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Films for Art's Sake: Montreal Fest Celebrates 30 Years

By Justin Ridgeway

Attending any film festival is necessarily an immersive experience. Arriving in an unfamiliar city, you check into your hotel, pick up your press credentials and a program, and then are left to your own devices. En route to the 30th International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal, this process of immersion begins on the train as it winds its way through the city's outskirts, crossing wide stretches of the converging Ottawa and Saint Lawrence Rivers that form the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The modest skyscrapers reminiscent of its financial-center past and the prominent topographical feature, Mount Royal, seem to pull the train towards the island city.


Even before debarking the train downtown, things feel different from my home city of Toronto, and from other cities across North America. It is not merely its lingering outpost appearance or the simple awareness of Montreal's bilingual nature that gives it a foreign, exotic air. Yes, this Francophone city is the second largest predominantly French-speaking city in the Western world, next only to Paris. A UNESCO-designated City of Design, the architecture suggests a European romance, mixing old and antiquated with increasingly modernist tendencies (Moshe Safdie's landmark Habitat '67 building, along with the corresponding World Expo, ushered in a new future-oriented era). Even the colorful Metro subway stations, with their voluminous frescoed walls adorned with the artworks of significant Quebecois artists, are wistfully Parisian.

There is an almost tangible spirit here in, what Monocle magazine recently deemed, "Canada's Cultural Capital." I taste it one day, walking through the city's downtown core, which has come to a standstill due to students, all clad in red, protesting university tuition hikes while business people and shopkeepers step out to marvel at the exuberance. On a leisurely afternoon hundreds of people bask on the already green grass of Mount Royal park, taking in the abnormally warm mid-March sun. In cafés and abandoned warehouse studio spaces you can see how the city became home to such world-recognized music and performance acts as Arcade Fire and Cirque Du Soleil. Which is to suggest that Montreal is an ideal and likely setting for an International Festival of Films on Art.

FIFA and MIFA: the Festival and International Market of Films on Art

From March 15 to 25, Montreal hosted the International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA / Festival International du Film sur l'Art). Now in its 30th year, the festival, which began in 1981 under the auspices of UNESCO's International Council for Film, Television and Audio Communication, in collaboration with the Musée d'art contemporain de Montreal, FIFA has grown from a single theater screening 50 films from 12 countries to a multi-venue showcase and competition for 232 films from 27 countries alongside installations and exhibitions, all held in the city's finest cultural institutions. For the second year the festival also included MIFA, a one-of-a kind International Market of Films on Art.

As nonprofit organizations, FIFA and MIFA, share a mission to promote an appreciation of the arts and the work of professionals in film, television and video in order to increase production of films on art worldwide. In this manner, the festival and market are as much about generating awareness of the arts as they are encouraging media artists to pursue their craft in this field. While there may be no singular unifying theme to the festival, as a whole it is bound by an intention to educate and celebrate.

The Films

The festival's films act as a focused, magnifying lens on art: painting, sculpture, music, dance, performance, literature and the seventh art, cinema. Straddling genre and approach, the films take on as many forms as there are artistic mediums to be explored. Playing with aspects of documentary and fiction, the films range from straightforward surveys of art movements within a historical context to intimately personal essays ruminating on artistic creation.

An example of the former, Shannah Laumeister's Bert Stern: Original Madman (US),  provides a look into the life, loves and art of the photographer noted as much for the power of his iconic images to sell nproducts and for his sensual editorial work (including the June 1962 Vogue issue's infamous "Last Sitting" with Marilyn Monroe, six weeks before her death; as well as the recent shot-by-shot remake with Lindsay Lohan) as he is for his tumultuous relationships. In Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey's Eames: The Architect and the Painter (US), a collage of present-day interviews and archival footage details a practice beyond furniture and industrial design, for an illuminating portrait of one of the most influential brand-makers of the 20th century.


Ray and Charles Eames, from Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey's Eames: The Architect and the Painter. (c) Eames Office, LLC


Part music video, part verité, Daniel Robillard and Stéphan Doe's Chercher Noise (Canada) follows Montreal singer-songwriter Dominique Lebo as he, along with a cast of musician collaborators and his producer, record tracks in various locations including an apartment space, a storefront and a forest clearing. A record of the process of making music, an insight into musicianship and the nature of authorship, the film lets us in to the artist's world.

Similar to the literary genre of creative nonfiction, Paul Lavoie's Cher Théo (France) appropriates Van Gogh's own words to reflect on the painter's life as he lies on his deathbed, succumbing, over the course of two days, to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Beautifully realized with saturated colors and symbolic imagery, the film evokes the spirit of an artist materially impoverished, yet artistically rich. Likewise, Carroll Moore's Gaugin: Maker of Myth (US) explores the artist's perpetual search for authenticity, having abandoned a successful financial career as a stockbroker to pursue painting, in both his life and art.


The International Market of Films on Art brings together professionals in films on art and media art from around the world for an annual forum to share knowledge and exchange ideas through a series of conferences, roundtables, seminars, networking receptions and pitch sessions. Experienced and emerging practitioners, including filmmakers, producers, artists and distributors, are given an opportunity to not only engage in a dialogue about their industry, but also connect for potential partnerships and funding for the development of future projects.

Films on art, already an esoteric product in an already niche market--non-commercial film production--face a series of formidable obstacles for production, and, perhaps most significantly, distribution, as one conference, "Alternative Platforms of Commercialization," highlighted. Speakers Patrick Kwiatkowski and Joel Bachar, co-founders of Microcinema International, discussed the complexities of an ever-changing industry as it navigates the murky waters of increased digitization in distribution. When carriers such as Netflix and iTunes build up veritable monopolies, they alone have ability to dictate the terms of contracts and construct a labyrinthine network of access to distribution points.

One thing that becomes increasingly clear is that films on art share the same difficulties as documentary film and even independent cinema. The challenge and demand placed on productions is to have a product that already has a built-in audience. As one speaker mentioned, if you have a film on Andy Warhol, you already have an audience attuned to it. However, if your film, citing the example of Kimmo Koskela's FIFA Award for Creativity-winning Soundbreaker (Finland/Germany), which centers on Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, your audience will be severely limited regardless of the film's cinematic merits. While some documentary filmmakers, such as the Maysles Brothers or Errol Morris, may have the advantage of being considered auteurs just like their fiction counterparts, with an audience ready to see their next work, films on art will more likely rely on subject matter.


From Kimmo Koskela's Soundbreaker


Awards and Closing Ceremonies

The festival concluded with a screening of the Best Canadian Film winner, Jill Sharpe's Bone Wind Fire (Canada), a series of re-enactment vignettes portraying the inner lives of three significant artists, Georgia O'Keefe, Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo. Following presentations of the festival's competition award winners, attendees retired to the grand hall of the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal for one last cocktail reception to reflect on the events of the past ten days.


From Jill Sharpe's Bone Wind Fire


What the existence of MIFA and FIFA indicate is that films on art provide something that cannot be measured in terms of financial success. The films and the festival itself contribute to a global cultural equity creating an archive of knowledge and providing a venue for filmmakers around the world to meet, share their experiences and work. Now three decades strong, FIFA more than demonstrates its own viability and, by extension, the necessity for films on art.

Justin Ridgeway is a Toronto-based writer and art consultant.