We don’t like to do this, but, well, we’re just going to do it anyway.

Today, a little film called Amalopens in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Amal is the debut feature of Mississauga-born director Richie Mehta, a prodigious talent who worked from his brother’s short story. Yes, we know Richie. And yes, Paul has worked with the editor of Amal, Stuart McIntyre. But that ultimately means nothing.

You remember that scene in The Grinch Stole Christmas when the Grinche’s hear grew three sizes and burst its frame? Amal is the kind of movie where that happens. It’s about goodness. When was the last time you could say that about something you were going to see in a theatre?

The story: An autorickshaw driver named Amal (Rupinder Nagra) works his butt off on the streets of Delhi among the hucksters and crooks. But he’s a good man. He doesn’t rip people off. He lives by a strict moral code. One day a curmudgeonly millionaire is so overwhelmed by his goodness that he goes home and changes his will, making Amal his primary beneficiary. As you can imagine, this pisses off the man’s children. Further, Amal has no idea, going about his life, trying to help out a beggar girl.

There. That’s the set-up. You want more? Read Jason Anderson’s three-star review in today’s Globe and Mail. Or just go see it yourself.

As we say, it’s a little film, made on the fly, when Richie and his skeleton crew went to Delhi and had to navigate its chaotic streets. Richie and his producers had to fight for this one – it’s a testament to their endurance and the power of Amal‘s fable-like story.

Here’s the trailer

Canadian films that don’t find an audience in their opening weekend vanish. That’s a fact. A sad one, but a fact. You’re not going to be able to see this film on a big screen unless enough people go out and see it in now.

So why not? You’ve seen the Dark Knight twice. It’s gonna be a rainy weekend. Why not take a flight to India without paying the hefty fare and fretting about your carbon footprint.


Now, continuing with a bit more of an in-depth look at our sidebar profiles, today’s pick is Deepa Mehta – one of the country (and the world’s) most acclaimed, provocative, and politically engaged filmmakers.

The Oscar-nominated director of Water is set to tackle the shameful Komagata Maru incident – one of Canada’s major moral oops moments, when, in 1914, the government turned away 397 Indians (most of whom were Sikh) who attempted to land and establish themselves in Vancouver. Due out sometime in 2009, the film will hopefully force North Americans to take a hard look at the exclusion laws that ounce served to keep the continent “untainted” by “coloured” immigrants.

Deepa grew up in the shadow of the Indian Partition of 1947. She also grew up with movies. Mehta’s father was a film distributor who owned a number of theatres in Amritsar, near the Pakistan border. She fell in love with the romance of Hindu cinema, as well as the Hitchcock movies her father would show on Sunday mornings. After seeing how the pursuit of weekly grosses had worn her father down, though, Mehta’s love for commercial cinema slowly faded. When it came time to go to university, the bookish teen chose to study Philosophy at the University of New Delhi.

As is true of so many graduates of liberal arts programs, though, Mehta emerged with few answers where questions of career were concerned.

“By the end of university, the only thing I knew about my future was that I needed some time off,” she remembers. “I needed time to decide if I wanted to study further. A part of me definitely wanted to, but I needed to decipher what I really wanted from what others thought I should do. Luckily, my parents never pushed me. They never expected me to be a lawyer or a doctor or anything.”

During what she identifies as her “awkward period,” Deepa met Anil, the owner of Cinema Workshop, a company that made documentary films for the Indian government.

“He said, “While you’re deciding what you want to do, why not work for me?,” Mehta recalls with a smile. “I couldn’t see why not, so I agreed.”

“Cinema Workshop was a wonderfully interesting place. There was a five-person team: Anil, who was the administrator, his wife, the creative brains behind it, a writer, an editor, and a camera person. They were this tight-knit group of creative people, all of whom loved what they were doing. I was only hired as a gopher for a few months, but they realised early on that I wasn’t going to be very useful in that regard. I couldn’t type. Even the coffee I made was horrible.”

Mehta loved to watch Joya, the editor, work on her Moviola machine. She had read about editing in books, but the process she witnessed in Cinema Workshop was magical. Since she was of little use in other areas, Mehta was allowed to help Joya. She learned to edit, then she picked up sound engineering, and finally began playing around with a camera and writing scripts. Though the films she helped to pen were two-minute educational pieces like “How to Grow Wheat,” Mehta loved that she was learning.

