TIFF 2008’s Canada First! showcases films from first-time Canadian feature directors, or those from Canuck directors screening a feature at TIFF for the first time. Playback Magazine’s Shane McNeil goes behind the titles.

Originally appeared in the September 1, 2008 issue of Playback Magazine


Director: Warren Sonoda

Writers: Mike Beaver, Jason Jones

Producers: Sean Buckley, Nicholas Tabarrok

Cast: Jason Jones, Samantha Bee, Mike Beaver, Dave Foley, Peter Keleghan, Dylan Everett, Nick McKinlay, Jayne Eastwood, Jennifer Baxter

Distributor: Boutique Films

Warren Sonoda wanted to lovingly make a feature that could resonate with a wide audience. So he set out to tell the story that ends with the words ‘…and that was the worst Christmas ever.’

Sonoda took a script from Mike Beaver and Jason Jones (friends from his debut Ham & Cheese) to a Christmas party, showed it to Sean Buckley and Nicholas Tabarrok at Buck Films (who would go on to produce), and got the go-ahead.

After some apprehensions over whether the lo-fi feel of the film could be sustained for feature-length, and if the three could find the time to make the picture together, they seized a block of time opened up by the Writers Guild of America strike, freeing Beaver and Jones from duties on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

‘Eleven days and two Christmas trees later,’ Sonoda turned footage captured with a handicam into his feature debut, Coopers’ Camera.

The Cooper family Christmas unravels before our very eyes after their youngest son, Teddy, decides to make use of the camcorder the family bought itself as a present. An estranged uncle arrives, and all hell breaks loose.

Sonoda thinks that the film, which has distribution courtesy of Boutique Films, is atypical of what TIFF usually chooses.

‘It’s definitely one of the films that will put the most smiles on people’s faces at the fest,’ he says. ‘So after everyone sees all the hard-hitting dramas and documentaries about third-world atrocities, they can come see Coopers’ Camera, sit down and have a laugh.’

Laughter is something Sonoda is willing to guarantee, because the film has such familiarity. ‘Everyone’s been through it,’ Sonoda says. ‘This way you get to laugh at the Christmas from hell without having to go to your relatives.’



Director: Charles Officer

Writers: Charles Officer, Ingrid Veninger

Cast: Karen LeBlanc, Clark Johnson, Daniel J. Gordon, Walter Borden, David Collins, Samantha Somer Wilson

Distributor: Mongrel Media

Nurse. Fighter. Boy. tells the stories of a single mother, a boxer and a child converging one night through a related chain of events.

It started as a story Charles Officer told to fellow Canada First! director and co-writer Ingrid Veninger (Only) about three unrelated characters coming together. He decided it was too good not to make into a feature.

Officer employed a primarily black cast, and believes it gives his debut film a ‘soulfulness.’

‘It’s not just for a black audience,’ Officer cautions. ‘It’s got emotion that appeals to all audiences in and out of Canada, beyond just the Obama generation.’

The film boasts a soundtrack – featuring old-school reggae acts The Sheiks and The Maytones and Toronto rapper K’Naan – that Officer says stacks up against any other at the fest. 


Director: Justin Simms

Writers: Justin Simms, Sherry White

Producers: Anna Petras, Justin Simms, Janice Ripley, Nicholas Tabarrok

Cast: Joel Thomas Hynes, Mylene Savoie, Robert Joy, Hugh Dillon, Jody Richardson, Phil Churchill

Distributor: Mongrel Media

Justin Simms’ Down to the Dirt follows the tradition of many great Canadian literary adaptations, but adds a personal twist.

Joel Thomas Hynes (Hatching, Matching & Dispatching) plays the lead in the adaptation of his own novel about a doomed poet falling into a life-altering romance.

‘The fact that it comes from an autobiographical source gives it a degree of honesty,’ Simms says. ‘It really jumps off the screen and delivers emotional content in a fast and funny way.’

Simms also sees appeal in showing off the Newfoundland independent scene, so the Mongrel Media release was shot entirely in St. John’s. ‘It’s a great opportunity to show the rest of Canada what we’ve been up to,’ says Simms.



