Blue Sunset: A Q&A With Programmers Dave Bertrand and Kier-La Janisse

After just two years, Montreal’s premiere screening space Blue Sunshine will officially dim its 16mm projector bulb on May 18, 2012. More than just a screening venue with some of the most eclectic cult programming this side of the border, co-founders Dave Bertrand and Kier-La Janisse ‘s focus on all strains of Canada’s filmmaking past made Blue Sunshine one of the best places to catch everything from pioneering Montreal gay classics of the 1970s to vintage local ephemera, forgotten maple syrup porn and just plain ol’ sleazy tax shelter trash.

It was during last year’s Fantasia Festival that I met Dave and Kier-La (in the flesh, anyways) and made my first visit to Blue Sunshine; they subsequently invited me back in November to deliver a lecture on Canadian horror for the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies program hosted there. During both visits, it was clear to me that (amongst all the other fantastic programming) the BS co-founders’ support and understanding of Canadian films of the last few decades was more sophisticated than anything happening in other cities, including venue-rich Toronto. While maybe inevitable, the closing of Blue Sunshine isn’t just a loss for local cinephiles, but also for anyone who cares about Canada’s film history, and knows why it’s important to keep these films unspooling in front of screens.

In advance of Blue Sunshine’s final Canadian screening on May 10, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… MR. LEONARD COHEN, we talked to Dave and Kier-La about why Blue Sunshine had to end, memories about some of his highlights of the last two years and their feelings on audience attitudes towards Canadian filmmaking.

First off, why did you decide to end Blue Sunshine? Oh why, God, why?

DB: Oh God! Well, when Kier-La and I set out to attempt this crazy experiment – that is, starting our own micro-cinema in a city neither of us have ever lived in, and with no financial backing to speak of – a two-year lease was about the maximum we thought we could make it work. Our lease expires at the end of May, and ever since we opened in June 2010, we’ve learned that, though this business is creatively rewarding on so many levels, financially, it just doesn’t work. Despite keeping our film licensing and rental costs to a minimum, the cost of the rent a commercial space on overpriced Boul. St-Laurent, excessive utilities rates, and our numerous attempts to legitimize the business with the city of Montreal, all pricey and ultimately unsuccessful – even when we did really well, attendance-wise, we lost money. On top of that, we’re really, really tired and our mental health is unraveling. But hey, it’s a miracle we made it last two years, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with all we’ve accomplished! We’ve left a big dent on the Montreal film world. I’m honoured that this was a part of my life.

Blue Sunshine has always featured a healthy amount of Canadian films. Why was it so important to Blue Sunshine to showcase local movies?

KJ: Honestly I don’t feel we showed enough local movies! But because we often played repertory titles, we’re able to have some perspective on how these films are relevant to our development, individually and as a country. Most Canadians, when they talk about Canadian films, tend to characterize them as middling and bland or just trying to ape American films. It’s only with some distance that you can really see that there’s a strong identity there. It wasn’t until I lived in Texas that I started to appreciate Canadian cinema really. Well, I always liked the tax shelter flicks but that was because Canadian industry seemed so embarrassed by them and so it was fun to side with the underdog. But once I moved to Texas I started to really see Canadian cinema on the whole as unique and worth fighting to preserve. There are things about the films that will be especially funny or poignant to Canadians in whatever region the film is from — specifically films made in Quebec. The best thing about moving to Montreal was discovering how much amazing French-Canadian cinema there is that no one talks about in the rest of Canada. And it is electrifying to sit in a room full of Francophones who are watching a movie that’s engrained in their culture – like the time we showed APRES SKI, and I couldn’t even understand the dialogue, but I was just feeding off the energy in the room. We would have showed way more of these films but the Cinematheque kind of had it covered.

DB: Most Canadian cinema still remains an untapped resource – the Canadian public of non-film professionals remains largely oblivious to their own cinema history, mostly due to lack of exposure and the enormous weight of Hollywood. Personally, it gives me great pleasure to dig out some obscurity from the tax shelter era and toss it up to an unsuspecting audience. As Kier-La says, being Anglophone outsiders, it was a shocker to realize just how much film history there is in Quebec that we knew NOTHING about, and are only still just scratching the surface of. I can say from experience that screening a Montreal-based film is ALWAYS a draw — here, like anywhere, people love to see their own neighbourhood and history up on the screen. So why not play something with a local connection, which excites a crowd and brings in greater numbers, and is an unheralded gem to boot?