Soon after, Deepa set out to make a half-hour, black and white documentary on her own. Her first film was called Vimla. It was a simple story about a maid servant’s daughter who, at the age of fourteen, was getting married. The film documented Vimla’s excitement and examined what the concept of marriage meant to her.

Lightning Strikes

“By this point, I was hooked on directing,” Mehta says. “All of my reservations about working in the film industry went out the window. The documentary seemed like a completely different animal from the film world I’d experienced growing up. As a child, when a new film was released, the stars would come to my father’s movie halls. They’d even eat lunch at our house. I saw them up close and, as a result, the cinema world lost its lustre. But documentary was different. It was real and had the power to be very meaningful.”

But when Cinema Workshop closed down, Deepa needed to look elsewhere. She took a job working for the youth section of a newspaper while she was searching for more film experience. At one point, she was assigned to write about the Canadian High Commissioner’s daughter. While working on the story, she met Paul Saltzman, a filmmaker from the CBC who was in Delhi shooting a documentary about the High Commissioner.

Lightning struck and the next thing she knew, Deepa’s life had changed.

“He was incredibly knowledgeable and I was keen to see how other people made documentary films,” Mehta recalls. “We fell in love, were married six months later and we moved to Toronto.”

Deepa had never planned to move away. She had visited Europe and North America, but she always assumed she would stay in India.

“At the time, though, leaving was easy, because I didn’t think it would be forever,” Mehta says. When you’re young, nothing seems permanent. It doesn’t feel like you’re making life-altering decisions, even when you are. Even though we were married, I felt like I was “trying out” Canada.”

In the beginning, Deepa was shocked that filmmakers could access government money to make their movies. That hadn’t been the case in India, and she found the entire concept very “luxurious.” She also discovered types of cinema she’s never encountered before: everything from Buñuel (who remains her hero) and Kurosawa to the French New Wave masters and the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

Soon after her arrival, she, her husband, and her brother Dilip set up Sunrise Pictures on the third floor of a house in the Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. They didn’t really know why. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

“Paul had made a number of films and I had worked on my own documentary,” Mehta says, “so we just decided to make a go of it together. Everyone did everything. I did sound, I thought up projects and I wrote them. We didn’t really think about where it was going. We were simply working on a project-to-project basis, and dealing with a deteriorating marriage.”

At 99

After arriving in Canada, Mehta had been fascinated by the way North Americans treated the elderly. As soon as parents got old, they were shipped off to special care facilities. In India no one sent older people away. They were seen as occupying a vital role in the home.

One day, she ran across an article in the Toronto Star about a 99 year-old woman who practiced yoga. Her name was Louise Tandy Murch, and Deepa instantly knew she had to meet her.

“I just knocked on her door and said, “I’d really like to talk to you” ” Mehta recalls. “We became friends right away. I never planned to make a documentary about her, but the notion gradually dawned on me and she accepted. I got a grant from the Canada Council and made the film for $5,000. Paul was working at Global at the time and a friend of his shot and produced the film.”

That film was a short called At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch. After stepping away from the world of film for two years following the birth of her daughter, Devyani, Mehta slowly phased herself back into the world of Sunrise, working on Spread your Wings, a documentary series about traditional crafts, and Travelling Light, an “artist at work” documentary about her brother Dilip. Later, she produced and co-directed Martha, Ruth and Edie, her first foray into fiction: a film based on works by Alice Munro, Cynthia Flood and Betty Lambert. When it screened at Cannes and won some awards, Mehta felt she had begun to find her feet and was perhaps ready to take on a feature.

Sam and Me

She thought she wanted to make a film about an Indian immigrant coming to Canada and living amongst Jewish people. She was still mulling it over when an old friend from India told her that her son, Rajit Chowdry, was moving to Toronto. Mehta knew that Rajit had written scripts for Indian TV and thought that they might be able to help each other out.

“One day, the doorbell rang and I found Ranjit shivering in his sneakers, ” Mehta recalls. “It was 20 below zero. He looked wild and fun and when I invited him in, we started to talk about the film I wanted to do. Ranjit said he would write it and he set to work right away.”

That movie ended up being Sam and Me – a film about the friendship between a young Indian man named Nikhil, who comes to Canada to stay with his uncle, and Sam, an ageing Jewish man who yearns to return to Israel.

