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Strange links, unique cinema at Canadian Film Fest 🇨🇦

Natascha McElhone stars as the title character of "Carmen," a dramedy by Valerie Buhagiar about a mysterious woman in Malta who challenges Roman Catholic orthodoxy. It screens April 2 at the Canadian Film Fest on Super Channel Fuse.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

A cowboy rides horseback 25,000 kilometres from Calgary to his childhood home in Brazil. A Toronto couple finds divisions within their Iranian community threaten romance. A mysterious woman in Malta challenges Roman Catholic orthodoxy to save herself.

The link between these disparate movie stories — “The Long Rider,” “Tehranto” and “Carmen” respectively — is a yearning for personal and cultural connections. It’s a unifying emotion among the 10 features (plus 28 shorts) screening at the 2022 Canadian Film Fest, which runs March 22 to April 2 on Super Channel.

The theme for the fest’s 16th edition emerged almost by accident in films selected from the more than 300 submissions the CFF received, festival director Ashleigh Rains said via email.

“Our programming team watches every film submission multiple times and through our discussions and deliberations, the programs organically come together. We noted much of the content also explores a sense of identity and belonging, and how that fits, or doesn’t in a Canadian social and political context.”

The CFF, a Toronto-based showcase of independent Canuck screen brilliance, has itself been obliged to reassess and redefine its attachments during these pandemic times. Founded in 2002 by Toronto editor, writer and movie lover Bern Euler, who remains as executive director, the fest used to be a five-day, in-person event at a single Toronto movie venue, mostly recently Scotiabank Theatre on Richmond Street West.

It was forced to pivot to online only just before its 2020 edition, when the rapid spread of COVID-19 forced the world into lockdown mode. The CFF found a new platform on Super Channel Fuse, where it now enjoys a national screen audience instead of a local Toronto theatrical one.

“The response has been incredible,” Rains said. “When we’re exclusively in-theatre, we have 300 audience members per screening over five days. In this virtual format, we engage Super Channel’s subscribers, which are more than 450,000 Canadians.”

Viewers of this year’s 10-day run will see people in narrative and documentary films (50 per cent of them made by female filmmakers and 40 per cent by BIPOC ones) questing for their own unique versions of successful engagement.

“Our main goal is to showcase Canadian filmmakers to Canadian audiences,” Rains added. “We aim to reflect voices and perspectives from across the country, and from different points of view. I believe our filmmakers do an excellent job expressing what it is, and what it means, to be Canadian.”

“The Long Rider,” a documentary by Sean Cisterna, screens March 29. The film details the incredible journey of Filipe Masetti Leite, a cowboy, adventurer and Ryerson University journalism grad who in 2012 began a two-year trek on horseback from the Calgary Stampede south to the family ranch in São Paulo, Brazil, where he lived before moving to Canada as a child. (Leite has written about his equestrian treks for the Star.)

He was inspired by “Tschiffely’s Ride,” the true story of Swiss author/adventurer Aimé Félix Tschiffely, who in the 1920s rode from Argentina to New York with two beloved horses. Leite’s father used to read the book to young Filipe at bedtime, sparking dreams in the boy of one day embarking on his own long ride.

The dream became reality starting in July 2012 when Leite and his horses, French and Bruiser, left the Calgary Stampede with an RCMP escort, to begin an arduous trip that would take him more than 25,000 kilometres across 12 international borders, battling heat and drought and engaging with people of good and bad intent.

A personal journey is also the theme of the other documentary in the CFF feature slate, “Beneath the Surface,” by writer/director Marie-Geneviève Chabot, screening March 31. It observes what happens when real-life brothers of a family named Sirois go on a fishing trip with their father, who was often absent from their early lives.

Festival opening night film “Tehranto,” a romantic dramedy by writer/ director Faran Moradi, screening March 22, finds most of its exertions to be intellectual and emotional, although no less stressful than physical ones.

It’s the “Romeo and Juliet” story of Badi and Sharon (Sammy Azero and Mo Zeighami), post-secondary students and members of Toronto’s vibrant Iranian community, who discover that their cultural ties aren’t as binding as they’d hoped. Dissimilar upbringings along with generational and class friction threaten to divide them as a couple.

Closing night film “Carmen,” inspired by true events, is a dramedy written and directed by Valerie Buhagiar that screens April 2. Like “Tehranto,” the film exposes conflicting views inside a supposedly tightly knit community.

The problems confronted by title protagonist Carmen (Natascha McElhone) are of the patriarchal and religious kind. Carmen is a devout Catholic on the cusp of 50 who has devoted herself to her church since she was a teenager, acting as unpaid housekeeper for her brother, the priest in the church of their village in Malta.

A turn of events leaves her suddenly on her own without any assistance. As she navigates her new life — and also her new freedom — she adopts an identity not sanctioned by the church in order to survive.

The other six features at the 2022 CFF, all fictional, also seek resolution to personal and/or cultural disconnects: “The Noise of Engines” (Philippe Grégoire, March 23), explores the unlikely bonds between a furloughed Canadian college instructor and a female Icelandic drag racer; “We’re All In This Together” (Katie Boland, March 24), follows the scrappy Parker family of Thunder Bay as they actually try to act like a family; “A Small Fortune” (Adam Perry, March 25), tells of an Irish moss harvester whose commitment to traditional ways is challenged after a bag of money washes up on the shores of PEI; “Ashgrove” (Jeremy LaLonde, March 26), is the sci-fi saga of a scientist trying to save both her marriage and the world from a water supply crisis; “Tenzin” (Michael LeBlanc and Josh Reichmann, March 30), reflects on a young Tibetan man’s anguish after his older brother self-immolates as a form of protest; and “The Last Mark” (Reem Morsi, April 1), looks through the gunsight of a self-loathing hit man who discovers his latest target might be his estranged daughter.

Go to for details on these films and other festival info. 🌓

UPDATE: "Carmen" won Best Feature and "Ashgrove" and "Tenzin" each won two awards at the close of CFF 2022.

(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star.)


Filipe Masetti Leite, a cowboy, adventurer and Ryerson University journalism grad, is the subject of Sean Cisterna's documentary "The Long Rider," screening March 29 at the Canadian Film Fest on Super Channel Fuse.


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