You often brought in local actors and directors for screenings. Who was your most memorable Canadian film guest?

KJ:  The night composer Germain Gauthier came for  PINBALL SUMMER and George Mihalka raced here from Toronto to surprise him at the screening, for sure. I will go out on a limb and say that I think George Mihalka is the most loveable guy in Canadian film. I wish I had a George Mihalka doll. One that talks and chews gum. And he and Germain hadn’t seen each other for a long time, and they had such fun at the screening that it prompted the re-release of the soundtrack on CD  (Ed: Buy it here!). Also Germain was really excited to learn that LA GUERRE DES TOQUES (which he did music for) had made it outside of Quebec as THE DOG WHO STOPPED THE WAR. He was stoked that it was a classic for English kids as well as French kids.

DB: The greatest highlight of screening Canadian films is the likelihood of being able to bring in guests for a reasonable budget, since many of the participants live (literally) just down the road! We’ve had some famous/infamous guests from the fringes of the Quebec film & music world in the house, specifically Raoul Duguay, who’s 1972 NFB-funded film Ô: OU L’INVISIBLE ENFANT we played, and who’s band L’Infonie was kind of like the Quebecois equivalent of a Sun Ra Arkestra super-ensemble. Also, filmmaker Robert Morin was here to present his challenging and brutal PETIT POW! POW! NOËL, with a Q&A moderated by current festival fave filmmaker Denis Côté. All of these folks would normally be invited to much more prestigious events, for presumably far more money, but came here to host long and involved French-language Q&As to an intimate gathering of say, 30 people each. Pretty neat!

Oh, and having Yan Moore, one of the chief architects of DEGRASSI JUNIOR HIGH here in person to present the final infamous episode of Canada’s #1 high school episodic, “School’s Out!” was a classic night, too. An adoring crowd and a sensational screening. But maybe the greatest was the Mordecai Richler-penned ’70’ kid’s classic JACOB TWO-TWO MEETS THE HOODED FANG. We’d already booked the film – a 16mm co-presentation by (Canuxploitation contributor) Jonathan Culp of Toronto’s TRASH PALACE – when we were informed that the now grown-up “Jacob”, Stephen Rosenberg, actually works at the hair salon Funky Toque four doors down the street! So I walked over and talked to him, and he ended up being a guest for the film, recounting crazy child-actor tales, and watching the film for the first time in decades. He loved it. Incredible.

What kind of response did you get from audiences in showing Canadian films? Has it changed at all since Blue Sunshine opened its doors two years ago?

KJ: I actually don’t know if it’s changed since we opened. We seemed to always do well when we played Canadian stuff, and usually we could track down someone who had something to do with the film to do an introduction and impart anecdotes about the making of the film. So people could be nostalgic but also walk away with new knowledge.

DB: Maybe it’s changed, insomuch as the awareness of Canadian tax shelter flicks and Montreal’s huge part in North American genre film history has grown a great deal recently. Just look at all the Cinépix-related tributes that have sprung up around the death of John Dunning, particularly, in Montreal’s case, at the 2011 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL’s superb Cinépix tribute series. But by and large, I think we’ve had great success here at Blue Sunshine for anything with a local connection. Hell, we opened our doors with CANNIBAL GIRLS and that was a sell-out night! I do think, though, that – CANNIBAL GIRLS aside – this excitement for our national cinema is localized more or less to the city of Montreal itself, and not Canada as a whole. For example, our night of classic Toronto punk films – including the only known existing 16mm print of The Diodes film CRASH N’ BURN – kind of bombed, whereas for the film MTL PUNK we had two separate, packed screenings, despite the film having previously played elsewhere in the city (to sold out crowds). Likewise, our superb night of bizarre Winnipeg ephemera compiled by filmmaker Matthew Rankin was attended by a crowd consisting exclusively of transplanted ‘Peggers. Two really fantastic exceptions to this rule were docs of the Vancouver punk underground that played as part of the POP MONTREAL FESTIVAL: BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED and NO FUN CITY, both of which had their Montreal premiers at Blue Sunshine to large and appreciative audiences.

What was your personal favourite screening of a Canadian film?