Getting money was virtually impossible. The funding bodies were nervous about giving money to a recent immigrant. But they persevered, got it made (with Ranjit playing Nikhil and Mehta behind the camera), and went back to Cannes and won a Honourable Mention in the Camera D’or category.

The next thing she knew, Mehta went from being someone who had to struggle to fund projects to being courted by Hollywood. Though making films would continue to be a grind – especially as her subject matter became more engaged, Deepa Mehta had emerged onto the world stage.

“Through my twenties,” she says, “I never worried about the direction of my career. I only concerned myself with being able to make my next project. I still function the same way today. To a filmmaker, “success” is when you don’t have to suffer the pain of running around to raise money. When and if that moment ever comes, you are successful. Otherwise, you just worry about getting the next film made.”

Paul here: I just saw Patrick Reed’s Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma and thought I should make some note of the effects it had on me before (like too too many other feelings of value) it faded in the din of the weekly rush.

Having met and worked with Dr. Orbinski during the course of Kickstart we were well aware of what an insightful and inspiring figure he is. We were also aware that he was in the process of writing a book on the difficulties and future of humanitarianism (mainly because, after our interview, he immediately asked for a transcript, thinking, perhaps, that he might have said something of value – he most certainly did). All that aside, I wasn’t fully prepared for the power of watching Orbinski return to the sites of his most challenging humanitarian dilemmas (Somalia, Rwanda, the DRC).

As commentator Gerald Caplan (author of the new book, The Betrayal of Africa) says of Orbinski in Reed’s film, the former President of MSF and current head of Dignitas International is simultaneously a pessimist and an optimist, well aware of just how horrible humanity often looks when it peers at itself in the mirror but remains fervent in his belief that change is possible. This, Caplan points out, makes Orbinski’s life rather difficult, especially now that he has taken it upon himself to write a memoir that will reclaim the meaning of “humanitarianism.”

But Orbinski relishes the difficulty. Not because it’s jolly good fun, but because to do otherwise would be to abstain from his responsibility to his fellow human beings. Growing up in Montreal during the nineteen seventies and working at a hotel that doubled as a holding facility for incoming immigrants, Orbinski learned from an early age that the world of pressing political questions realities did not exist “out there,” in the world beyond his suburban borough. No, as a human being blessed with a life, he was responsible. Thus, he needed to remain response-able: able to respond.

He didn’t always know what he wanted to do. But, even as he ran away from CEGEP to work on the west coast or help start a hotel with friends in the Laurentians, even as he took every course imaginable at Trent University and flirted with a variety of disciplines, philosophical questions, and potential careers, Orbinski was “exploring with intent”. As he told me in our interview, a person’s responsibility in their early years is to discover “their question,” the struggle with which they are to wage. Orbinski finally found his question when, after finally deciding to attent medical school, he went to Rwanda to do immunology work. In the beginning, the trip was motivated by a desire for adventure. But what Orbinski found there was a passion – he found his question.

The path Orbinski took to find his question, and the horrifying experiences he has lived through since, make him of one the most philosophically compelling characters I have ever seen on film. He doesn’t want the movie to be about him. It’s clear he isn’t entirely comfortable in front of the camera, but when he speaks about doing what is right, you know he’s given a great number of wrenching hours to the meaning of the word.

Today, many of us expect things to come easily. We demand comforts, including the comfort of ignorance. James Orbinski has refused these in the name of being a responsible human being. It’s just a bloody shame there aren’t more like him.

The cliffhanger Reed’s film leaves us with is ‘what will Orbinski’s book conclude?’ Struggling to reconcile his pessimism and his optimism, the failures of Somalia, Rwanda, the Darfur and many more with his belief that things can be different, can Orbinski emerge with a new direction to and approach for 21st century humanitariansim. Only one way to find out: read his new book An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the 21st Century.

More those who don’t know, here’s Orbinski on what his present organization, Dignitas Internation, does, and why.

Let’s talk culture.

We know, we know. Typically, the conversation re: culture in Canada is a depressing and circular one where those who work in the creative industries complain that no one gets the chance to see their work and those who think of art as superfluous and snooty attack “funding-addicted” “smut-peddlars” for refusing to survive in a simple market system.

