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Oh, Canada

7 August 2012 | 8:15 am | Ian Barr

Ian Barr previews the upcoming Canadian Film Festival, Possible Worlds.

“Sydney's Canadian Film Festival” – yes, it sounds incredibly niche on paper, but perhaps less so when you consider the breadth of Canada's cinematic output, which Possible Worlds annually documents for lucky Sydneysiders for a week in August.

Thus, if there's one film on this year's lineup that functions as the avatar for the festival as a whole, it's Indie Game: The Movie. Following a group of independent video game designers and their respective work routines, personal struggles and insecurities, failures and triumphs… it all seems very tailored to the interests of a select few, but it's actually a textbook case of finding universal resonance in the activities of a very specific subset. First-timers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot get extraordinarily intimate with their subjects, never condescending, and the result is an unlikely emotional rollercoaster with much aesthetic mileage gained from the juxtaposition of nature and cityscape photography with the lo-fi gaming graphics.

Surprising along similar lines is the annoyingly titled i am a good person/i am a bad person (yes, small caps deliberate). An autobiographical, intensely personal film from Canadian DIY filmmaker Ingrid Veninger, this follows a filmmaker and her teenage daughter (played respectively by Veninger and her real-life daughter, Haillie Switzer) as they travel the festival circuit, the former presenting her work to often hilariously unreceptive crowds – “Why did you make this film?” asks one disgruntled audience member, in a scene that should strike a chord with anyone who's sat through an uncomfortable post-screening Q&A at a film festival. Meanwhile, her annoyed and bored daughter splits early on for her own separate European journey, and the film cuts back and forth between each party, making keen observations on cultural displacement, family dysfunction and the ties that bind people who nonetheless remain oblivious to them.

“Can anyone who loves animals that much really be crazy?” It's the setup question for one of The Simpsons' greatest punchlines, and it's also what Francine indirectly asks, to haunting effect. I have to admit, I wasn't immediately won over by the film. In its early scenes, it scans as an example of the self-consciously dour under-classploitation that's been clogging up Sundance's arteries for ages, with nothing new to bring to the table. Then it stops being a familiar 'ex-con readjusts' narrative and turns into a film about animal love as a balm for loneliness and alienation, and becomes profoundly sad for the reminder of its fleet 75 minutes. Melissa Leo, fresh off her Oscar win for The Fighter, deserves all the laurels coming her way for her stunning, nearly wordless performance in the title role.

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Those are just a few titles that might pass by unnoticed – this year's Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film, Monsieur Lazhar, is an undisputed crowd-pleaser that gives middlebrow cinema a good name while avoiding all the clichés of the 'inspirational substitute teacher' genre. Doco, Surviving Progress, based on the book of the same name, mixes talking heads with artful, Koyannisqatsi-esque imagery to interrogate the nature of humankind's progress itself – perhaps too broad-ranging a subject for a 90-minute movie but a good primer and discussion-instigator nonetheless. And if that sounds too all-encompassing for your tastes, there's Roller Town, a parody of 1970s Roller Disco films. OK, that one is incredibly niche…

Possible Worlds screens from Friday 7 to Sunday 19 August, Dendy Opera Quays.