into the psychology of romantic love.

Criticized for being too complex, cerebral, and unpolished, Paquette’s films often received mixed reviews. Liam Lacey of the Globe and Mail called A Year in the Death of Jack Richards “often more ambitious than accomplished.” He went on to write, “The plot’s Twilight Zone-like entanglements might be more palatable if the film’s execution were more adept.” Melora Koepke of Hour magazine also had her reservations, calling the film “more like an idea than an actual movie.” Yet like the films of Jean-Luc Godard or Guy Maddin, Paquette’s films aren’t meant to appeal to a large audience. Uncompromising, he seeks in every new film to challenge and unsteady audiences, to muddy the lines of reality, precisely the aim of his latest picture.

(Non) Fiction finished and the house lights blinked on to start the question period. In spite of the occasional heavy laughter, the lines of division could almost be seen. Some of the restless audience could not wait to lay into Paquette. His students, taking up the lion’s share of seats, kept quiet, as he aptly negotiated questions to justify his work. “I just curl up in a ball whenever the term ‘target audience’ comes up… You can’t make a film for anyone but yourself,” said Paquette.

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