FIFA screening of From Montreal, with director Yannick Gélinas taking questions from the crowd via Skype
The Festival of Films on Art is like one of those “supermarket sweeps” game shows, where you try to cram as much into your cart as possible before the time’s up. Nearly 250 films were scheduled in just 11 days. All over Montreal—in museums, cultural centres, and university auditoriums—you could see films about painting, architecture, fashion, music, animation, literature, and more.
For the artistically inclined Montrealer, this festival induces a kind of panic: Which are the best films? Why do two of the most intriguing ones have to be scheduled at the same time? How many screenings can I squeeze into my schedule before my children or significant other start to feel neglected?
The choice of which films to see often comes down to subject matter—an unfortunate truth about documentary filmmaking. Someone might make a brilliant short about an obscure artist, but a boring, derivative film about a famous artist will always draw a bigger crowd.
I felt a little guilty about my own populist choices, but the biggest-buzz selections of the festival tended to be about well-known subjects, and all the ones I saw were worthy of that buzz.
The opening night film, The Fatwa, was about Salman Rushdie’s highly publicized ordeal of “being sentenced to death” because of his book The Satanic Verses. Anyone old enough to have watched the news in the 1990s knows the story. And yet the film is fascinating. Directed by Jill Nicholls for the BBC, The Fatwa turns familiar footage into a meditation on artistic freedom.
My personal favorite, From Montreal, hit a little closer to home. Yannick Gélinas’ documentary about the Montreal music scene was a smart and slyly edited look at the intersection between French and English culture in this city. The success of bands like Arcade Fire has drawn more Anglo musicians to Montreal, but how much do they interact with their French counterparts? Apparently, it depends whom you ask. From Montreal certainly had one of the liveliest question-and-answer sessions afterwards—after all, language and indie music are two of Montreal’s favorite subjects.
But the festival had something for everyone. For opera lovers, Susan Froemke’s Wagner’s Dream gave a behind-the-scenes look at the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of The Ring Cycle. For fashionistas, Olivier Nicklaus’ Fashion! Go Global was the must-see film. And there were also films about Edward Hopper, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Harrison, Lawrence of Arabia, and yes, some obscure artists too.
At the end of the festival, my friends and I regrouped to exchange information. We had each “curated” very different mini-festivals from the FIFA offerings. We all mourned the interesting films we’d missed, and wished the festival hadn’t crammed so many selections into such a short time period.
Then we realized: How often do we find ourselves in social situations where everyone we know is talking about art documentaries? Not often enough. And that, we decided, is probably the thing we liked most about this year’s FIFA.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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