After a lifetime of escape plots and fantasies, I felt my first pangs of homesickness on the very first day of my big city internship at the Space station when I was 18 years old. My first task of the day was to sort through a pile of press clippings when I found a snippet from the Welland Tribune. I picked up the flimsy piece of newsprint and actually sighed. Over the Tribune. A paper that I’d been not-so-lovingly calling “The Turbine” in tribute to its rampant typos and awkward headlines since I first learned what those things were.
After that, my detached fondness for the area became far less ridiculous. Welland and St. Catharines started to develop cultures, and, from a distance, I was finally able to appreciate them. I was also able to look at more established and well-known cities like Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake in a new light. Once I stopped hating the region for not being Toronto, I was finally able to appreciate all the good ways in which it wasn’t quite like my beloved but imperfect new home. I was also able to get excited about them. I even, occasionally, got to write about everything from music videos being shot on Welland’s retired drawbridge to a travel story on the area’s best kitsch to a surprisingly controversial article about Deadmau5’s feelings on the plethora of haunted houses in Niagara Falls.
As both a Niagara Region expat and a culture writer of sorts, I was very excited about the inaugural Niagara Integrated Film Festival, a celebration of local wine, food, and a mix of local and international film, that took place in St. Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake from Thursday, June 19 to Sunday, June 22. The idea of drinking moderate to copious amounts of the region’s most famous industry while watches the offerings from the region’s up-and-coming film industry sounded right up my alley.
Unfortunately, NXNE and family obligations (watching Pizza Underground on a streetcar and attending a lovely garden party in Welland) kept me from enjoying the first batch of screenings and an impressive-looking kick-off party at St. Catharines’ Market Square (home of all my favourite SCENE Fest memories) that featured a bevy of local food and drink offerings. And being a freelance writer for a living kept me from attending the lavish, $150 a head Film Feast events that included dinner, drinks, and an outdoor screenings at some of the area’s finest wineries like Trius and Peller. I did talk to a couple of people who went to one of the Trius events, though, and they said that it was downright incredible. They would have gone to more if their budget had permitted it.
I was able to attend one of the fest’s daily cocktail events and a couple of screenings, though, and rather enjoyed my integrated indulgences. The cabernet shiraz, in particular, was delicious. The films were also a little intoxicating in their own way.
With a limited amount of time and a seemingly limitless amount of latent home region pride, I decided to focus on films from the Niagara Rises program, which included short and feature-length films that had been produced, written, animated, or directed by people from the Niagara Region.
I started with Cas & Dylan, an award-winning film produced by Niagara native Mark Montefiore which screened at the White Oaks Amphitheatre on Saturday night. The venue itself left a little to be desired. Despite its rather grand-sounding name, it was really just a conference room in the White Oaks hotel and spa, and our seats were a mishmash of office chairs.
But the content of the film, an off-kilter buddy and road trip movie featuring a terminally ill doctor (Richard Dreyfuss) and a young, slightly aimless writer (the perfect Tatiana Maslany), was the exact opposite of a letdown. It was funny, charming, and came with an ugly-cry-inducing ending that wasn’t forced or cloying in any way. It was a tear-jerk that had been earned by the film’s smart writing and natural performances.
Sunday, I started my day by heading over to another old Niagara haunt, the cineplex at St. Catharine’s Pen Centre, now called Landmark Cinema, for an afternoon screening of The Angel Inn.
I was excited about this film in particular because it wasn’t just by a Niagara filmmaker, it was clearly set in Niagara, and proudly used local landmarks like NOTL’s beloved Angel Inn pub and hotel in its story (even if the interiors had to be shot at another bar). The film itself was… well, let’s just say that it was well-meaning. It was nice to see so many Niagara locations in a film, and particularly wonderful to see them as themselves and not disguised as American cities on film, but the actual content of the film won’t necessarily do much to temper the region’s massive inferiority complex about the quality of its own art.
After that, I headed back toward White Oaks, but a massive police investigation was blocking a significant portion of the main (and only) route to the complex, which thwarted all of my efforts to take in an evening of screenings and more wine. So I retired back to my family compound in Welland and settled in for a night of Niagara Rises screeners instead.
My mini film festival was impressive both in terms of diversity and quality. I was particularly impressed with Steak Juice, an understated but arresting short about an underground fight ring for junkies and the limits of brotherly love, and A Kind Of Wonderful Thing, a feature-length film written and directed by St. Catharines native Jason Lupish and shot in locations around his hometown. The story of a disconnected young woman who is diagnosed with terminal cancer, A Kind of Wonderful Thing has the dreamy, laconic quality of early Atom Egoyan films and its circular flashback sequences somehow manage to be both an accurate and beautiful portrayal of the obsessive and cyclical way that people look on their own pasts.
The film is a testament to how much has changed since I left Niagara to pursue my own arts career. The next generation of Niagara creative types doesn’t seem to feel the same pull to leave that I did. I grew up hearing that nothing could happen in Niagara – or even to someone from Niagara – but that no longer seems to be an issue. I first noticed this trend when I interviewed George Pettit from the dearly departed Alexisonfire for the dearly departed Chart Magazine. I asked him how it felt growing up in a region with no belief in a future for artists, or even a belief in artistic aspirations, and he genuinely had no idea what I was talking about. He told me that it had never been an issue for the band.
When I talked to filmmaker Jay Cheel about Beauty Day, his documentary about St. Catharines’ proto-Jackass Cable Ten hero Captain Video, during Hot Docs in 2011, he said that he was perfectly happy to stay in Niagara and build his career there. He could always make the two-hour drive to Toronto for meetings, and everything else he needed was at his fingertips, from talent to equipment to subject matter, was in the region.
Now that the homegrown industry is starting to establish itself, I hope that the stories it tells continue to become more Niagara-centric as well. Of the Niagara Rises films I watched, The Angel Inn was the only one that was overtly about the region. (There were two other Niagara-focused projects in the festival, a documentary on local wineries called VineLife and a short based on the fallout from the War of 1812, but I couldn’t source screeners for either of them.) I felt that some films had a certain Niagara-vibe. A Kind Of’s slightly-detached beauty, for instance, felt like the kind of perspective that could only come out of being just a couple of hours away from the biggest city in the country, just on the edges of Toronto’s shadow. And I can’t imagine that Dead Before Dawn would have tackled its zombie/demon (“zemon”) plot with nearly as much playful camp if its director and star April Mullen hadn’t grown up in Niagara Falls and shot portions of the film in her hometown. But maybe I’m reading into these things, to use a Welland colloquialism, way too much.
What I really want to see, though, are undeniably Niagara stories. The region is full of fascinating tales and inspiration and so few of those them have been told outside of the occasional historical piece on the War of 1812 and Laura Secord. It’s a region split between natural beauty and largely abandoned factory land. Its biggest industries are wineries and call centers. It is both classy and aspirational, and trashy and kitschy. And it is, under the surface, fascinatingly weird. I have, on more than one occasion, called it “Twin Peaks without the Black Lodge,” but I kind of suspect that there actually is a Niagara version of the Black Lodge and I just haven’t found it yet.
I want to see, hear, and read about all of these things, and I’m really hoping that NIFF will continue help to foster those stories and deliver them to the world.
I also want to see NIFF continue to reach out to unique Niagara venues. I can’t possibly be the only person who thinks a festival night at the Can-View Drive-In would be the best thing ever.