Writer/Director: Randall Cole

Producers: Julia Rosenberg, Paula Devonshire, Ari Lantos

Cast: Randy Quaid, Jay Baruchel

Distributor/International Sales: Maximum Films

It’s not often that Hollywood actors creep into Canada First!, but Randall Cole’s Real Time brings some star power to the ’08 lineup.

Clocking in at 80 minutes, the Maximum Films thriller follows how Andy (Knocked Up’s Jay Baruchel) chooses to spend his last hour when hit man Reuban (Randy Quaid) comes to collect on a gambling debt.

In addition to some big-name appeal, Cole thinks audiences will be drawn in by the hypothetical question at the film’s core.

‘It forces audiences to look in the mirror and watch the time go by as fast as it actually would,’ Cole says. ‘It will make them wonder what they would do with only one hour left to live.’


Writer/Director/Producer: Terry Miles

Cast: Kristine Cofsky, Brody Harms, Kristen Hovet, Rob Carpenter, Brenda Matthews

Terry Miles’ When Life Was Good takes a humorous look at the various reasons relationships can fall apart. The premise is simple. Brooklyn (Kristine Cofsky) returns home only to immediately decide to pack all her belongings and leave her boyfriend on his birthday.

That one action sets off a chain of periphery events that show the more unorthodox angles of modern romance.

‘After a certain age, one type of relationship stops working,’ Miles says. ‘This is a funny look at the process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in a love triangle.’

Mainly improvised and shot in a vérité style, Miles likens the film, which has yet to find distribution, to a DIY four-track indie rock recording – that is to say, the perfect mixtape to get away from the big-budget trap.



Writer/Director: Cameron Labine

Producers: Stephanie Symns, Lynne Stopkewich

Cast: Tyler Labine, Sonja Bennett, Geoff Gustafson, Keith Dallas, Alisen Down, Laura Bertram, Kevin James

Control Alt Delete revisits the long-standing love affair Canadian filmmakers have had with technology, but Cameron Labine’s debut shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.

‘It’s about a guy that fucks computers,’ Labine says of the film’s appeal, ‘so there’s that to set it apart.’

The story is about a depressed tech wiz who gets addicted to Internet porn after his girlfriend dumps him. It takes a turn for the weird when he becomes obsessed with the machine itself.

‘It’s about the things people do to express self-loathing,’ Labine explains. ‘It came out of a kind of dark fascination, but we wanted it to be a fun experiment, without it getting too heavy.’


Writers/Directors: Ingrid Veninger, Simon Reynolds

Producers: Simon Reynolds, Ankur Sharma (EP)

Cast: Jacob Switzer, Elena Hudgins Lyle

Despite featuring two writer/directors, Only is perhaps the most personal film of all the Canada First! entries.

Shot over 15 days during an extended March break, the love story unfolds in the same rural motel where co-director Ingrid Veninger lived for part of her childhood.

‘It’s full of anecdotes and memories,’ says Veninger. ‘It’s about taking risks and building trust, and the filmmaking process mirrored that.’

Her collaborator Simon Reynolds thinks the universal appeal of the story will be a big draw. ‘Everyone’s experienced first love, and this takes them back to that moment,’ he says. ‘It’s a film about love and was inspired by a love of cinema, and that all comes through on screen.’

Distribution for the film was still in the works at press time.



Directors: Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Madeline Ivalu

Writers: Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Madeline Ivalu, Susan Avingaq

Producer: Stéphane Rituit

Cast: Madeline Ivalu, Paul-Dylan Ivalu, Mary Qulitalik, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Tumasie Sivuarapik

Distributor: Alliance Films

Marie-Hélène Cousineau arives at TIFF with Before Tomorrow – the first film from Inuit women’s collective Arnait Video Productions in Igloolik, Nunavut.

The Alliance Films release tells the story of a fishing expedition that nearly leaves an elderly Igloolik woman for dead. Shot in Puvirnituq, Nunavut, it is considered a Quebec production.

The film was adapted from the novel For morgendagen by Danish author Jørn Riel, which has never been translated into English. Cousineau thinks both the mystique of Igloolik and the universal story will hold appeal.

‘It’s a first in Canada, maybe the world,’ says Cousineau. ‘Not a lot of films come from [Igloolik], but it’s a universal story. Although it’s a completely foreign culture to most, it’s emotions and a story that everyone can identify with.’