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The rebels and vanguards of Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma

Documentary Ninth Floor takes a penetrating look at the Sir George Williams University riot of February 1969, when a protest against institutional racism snowballed into a 14-day student occupation at the Montreal university.

Favouring intimacy over stars, the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma embraces youthful vigour and adventure as it enters its 44th edition. As FNC caters to the best of world cinema, featuring new works from the likes of Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Gaspar Noé and Miguel Gomes, the value of the festival lies in the vanguards, the rebels and the unknowns.

One revelation from the festival retrospectives is the 1973 psychedelic-psychosexual animated film Belladonna of Sadness, based on the non-fiction book Satanism and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet. Structured with the combination of a camera roving over still images and vibrant psychedelic imagery, the film is about the beautiful and chaste Belladonna's descent into sin and ascent into power. Adopting a style reminiscent of the works of the late 18th-century symbolist movement from Europe, director Eiichi Yamamoto uses strong lines, watercolours and a simple colour palette. Featuring rape, bestiality and graphic violence, the film also pushes the boundaries of good taste and emphasizes a sensorial experience above reason and ideas. In a serious stretch of false equivalencies, the final moments of the film equate Belladonna's rise to power with the rise of women in the French revolutionary period, which left several members of the audience visibly frustrated. Yet the overall experience is incredibly rich, as the film features some of the most sumptuous and disturbing images in cinematic history.

This is the first time Belladonna of Sadness, a restoration based on the original negatives, has been screened in North America. The anxiety over the loss of physical media is strongly represented elsewhere in FNC's experimental short programs, which heavily favour the physicality of celluloid. Using Expo 67 as a backdrop, the experimental By the Time We Got to Expo (directed by Eva Kolcze and Philip Hoffman) uses 8mm footage to expose the decay of physical materials and, as a result, the decay of Montreal itself. The concrete modernist architecture built during this era is rendered cracked and apocalyptic under the scratches of the damaged film.

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Modernism, unable to catch a fair break, is equally pivotal to the false Canadian utopia crushed by reality in Ninth Floor, a sleek documentary about a 1969 student protest in Montreal that sheds a harsh light on Canada's multiculturalism. In Ben Wheatley's evocative but uneven High Rise, based on the J.G. Ballard novel, the modernist apartment building becomes a character in itself, a dark representation of capitalist class struggles. In all these films, though, the cold Brutalist structures of the 1960s era are framed as oppressive illusions that mask humanity's flawed nature.

The crackling flaws of celluloid are equally pivotal to one of the best films not just at FNC but of the year: The Exquisite Corpus directed by Peter Tscherkassky, which uses found footage from European pornography to construct a poetic portrait of eroticism and death. Raw and innovative, the film is a titillating portrait of sexual desire that equates the human form with the fragile film stock. The pressing loss of physical media will also to be explored on closing night this Sunday with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson's The Forbidden Room, an installation film project that sees the recreation of lost silent films.

Turning its eye to digital media and, in a way, the future of cinema itself, is The Randy and Evi Quaid Compilation. Assembled by Mathieu Grondin, the film embraces the YouTube language of compilation and remix. The film recontextualizes the now infamous Quaid tapes using several framing devices including title cards and YouTube comments. Presenting the videos as a single stream of consciousness exposes the tapes as strangely poetic and emphasizes how the couple use performance to explore their own paranoia. Rather than fight surveillance culture, the pair has embraced online culture as a means of gaining control over their own image. The fact that Randy and Evi were caught trying to sneak across the border into the United States a day before the screening lends an uncomfortable immediacy to their self-made videos. The film sheds light on our obsession with outrage and the evolving nature of the internet sideshow.

In many ways, though, the real new cinema doesn't live in the theatres or in festivals but online. With more access to media than ever before, the value of festivals now lies in curation. In this sense, FNC is at the forefront, offering a cohesive and strong vision of challenging and new works from across the world. While the FNC is not yet held in the same reverence as festivals such as TIFF, Berlin and Locarno, it is carving out its own place as a festival of new voices and artistic discoveries.

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