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Toronto New Wave

Rather than an expression of a particular group aesthetic, “Toronto New Wave” is a catchy phrase for a spirited generation of English-Canadian filmmakers who emerged in Toronto in the eighties. Atom Egoyan, John Greyson, Ron Mann, Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, Peter Mettler, Jeremy Podeswa and Patricia Rozema, along with producers Camelia Frieberg, Alexandra Raffé, Colin Brunton, Janis Lundman and others came bursting on to the Canadian movie scene with fresh, original films that rejected not only Hollywood’s formulaic dramas, but also the legacy of earlier English-Canadian cinéastes (such as Don Shebib and Don Owen) who had made downbeat films about heartbreak and loss.

Most of Toronto’s New Wave were graduates of film departments at the University of Toronto, Sheridan College or Ryerson Polytechnic University. They generally gravitated to LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto), a funky film co-op (the spiritual successor to the original Toronto Filmmakers Co-op) founded by McDonald and Mettler and located in a downtown warehouse. Leading the way into features was Mettler (whose 1982 film Scissere became the first student feature programmed by the Toronto Festival of Festivals, now the Toronto International Film Festival®) and Mann (with two exceptional documentaries – Imagine the Sound in 1981 and Poetry in Motion in 1982). Egoyan followed in 1984 with Next of Kin, a fictional comic feature about identity.

Many of the young filmmakers (they were all under the age of thirty) worked on each other’s films. Mettler shot Egoyan’s Next of Kin and Family Viewing (1987), Rozema’s Passion: A Letter in 16mm (1985), Podeswa’s Nion (in the Kabaret de la Vita) (1986) and McDonald’s Knock! Knock! (1985), while McDonald edited Scissere, Egoyan’s Family Viewing and Speaking Parts (1989), and Mann’s Comic Book Confidential (1988). McDonald also guest-edited the 1988 “Outlaw Edition” of Cinema Canada that first publicized the existence of this new group of filmmakers. Despite the lack of a defining manifesto, the Toronto-based group existed through a close-knit sense of cooperation of a kind rarely seen in Canada since the growth of Quebec cinema in the early sixties.

Two major events of the eighties gave credence and cash to these young Toronto filmmakers. In 1984, the Toronto Festival of Festivals held the largest retrospective of Canadian films ever programmed in Canada. This event premiered Perspective Canada, a Festival series that for twenty years was the most prestigious venue for launching English-Canadian features. Then, in 1986, the Ontario Film Development Corporation (OFDC) was founded, providing a much-needed funding alternative to the restrictions of the Ontario Arts Council and Telefilm Canada in Montreal. From the start, the OFDC was officially mandated to create an Ontario film culture. Under the guidance of its first CEO, Wayne Clarkson (who, as the former head of the Festival of Festivals, had been partially responsible for launching Perspective Canada), it proceeded to do so.

The breakthrough came in 1987 when Rozema’s first low-budget feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, won the Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, and Rozema herself, received a tremendous amount of international press attention and Mermaids did something almost unheard of for an English-Canadian film: it made money at the box office. In the same year, Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma famously concluded with Wim Wenders publicly re-assigning the first-place prize money from his Wings of Desire to Egoyan, whose Speaking Parts had received a special mention. A number of key New Wave films followed in the wake this stunning successes: Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991) and Exotica (which won the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes in 1994); McDonald’s Road Kill (1989) and Highway 61 (1992), both written by and starring McKellar; Greyson’s Zero Patience (1994); and Mettler’s Top of His Head (1989) and Tectonic Plates (1992).

Unlike previous generations, this group of filmmakers avoided the easy lure of big money and bigger films in Hollywood. Instead, like their cinematic mentor David Cronenberg, they chose to stay and make a living in Canada, thus contributing greatly to the ongoing development of an indigenous film culture.

By: Wyndham Wise