New Montreal Fest Struggles Along By Angela Baldassarre

in 1st New Montreal Film Festival

by Angela Baldassarre

Angela Baldassarre attended the first edition of the “New Montreal Film Festival”, taking place September 18 to 25, 2005.

It’s a veritable slugfest between two rival film festivals in Montreal this month. The 29-year-old Montreal World Film Festival, headed by Serge Losique, barely survived despite the lack of funding from Telefilm and Sodec. And though the New Montreal Film Festival is blessed with money and big-name sponsors, it’s marred by infighting and lack of audience support.

The festival was created by Telefilm Canada and Sodec to replace Losique’s, but it’s struggled so far to attract big-name films mostly because it closely follows Montreal World film Festival, Venice and Toronto, and conflicts with San Sebastian. One final blow came earlier in the week when it lost the closing night film, Tony Scott’s Domino, starring Keira Knightley. The Canadian distributor New Line decided that as no talent was available to attend the festival, there was no benefit to publicly screening the film before its October release. A few days later it was announced that Pride & Prejudice, Joe Wright’s feature that premiered in Toronto and that also stars Knightley, will do the closing honors.

As soon as I arrived, the organization and the definite festival atmosphere in Montreal’s Latin Quarter along St. Denis impressed me. The headquarters are in this gorgeous old building featuring VIP lounges, computer facilities and press mailboxes – everything that was missing from Losique’s event. The screenings are scattered in theatres that are walking distance from the headquarters, but closed off from traffic and flanked by red carpets. The press screenings all start on time, offer free coffee and croissants, and feature the most helpful of volunteers.

NMFF (as its referred to) has been in the press a lot not because of its films or parties, but because of its internal rifts between president Alain Simard and programming director Moritz de Hadeln, veteran of the Venice and Berlin festivals. Just before opening night de Hadeln publicly criticized Simard’s company, L’Equipe Spectra (Montreal Jazz Festival), in a front-page article in Montreal newspaper Le Devoir. But the real issue, it seems, is that both men disagree on next year’s dates for the festival. Simard wants it in August so he can hold a big outdoor celebration similar to his other festivals, while de Hadeln wants early June or late October, as far away from the Toronto festival as possible.

And the controversy raged on throughout the week. Another article detailed the lack of public support of the films, with theatres empty most of the time. This has much to do with Montrealers’ frustration with the infighting as well as the lack of quality, high-profile films.

Among the main competition films vying for the first ever Iris Awards are Gabriele Salvatores’ Quo Vadis, Baby? from Italy; Artem Antonov’s Polumgla from Russia; Mariano Barroso’s Hormigas en la boca from Spain/Cuba; Doris Dörrie’s The Fisherman and his Wife (Der Fischer und seine Frau) from Germany; Peter Entell’s Josh’s Trees from Switzerland; IM Tai-hyung’s Little Brother from South Korea; Hiroshi Ishikawa’s Su-ki-da from Japan; Cédric Kahn’s L’Avion from France; Costa Natsis’ Ikaro’s Dream from Greece; Luc Picard’s L’Audition from Canada; Eduardo Raspo’s Tattooed (Tatuado) from Argentina; Pascal Thomas’ Mon petit doigt m’a dit from France; Sabu’s Dead Run (Shisso) from Japan; and Zeng Nianping’s Brother (We) from China.

Though I can’t help but praise the organizers and the friendly press officers, I found the press conferences to be unbearably dull and terribly handled. Unlike the other festival where every Tom, Dick and Harry could participate since no one checked credentials, the conferences here were monitored professionally. Unfortunately, the moderator – a local television celebrity by the name of Marie-Louise Arsenault – was absolutely awful and inappropriate for the job. For example, for the Quo Vadis, Baby? press conference she asked Salvatores if it was the first time that he and co-producer Maurizio Totti worked together. Totti and Salvatores have been partners for over 20 years with their Colorado Films Company; in addition, she kept calling Maurizio ‘Massimo’ until the producer finally had to correct her a second time. But worst of all, out of the 45 minutes allotted, journalists were able only to get four questions in as she kept conducting a conversation with the guests. The same took place with The Courage to Love conference with director Claude Lelouch and actor Massimo Ranieri. This was enough to turn me off the conferences completely.

Before the end of the festival, the press office sent out a press release titled “Before flying, we need to walk.” In it he writes:

“In the short space of six months (after having to advance its dates by a month), and in anticipation of its 2006 event, the Festival has been able to produce an interim edition of high quality for the benefit of Montreal film lovers. Naturally, as is normal with any new event, changes will be made, immediately and over the coming years. The Festival’s organization are (sic) busy implementing many of them daily during the current edition. The Festival is listening attentively to film lovers who are sending us their suggestions by email and phone. The NMFF’s organizers appreciate constructive comments from their colleagues in industry and the media so that this first edition can end on a positive note, with the promise of better things to come.”