French film is in the spotlight at the TIFF Bell Lightbox beginning Friday (March 23 thru April 1) when the annual Cinefranco festival touches down for 10 days of movies from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Morocco and Canada. The homegrown entries don’t hail solely from Quebec this year; the festival opener is that rarest of birds, a Franco-Ontarian comedy, in this case about a loveable con man who revives a small northern town’s fortunes while desperately trying to save his own skin.
From director Dominic Desjardins, La Sacrée (Holy Brew) is a delightful romp featuring a cast of mostly Ontario-based francophones including the wonderfully convincing Marc Marans, above, as the charming scoundrel at the centre of the action.
Desjardins, above, grew up in a small French community in New Brunswick so the terrain is familiar ground for him. “The themes are very close to a lot of francophone Canadians living outside of Quebec,” he tells me over coffee on a fine spring day outside his office in the Distillery District. “Fort Aimable (the fictional movie town) is typical of any town that loses its main industry and then struggles to survive as its young people go off to the big city.”
“The film is based on regionalism,” he adds, “and the humour is pulled out of that. But at the same time we’re not laughing at the expense of the villagers.”
Born in Montreal and raised in New Brunswick, Desjardins studied to be an actor in Paris before a reality TV adventure changed the course of his career. In 1997 he landed a slot on Radio Canada’s La Course destination monde, in which nine wannabe filmmakers race around the world making short films along the way.
It was an exhilarating ride for Desjardins who came face-to-face with his inner storyteller and never looked back. His first feature, Le divan du monde, grew out of his experience shooting fast and loose on the road; the film was a hit at Cinefranco two years ago and now Desjardins is thrilled to be opening the 2012 festival with a properly-funded feature. Made for $1.2 million with the help of Telefilm Canada, TFO and the OMDC, La Sacrée establishes him as an accomplished Canadian filmmaker.
Fluently bilingual, Desjardins could just as easily be working in English reaching a potentially much larger audience with greater financial rewards but money, he says, is not his prime motivator.
“If I’m doing something I love, that is personal to me, the money will follow,” he declares hopefully. “It doesn’t always but if you work hard enough and long enough in your chosen profession you are more likely to succeed. My next project may be set in a community like where I grew up in rural New Brunswick. It was a culture shock for a kid like me arriving from Montreal to suddenly be surrounded by potato fields. That’s something personal that I’ve never seen on the screen and if I don’t make the film nobody else is going to. I feel a responsibility as an artist to work on projects that I’ve experienced, my perspective on things. There might be thousands of other films that I could make that might sell more but they wouldn’t be my reality so I have to stick to that.”
Desjardins says it’s easy for Toronto’s francophones to disappear into the sea of English that surrounds them: “We’re in the minority here, we’re struggling to keep our identity while at the same time redefining it by integrating English into our way of living.”
“The French in Toronto are a bit hidden,” he confirms. “They don’t necessarily come out en masse to francophone films. It’s the kind of city where the community doesn’t hold together like it would in a smaller city, like in northern Ontario where the whole town would come out.”
“The fact that Cinefranco is a francophone film festival is very important to us. People from a wide variety of backgrounds come to see French films, it’s not exclusively for francophones. When my first film opened Cinefranco two years ago, it was a big honour, a great event. And the French community really came out, it was wonderful. I’m hoping for a similar kind of experience on Friday.”