A film-studies professor, the program he wants to start, the festival he runs and the medium he loves
Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief Ω
We were in his office in the TRU Clocktower. One wall is full of books (many of them with names on their spines that you can also find on DVD covers) and the seeming clutter is that of religious images viewed in a satirical light, made-up credentials and ordainments from organizations you’ve never heard of, pop culture figures, as well as his fair share of weird-seeming collectables, such as an action figure of bacon (still in the box).
“Like most men of my age, my first cinematic memory is standing in line to see Star Wars with my grandfather,” said Mark Wallin, TRU film studies professor and current chair of the flagship event of the Kamloops Film Society (KFS), the Kamloops Film Festival (KFF).
“We stood in a line that was around the block,” he continued. “In terms of the ‘cinematic experience’ it was the first non-kids movie that I saw and was just a very important experience in my life,” he said. “But I have come to hate George Lucas.”
Apparently, Wallin often opens his film studies courses with an in-depth analysis of how George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — two of the most well known figures in the film industry — have ruined film.
Star Wars — Wallin’s earliest and most important film memory that spawned the love that would come to, in some ways, take over his life — was also the reason film itself started down a terrible path.
“Up to that point, the United States was making some of the best films that the world had ever seen — truly intense, insightful and daring films. With the advent of Star Wars, E.T. and (as much as I love it) Indiana Jones — those films just demolished any kind of serious filmmaking and drove it underground for the next 20 years.”
It wasn’t necessarily about the grandiose nature of the films themselves, or the box office successes that they became, but the change in what cinema’s role is in our society that they spurred, he said.
Lucas and Spielberg were (and are) all about the money and that mentality has been the downfall of the industry as far as its ability to produce worthwhile film.
“Their relentless commercialization at any expense…there’s no level at which they say, ‘Oh no, that would just be too tacky, that would just be too crass to commodify that.’ These guys will turn anything into money and that was really the turning point [for film],” according to Wallin.
“In the ’70s, you could get a project greenlighted that was both a searing political indictment and an entertaining film,” he said. That role has been taken over by documentary filmmaking these days, due to, as he calls it, “the blockbusterization of American cinema.”
But at its base level, according to Wallin, the film industry is reflecting the values we place on things in our society.
“You can start looking at it in the way that we value public companies,” he said. “It’s in the emphasis that our culture has on beating expectations and quarterly profit — when that becomes the ballgame, that’s not a way to build a serious filmmaking enterprise.
“That places the priority on making money. If you’re playing in the same league as Apple — because if you’re on the stock market it doesn’t matter what you’re selling — you can’t take a gamble that doesn’t pay off.”
In an industry that now — since Star Wars, remember — pegs its success not even necessarily to box office success or whether they cover their costs, but to beating market expectations, “there’s no studio that’s going to be courageous and say, ‘This is a story that needs to be told, even if it’s not going to pack the theatres.’ That’s just not going to happen anymore,” said Wallin, reminiscing about the days of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. “Those movies would never get made now.”
Nonetheless, his love for film itself never wavered and when he arrived in Kamloops in 2005, Wallin’s lifelong love for film naturally brought him to the KFS.
The Kamloops Film Society
In downtown Kamloops at the Interior Health building in the early 1970s there gathered a group of people in love with film. They did this periodically to discuss the medium in general, share their love for it with each other and try to find a way to bring some of that love out to the broader public in the area.
That was the start of the KFS.
From its origins downtown, to moving up to Cariboo College (now TRU), to becoming a major presence in the region’s arts scene, the KFS has travelled a long and winding road without ever leaving town.
Currently in its fortieth year, the society is running its 17th annual film festival, runs three film series throughout the year and is one of the main entities responsible for fostering film appreciation in the region by promoting independent and art-house filmmaking and allowing the public to engage with films they would otherwise likely never have the opportunity to see — at least on a screen the size they were intended to fill.
Their website states, “Our mission is to bring the best in independent, Canadian and foreign cinema to Kamloops. We endeavour to promote and support film and related visual media in the Kamloops area by offering grants periodically throughout each year.”
Every other Thursday, the public is invited to take advantage of their dedication to that cause.
And then there’s the annual Kamloops Film Festival (KFF), which Wallin currently chairs.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the KFS had been seeing success in their mandate to bring film to the region and began throwing their annual weeklong celebration of film. Coincidentally, it was around that time when the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) developed their “film circuit” model and began to corner the market on film distribution in Canada. Distributors stopped wanting to deal with the small markets, because they could simply send community organizations to go to TIFF to acquire films as an intermediary. While this made things easier for both distributors and small-scale organizations like the KFS, it created a situation where TIFF now held the keys to the empire as far as Canadian filmgoers were concerned.
At the time, it was largely a win-win situation for filmmakers and distributors, as well as for those who screen the films and those who go see them.
