Gone down the road

21 Oct 2011

by Leila Marshy
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In 1970, when the term “Canadian cinema” was very much an oxymoron, Don Shebib made a film called Goin’ Down the Road. About two hard scrabble Maritimers who seek their fortune – well, minimum wage jobs – in Toronto, it doesn’t end well. Dreams are dashed and Joey and Peter, two fish out of water, turn to desperate measures.

A decade or two later just about my entire cohort of Anglophone filmmakers, artists, writers, and musicians left Montreal for their own goin’ down the road moment: fleeing the PQ and Bill 101 for the media and money in Toronto, Vancouver and LA.

But now, hanging around at the screenings of the St John’s International Women’s Film Festival I can’t help but marvel at the turn of affairs. Familiar faces are everywhere: Newfoundland filmmakers who had settled in Montreal in the 90s and 2000′s to practice their craft have now returned home to a stronger economy, a vibrant community, and a flourishing film scene. To top it off, sprinkled among them are former Montrealers and Torontonians who now live here, drawn to another kind of richness.

Noreen Golfman, founder and Executive Director of the St John’s International Women’s Film Festival, is originally from Ville St Laurent. Offered a job at Memorial University in the late 80s, she figured she’d stay a year and then return to Montreal. “But I fell in love with St John’s and Newfoundland and have been here ever since.”

Clearly appreciated in her milieu, Golfman’s influence in St John’s cannot be underestimated. “We love her,” I heard time and again. And especially, “we love her aerobics classes!” Yes, the English professor also wants you to shake your booty.

“I feel the love of this community,” says Golfman. “I grew up in a so-called distinct society in a crazy province with complex social relations between various tribes. Well, this is just on a smaller scale. I got it right away. I felt really at home uncannily quickly. If you don’t have this experience you end up leaving. If you get it, you dig in.”

And dig in she did, founding the SJIWFF in 1989. Since then, it has established itself as one of the longest running women’s film festivals in the world. This year, like all years, audiences are out in full force to watch a rich array of international, Canadian and local films. Attending the screenings and enjoying the scene as much as anyone are the various corporate and government sponsors.

“Our politicians and bureaucrats get the arts,” says Golfman, “They understand and support everyone. Not just financial, it’s moral support too. I sometimes say it’s like living in a feudal kingdom but we like the king.”

Now that the glittering kingdoms we’ve been attracted to all these years are losing their allure and moxy, it won’t be surprising if more than a few Torontonians and Montrealers set out up the road to seek fame and fortune on the rock. A different kind of fame, the respect of your peers rather than adulation of the anonymous, and fortunes measured not in dollars but in sense. But all of it rich nonetheless.

“It’s been a kind of joke of the festival that filmmakers come here, buy a house, and stay,” Golfman says. “So we tell our government funders that we’re also really good for immigration and population growth too. Look around, it’s true.”

Leila Marshy is the literary editor of The Rover. Her mother left Newfoundland to marry one of them foreigners and has been living it down ever since.