Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Missing the point at Planet Indie

Well, the stretch limos have left, there are no swarms of cinephiles lined up between here and the Rabba store, and it’s been two days since I last saw a prestigious Hollywood star wandering around looking slightly lost. This can only mean that the Toronto International Film Festival is finally over.

Still, it was fun, wasn’t it? There were major new films like American Beauty, Jakob the Liar, and Felicia’s Journey, along with such thought-provoking documentaries as Barenaked in AmericaCoven, and The Specialist, as well as hot new Canadian works like TOPS & Bottoms, Top of the Food Chain, and The Five Senses.

None of which you nor I ever got to see.

But then there was Planet Indie, Toronto’s Independent Film Festival, which ran at the same time, and was far more accessible.

Planet Indie began last year and consisted of a few short films screened in a small hole-in-the-wall storefront on Bloor Street. In just one year it has grown to a massively successful event featuring hundreds of the best independent films from around the world, and attracting the attention of such high-level Hollywood players as Steven Spielberg, Sam Raimi, and Martin Scorsese.

No, just kidding.

It has grown considerably, though.

Brian Frank and Andrew Humeniuk (pronounced “Humeniuk”) started the festival partly as a means of promoting Bad Trip (an independent feature directed by Walter Viveros), and partly to promote independent film. Both Frank and Humeniuk have strong ideas about the independent film scene — ideas they are more than willing to express in any venue and at any time.

“In the main-stream business,” Frank told me while we toured Toronto trying to find an open photocopy shop on Labour Day, “There are all these people who are paid a lot more than other people and they’re considered more important. In the indie world everybody’s the same.”

“Maybe that’s because you’re all broke,” I suggested, but apparently I’d missed the point.

This idea of equality has even been incorporated into their award system. Rather than having both “Best Female Actor” and “Best Male Actor” awards, they offer only a “Best Actor” award to avoid discriminating between the sexes. On the other hand, I couldn’t help noticing that they had “Best Film” and “Best Canadian Film” —  or that they had awards in the first place (“In the indie world we’re all the same”).

Another tenet of the Frank/Humeniuk indie manifesto is a resistance to government money. During the festival’s award ceremony held at the Blooor Cinema, Humeniuk  told the audience that government money means government control. This sounds good, but I’m still a bit puzzled why it is that Canadian cinema, with its historic dependence upon government handouts, has always been more cutting-edge and controversial than American films with are free of such interference.

Apparently, once again I’d missed the point.

The films themselves varied from full-length features to documentaries and shorts.

Of the features, the five that drew the most attention were Bad TripCaptive Audience, 976, Scalpers, and Zar Gul. I missed Zar Gul, a three-hour film showing the turbulence in Pakistan (using real guns and ammunition), but did pick up on the other four.

Bad Trip is the Walter Viveros film that more or less started Planet Indie. It is a low-budget, but extremely effective piece with elements of Tarantino, Roger Corman, and George Romero. Beginning with a slacker skate-boarder stealing a comic, it spins its way into a fast-paced crime caper in which three relatively innocent grass dealers meet up with a psychotic ex-con carrying a suitcase full of guns. The story is believable, the filming creative, and tension sometimes unbearable.

976, directed by Darrin Biggs (and, like Bad Trip, filmed entirely in Toronto), follows eight different people (four stories) through one night on a 976 chat line. Some stories fare better than others, but all are interesting with a skillful blend of comedy and insight. The major problem, as several audience members mentioned following the screening, was that at least two of those calls must have cost in the neighbourhood of $1,400 (six hours at $3.99 a minute). Still, the film is good enough that such a complaint, while valid, fades to insignificance.

Less successful was Scalpers, which is a shame because it tried so hard to be likeable. A young man is desperately attempting to earn money for his grandmother’s operation by scalping tickets. This infuriates the local mafia-style crime boss, who has him beaten up. When this doesn’t work and the kid resumes his place next day, the crime boss responds by throwing up his hands in defeat. The story skids, skips, slides, and slithers every which way into an unbelievable, and fairly unintelligible morass. At its conclusion, the crime boss is inexplicably picked up by the same cops he’s had in his back pocket for years, and the young man’s grandmother has her operation, although there doesn’t seem to be any way her grandson could have earned enough for more than a blood test. At a free clinic.

And then there’s Captive Audience.

Easily the best film in the festival, and possibly the best film I’ve seen in months, Captive Audience is the story of a graveyard shift disk-jockey who is invaded by a gun-wielding man with an unusual request. Essentially a two-man show, this first film by Kurt St. Thomas and Mike Gioscia is so close to being perfect that towards the ends I was actively searching for flaws just so I’d have something to complain about.

I couldn’t find any, but then it was pretty hard to see clearly because my eyes have mysteriously gone watery.

On the other end of the scale was Affliction, a documentary dealing with various shock-performers like G. G. Allin, Mike Diana, Annie Sprinkle and others. Maybe I’m too old for this. I’m sure that watching someone shit on a plate of french fires is shocking to some, but after raising five kids and cleaning up that yellowish stinking stuff they leave in their diapers, it just doesn’t have much effect on me. Furthermore, one of my kids cut his little finger off and I had to rush him to the hospital, so seeing images of self-mutilation is more boring than shocking. And Mike Diana’s protest against religion by throwing up on a crucifix and open Bible is nothing more than juvenile. If he really doesn’t like religion, why bother? I mean, I really hate sports, but an arrogant dismissal serves me far better than vomiting on a picture of some Blue Jays player.

Still and all, the fact is I wouldn’t have missed this festival for the world. (Okay, actually I could have been bought off for a couple of hundred dollars.) As The Blair Witch Project has shown us, there is a lot of ingenious, high quality work being done by the independents, and they deserve all the support we can give them. Some are well on their way to being the next Hitchcocks and Spike Lees. Others, the next Ed Woods. Best of all, the prices are reasonable, there are no lineups, and you can generally meet the stars with very little formality.

Just don’t offer them any government money — or maybe I missed the point again.

Originally published in What’s On Queen?, 1999

Notable Interviews

To the right are a few of the noteworthy interviews I've conducted.

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin

Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy

Astronaut James Lovell

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