We know. That conversation is tragically tedious. We only bring it up because a) this week, the Conservatives managed to slip Bill C-10 under the dozing eyes of the House and b) because the Genie Awards take place in Toronto today.

C-10 is an amendment to the Income Tax Act that would allow the Heritage Minister to deny tax credit status to films it found “offensive.”

The Genie Awards are Canada’s Oscars, a largely unwatched ceremony that honours the best in Canadian film (or at least, the best in Canadian-funded film) from the past year.

It’s been a tough few months for culture in Canada. Shaw and Quebecor have tried to squeeze out of their Canadian Television Fund responsibilities, the CBC is considering cancelling its remarkable series Intelligence, and the government didn’t devote any new funding for the arts in their 2008 budget.

At the same time, however, this has been a banner year. As the Cultural Renaissance continued apace in the country’s large cities, 32 year-old Montreal sculptor David Altmejd wowed em at the Venice Biennale, Kickstart participant Yannick Nezet-Seguin was named the new Music Director at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Canadian Indie wave continued unabatted, with Grammy nods for Feist, a stunning sophomore album for the Arcade Fire, and soul songstress Zaki Ibrahim on the cusp of breakout success.

It’s been an especially good one in the arena of movies. Canadian film’s long-time darling, Sarah Polley, secured two big Oscar nods (and seven Genie nods) for her bold and remarkably self-assured directorial debut, Away from Her, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski re-invented stop-action animation in Madame Tutli-Putli, and Rob Stewart’s Sharkwater showed that a Canadian doc could fill theatres. And that’s not even mentioning the biggest success story of the year: Juno, a film directed by a Canadian (Jason Reitman), starring two Canadians (Ellen Page and Michael Cera), shot in Canada (Vancouver), and thematically as Canadian as moose testicles. It isn’t up for a Genie because it’s money isn’t Canuck money, but who cares? We still consider it Canadian to the core.

The Genies don’t get much attention these days. As Sarah Polley mentioned on CBC News: Sunday Night, filmmakers get letters of congratulation from their members of parliament when they receive Oscar nominations, not Genie nods. But, as per usual, there are some very good movies up for trophies this year.

And the award show will no doubt provide directors, actors and producers alike with due opportunity to rail at C-10.

You see, if “offensive” content (we’re talkin’ drugs, violence, and sex) were at issue, the following movies may never have gotten made:

David Cronenberg’s Oscar-nominated Eastern Promises – violence, sex, and more violence, all as stylised and gorey as possible (12 nominations);

Lazlo Barna and Michael Donovan’s Shake Hands with the Devil – nasty, genocide-y violence (12 nominations);

Denys Arcand’s L’Âge des ténèbres a middle aged man dreams of having sex with a lot of women who aren’t his wife (4 nominations);

And what about classics such as Exotica, History of Violence, Kissed, or The Decline of the American Empire? Canadian film is all about “Weird Sex and Snowshoes” (apologies to Katherine Monk). It is because, on some level, that’s part of who we are. Moreover, since art is meant to reflect and comment on contemporary realities, how on earth is anyone meant to reflect and comment on today’s society and culture without going near guns or orgasms?

Hearing the C-10 news the other day, we couldn’t help but think of Kickstart particpant Patricia Rozema, a filmmaker of international repute who, after working as a researcher at The National, threw herself head-first into the challenging world of Canadian filmmaking back in the eighties. She made friends with the likes of Atom Egoyan and Peter Mettler, and worked as an assitant director for David Cronenberg, absorbing everything she could about an art form with which she was still largely unfamiliar beyond sitting in darkened theatres.

When Rozema’s debut feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (made for only $400,000, and financed by Telefilm) debuted at the Cannes film festival in 1987 it won La Prix de la Jeunesse. The film was a playful, but difficult look at the life of a naive and “organisationally challenged” temp and amateur photographer who becomes increasingly obsessed with the lesbian relationship occurring between her boss and her lover. Would, we asked ourselves, I’ve Hear the Mermaids Singinghave been classed as “offensive” back in 1987? Might a Heritage Minister in a position to deny tax credit status have singled it out and sunk it? It’s difficult to know. But it’s definitely possible that, had a policy like C-10 existed, Rozema’s star (she has just finished directing the upcoming Kit Kittredge: An American Girl) may never have taken off.

Who knows how many other Canadian directors and producers that goes for as well.