Fast-forward to today, where TIFF is having a harder time justifying their existence, according to Wallin, because of the quick turnaround in the film industry due to advancing technology enabling filmmakers to get their work out to the public much quicker, and Wallin thinks that’s almost making the “circuit model” obsolete.
Because of the TIFF distribution model, “By the time we book our films now — this is what happens every year — we look at the films, we get excited about them and we book them and they’re on video by the time the festival rolls around,” according to Wallin.
The board of the film festival starts selecting films in October, trying to finalize the line-up before Christmas, “and then if a production company decides to bump up their release dates, we’re hooped,” Wallin said
Adding to the complication of the quick turnaround of the film industry, there’s also a Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issue. The film festival can’t show films that don’t have Canadian distributor without an exemption from the CRTC and those exemptions are costly and time consuming to acquire.
“It’s not to say that we’re not satisfied with the films that we’re bringing in, but three of the films in [this year’s festival] are currently out on release and several more are going to be released next week. I find that unacceptable. As a chair, I’m not satisfied with that. I want to bring film in that people in this community wouldn’t have access to otherwise. That’s the point of the festival. It’s not supposed to be a preview for your DVD purchasing.”
While Wallin is largely happy with what the festival has become (it’s grown immensely since he came on board) and as much as he loves film itself, now in his fourth year as the chair of the annual week-long KFS event, he is ready to pass the torch and focus his efforts on other things — efforts like bringing a full-on film program to the region.
TRU to reach into the film industry on another level
While TRU currently offers some courses in film studies and appreciation, adaptation theory and other aspects of film, there have been rumours of an expansion of that coverage into a full-fledged film program.
Wallin confirms that this is, in fact, one of his end-goals here at TRU.
“We’re kind of having to start from scratch, which in some ways is good,” he said.
Apparently we were having this conversation mere hours before yet another official meeting about how the film program will come together. It will take many people from many disciplines and faculties to make it work.
“The kind of program we want needs to be interdisciplinary. We need to have multiple stakeholders. If we’re going to have a film studies program we’re going to have to be working across multiple different programs…visual arts, journalism, communications, English,” said Wallin.
It has been in the discussion for a while now and the obstacles along the way have been many and varied.
“The conversation has shifted,” said Wallin. It used to be an issue of money, and as such, the development of the program “got bogged down for about a year and a half.”
But apparently he’s now been told to build a program and the school will find the funding.
“It has the support of the people above us. I’ve been told it’s something that we value [as an institution].”
It should really come as no surprise to those who know about the options already on offer at TRU as far as communications courses and those in other faculties and departments.
“With surprisingly few additions, we could [already] put together a decent program that would be a broad-spectrum approach about film studies and film production,” Wallin said.
At the same time, Wallin and the rest of the folks involved in the development of the program realize they need to be realistic in their goals.
“Because of the nature of our university, we’re not going to compete with Vancouver Film School,” Wallin admits, but adds that because TRU already has strengths in journalism, theatre and writing, combined with the fact that it will be a cooperative program between various departments and faculties we are already strong in, he has confidence that the program will be successful.
Rather than falling under the current model most programs use, where a chair of a department oversees the program, Wallin said the program would likely be operated as a cooperative.
“It’s a steering committee from all the interested departments that’s going to be spearheading this, so while its current official home is in the communications program, there’s a working group from all the interested parties involved.
“It doesn’t matter to me who’s picking up the ball and running with it, or even where it’s housed, as long as we can put together a program that’s going to deliver something for students and really give them value.”
And what exactly will that value be?
Rudy Buttignol, president and CEO of Knowledge Network, British Columbia’s public broadcaster, who finances independent film (especially documentary), spoke at the KFF’s opening night event about the industry’s current state in Canada. He pointed out that there’s a big difference between wanting to be involved in filmmaking and being a filmmaker.
“In the non-industrial model, it’s always been hard,” he said. “If you want to do someone else’s work, people will give you a job. If you want to do your own work, you’re going to suffer.”
So will TRU’s film program be pumping out film workers or filmmakers?
“What we would like to do,” said Wallin, “is have the students we produce be well-versed in the history and techniques of filmmaking that have come before but also be on the cutting edge of what is happening.”
So they’ll want to be graduating people who want to go into the technical side of production and will be capable of joining film crews on productions, but also those who will have the knowledge, expertise, and desire to see a film go all the way from concept to finished product — possibly their own.
“We don’t necessarily see ourselves producing the next David Fincher [Seven, Fight Club, The Game, Social Network] — we’ll leave that to Vancouver Film School, that’s what they do — but we could conceivably produce the next Michael Moore.”
So keep your eyes and ears open on this developing opportunity if you’re interested in film, because somewhere down the line, there’s a very real chance that you could find yourself in a desk learning about film from Mark Wallin, on your way to making your own Roger and Me.
Just don’t tell Mark how you plan on licensing the action figures and lunchboxes.