DB: Besides some of the ones I’ve already mentioned, a couple others that are really special to me were last year’s holiday 16mm double-bill of Bob Clark’s A CHRISTMAS STORY and BLACK CHRISTMAS. I love Bob’s early films, I had the chance to meet him briefly before his tragic death, and he was indeed the nicest guy around. And it was a big honour to screen the ultra-Quebecois Cinépix kid’s chase film MYSTERY OF THE MILLION DOLLAR HOCKEY PUCK. Aside from it being simply fun as hell and everyone in attendance giggling and cheering at the Carnaval de Québec tourist shots, the diamonds hidden in a frickin’ Montreal Canadiens hockey puck and the great snowmobile chase, it was a rare instance of a screening where,  except for me, nobody in the room had seen the film — including Kier-La, the owner of the print or any of the hardest-of-the-hardcore film junkies among our regulars. And the only reason I had sought it out, was for cutting pieces of the film for inclusion in a video tribute to Cinépix’s John Dunning, for a TFCA award presented by David Cronenberg earlier this year (where I was thanked publicly, by name, by Mr. Videodrome!). I feel like HOCKEY PUCK will forever hold a magical place in my heart for that very reason, and I simply couldn’t believe that no one in Montreal knew about this movie! It was like my own special secret.

KJ: Besides PINBALL SUMMER?  Even though it was on video, when you did your class on the effects of MKULTRA and the Duplessis Orphans on Canadian genre cinema, I was pretty stoked on MINDFIELD, and the class learned a LOT about Canadian history and how even “lowly” genre films are important archives of that history. They could see a direct line from one to the other, and it was at moments like that that I felt most proud of Blue Sunshine. Actually, the screening of MONTREAL MAIN with Frank Vitale was great, totally packed, and brought in lots of people who had never been to Blue Sunshine before. It was really the perfect intimate venue for films like that. Although i did think it was weird that no one broached the issue of the film’s pedophilic aspects in the Q&A. I mean, I wasn’t gonna do it, but I’m surprised no one else did!


Although Blue Sunshine is shutting down, do you have any thoughts on what the future of rep screenings for classic Canadian cinema (and B-cinema) holds?

DB: Well, in Montreal? NOT SO GOOD. Blue Sunshine is closing doors, the NFB theatre is being forcibly shut down due to Harper’s budget cuts, the Cinematheque Quebecoise is in dire trouble (despite some really interesting programming lately), and that leaves us with not a lot else aside from the numerous film festivals, the extremely hit-and-miss Cinema du Parc, and, I dunno… maybe the odd digital restoration at the multiplexes? FANTASIA, I adore, and you can count on them to dig up some treasures each year, but for year-round programming, there’s a big hole in La Belle Province that’s about to get bigger.

Toronto fares much, much better, on both the “high” and “low” ends, all the way from the BELL LIGHTBOX to TRASH PALACE – who’s days are numbered, I might add, so get there while you can! It’s really possible, though, that Blue Sunshine will inspire others to take up the reigns, and maybe take this idea one better. Who knows? Or maybe we’ll be back someday. I definitely prefer to live in a world where someone, somewhere, is screening DEADLY EYES on 16mm inside a glorified living room/theatre to a crowd of happy, drinking curio-seekers who, the week before, had no clue there was a movie about giant killer rats eating people in the sewers of Toronto. It’s been thrilling doing Blue Sunshine. We’re gonna miss it.

Special thanks to Dave and Kier-La and to Emmanuel Delacour for use of the first two photos.

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  1. I know I didn’t make it to BS as much as I wanted to, with your two years coinciding EXACTLY with my son, Matteo (who is two years and two months), which curtailed my social activities big time (but welll worht it!). But I really respect and appreciate what you two have done, what you have brought to the Montreal cultural scene. I also feel a part of it having taught two of the many courses offered at Miskatonic. It is a shame that it could only last two years. In a perfect world some Canadian version of Tarantino would, right NOW, swoop down with a big sack of cash to save your hallowed hall! In any case (hoping something like that happens), thanks for the memories Dave and Kier-La.

  2. I too wish I could have made it to more screenings… but thank you for the ones I did see!!! Good memories of evenings spent watching the Lee Hazlewood doc/comp and some of the other music-rlated material, the sing-a-long, Death Rides a Horse… Thanks!