Film fans fight for independent cinema in Thunder Bay

In northwestern Ontario, you’re a long way from the nearest indie theatre. Diehards have built a thriving scene anyway
By Jon Thompson - Published on March 23, 2018
people eating popcorn at a movie
There’s just one permanent movie theatre in Thunder Bay, a major multiplex. Beyond that, the nearest one is an eight-hour drive away. (iStock.com/izusek)

​THUNDER BAY — A generation ago, Thunder Bay could boast of seven movie theatres in town. Today, Cineplex’s 12-screen SilverCity remains the only option for a city of 100,000 people. To the chagrin of some film fans, its playbill tends to focus on the Hollywood blockbuster titles that are most popular.

What about movies to entertain residents who prefer adult-oriented dramas, foreign films and other Oscar fodder? “Occasionally, there will be an art house or independent film that pops up there,” says Marty Mascarin, president of a local film screening group called the North of Superior Film Association. “They end up playing only a week. They fly under the radar.”

Yet in defiance of the remoteness that often defines this city, Thunder Bay has maintained a vibrant film scene thanks to do-it-yourself efforts by filmmakers and festival organizers.

Confederation College film professor Lee Chambers explains the attitude of northwestern Ontario’s movie diehards. “Are we isolated? Yes. You have to go eight hours in any direction to get to another theatre,” he says. “But the world is open with pathways to be innovative. We can’t hide behind our isolation for all the answers. We have to build it.”

Film fans will gather in April for a major item on the local film calendar, the North of Superior Film Association (or NOSFA)’s annual film festival, which will use SilverCity as a venue.  

Major Oscar winners often bypass Thunder Bay during their initial release, but film fans can catch up to them at North of Superior. Last year’s event, which featured 23 titles, was the only place for hundreds of kilometres around where movie-goers could catch a screening of the film Carol. It had six Academy Award nominations. In 2014, NOSFA screened Selma, Birdman and Still Alice, none of which would have otherwise played on the big screen in Thunder Bay. Next month’s lineup remains under wraps, but organizers reveal that nine of the films will be Oscar nominees. Just two of them played in Thunder Bay during their initial theatrical release.

NOSFA puts on its event in partnership with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Film Circuit, which works with local organizations to bring interesting films to areas where they normally wouldn’t play. NOFSA, “one of the longest operating film societies in the Film Circuit,” has been bringing acclaimed Hollywood movies to Thunder Bay for a quarter century, as well as Canadian and international films.

In the summer of 1991, the group that would become NOSFA took up the torch from the dissolved film society at Lakehead University. Volunteers met in the backyard of civil servant Michael Gravelle, pledging to revive independent Canadian and international cinema in Thunder Bay (Gravelle went on to be elected MPP for Thunder Bay-Superior North in every election since).

An audience of 200 people turned up the following year to watch NOSFA’s first offering, the Canadian film Hurt Penguins. Membership shot up from 300 to 500 members through bi-weekly screenings over less than two years, prompting its first film festival in 1993.

“From the beginning, the board thought we’d be put out of business because theatres would recognize the value of bringing in Canadian and foreign films and they’d take over for NOSFA,” recalls Catherine Powell, the film festival co-ordinator. “We wanted to be obsolete but it never happened.”

Instead, the board watched the limited diversity that was available narrow even further. Seven local theatres closed, leaving only SilverCity.

Support from other groups and communities helps NOSFA fill seats. Mascarin credits a partnership with the local Alzheimer’s Society with ensuring Still Alice’s two showings sold out. Networking with the city’s cultural communities has kept Italian and Indian films among festival favourites.

Thunder Bay is “an outdoors community in a lot of ways,” Powell says. “Lots of people have camps — cottages — or snowmobiles and skis, but we also have a symphony and we have our own theatre company, things a town our size shouldn’t have, because we’re so far away from everything. I think our audience is pretty sophisticated in their taste and they like being exposed to other cultures.”

Although its audience is aging, NOSFA has survived the online revolution in media availability, which allows viewers anywhere to access film and other content on demand.  By promoting screenings as social and cultural events, Thunder Bay’s local film societies make the outings an attractive alternative to staying home and streaming. There’s still something to be said for seeing a movie on the big screen.

“When you’re immersed in it, those movies are all more memorable,” Chambers says. “You remember where you were and how you felt when you came out of the theatre. NOSFA has tapped into that.”

In recent years, NOSFA has expanded into regional films and college efforts, giving Thunder Bay an opportunity to see its own places, people and culture portrayed on screen. The move tapped into hometown pride; popular titles have included Chambers’s film The Pineville Heist and the 2015 feature Sleeping Giant.

The Vox Popular Arts Festival has cornered the market on local films. Having launched in 2004 as the Bay Street Film Festival, Vox Popular showed 47 titles in 2017 and boasts of having shown more than 150 movies set in northwestern Ontario since its inception. Regionally produced films take home the festival’s people’s choice award most years.

Vox festival co-ordinator and filmmaker Kelly Saxberg believes cable, mainstream films, and the internet are all failing to feed a hunger for relatable content and local flavour.

“People are sick of [their entertainment choices] being controlled by broadcasters’ interests. We’ve gone beyond that,” she says. “Our isolation has actually made us stronger. As a filmmaker — as an artist — I’ve done stuff here I could never do living in Toronto or back in Winnipeg where I started my career. The young people who are producing work here are award-winning.”

To help foster local film culture, Saxberg has invited filmmakers to present their work and offer master classes. Vox has also produced multimedia exhibits with local art galleries to promote artists across disciplines. “We do a lot of work to get people to leave their phones and come out — that’s the struggle,” she says. “You can’t do that with the old models. The old models are done.”

The region’s Indigenous filmmakers face especially high barriers to seeing their work on the big screen in Thunder Bay. Media and film have historically neglected and misrepresented Indigenous stories, but today, Indigenous filmmakers are telling those stories through their own cultural lens.

Members of the Indigenous film community launched Biindigaate Indigenous Film Festival in 2009 as a way of dealing with limited access to markets. The festival’s Ojibwe name means, “shining a light on.” Over its five-year run, the festival hosted discussions on issues affecting the Indigenous community in Thunder Bay as well as the region’s First Nations communities.

Festival director Michelle Derosier says Biindigaate’s greatest achievement was providing an arena to host those conversations for the Indigenous community.

“There’s something real that happens when you bring people together that I don’t think we’ll ever be able to achieve through social media and online realities,” Derosier says.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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