Girard pulls right strings

Francois Girard's culturally rich film The Red Violin is playing its sweet song while Adam Sandler bumps heads in The Waterboy.

While Sandler's Hollywood movie is the season's big hit, Girard's film is finding a more select audience. It is a prime example of counter programming at the cinema.

The Red Violin was as much a challenge for the filmmakers as it is now to audiences, according to Girard, the 35-year-old, Montreal-based writer-director who collaborated with Toronto friends to get this five-language hybrid film made.

That's because it is the saga of a unique violin from the time it is made by an Italian master in 1681 to when it is sold at a Montreal auction in 1998. This piece of wood with strings attached assumes a human quality in the film, a series of five episodes set in different countries over the centuries.

"We understood quite early that that was our challenge," Girard says, sipping a luxurious red wine while struggling with his Tokyo jet lag after showing The Red Violin there.

"The shape of the film was quite easy to put together. The work that we did that was much harder was to give life to this piece of wood," Girard remembers, "and secondly to make the five stories feel like one.

"Those two issues were the centre of endless discussions and endless thinking and endless efforts. For two years, we had been working out the details of that."

There was never a doubt in Girard's mind, though. "No!" he declares when I ask if he ever thought it would be impossible to do.

"Yet there is an impossible quality about it. But this is the one thing that drove us. It was there as a motivation."

The 'we' in the case of The Red Violin is intriguing. The co-writer on the film is Toronto's Don McKellar, who also appears in the auction scenes as a sidekick to the central character played by American star Samuel L. Jackson.

The Red Violin was produced by Rhombus Media, a Toronto production house that is run in part by Niv Fichman. And it was Fichman, Rhombus and McKellar who worked with the fluently bilingual Girard on the classic English-Canadian drama 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a unique biographical film about the late piano genius.

"It's great," Girard says of making Toronto his second home over the past few years. "It's not about dropping into Toronto to get 'a job.' It's a real creative connection."

Girard, an articulate idea man in both French and English, is wary of getting too political in his analysis.

"It's a complex question," he offers. "I prefer to talk about culture, what happens in the film industry, what happens between friends here in Toronto and the great connections that I have.

"I can say that my culture is also Don and Niv's culture. The films that we see are the same, the music we listen to is the same and it's less and less about where you are, where you live. There are so many things that you can share. I hate this idea that you isolate yourself.

"But!" There is always a 'but' when talking even cultural politics with a filmmaker who is proudly rooted in what he calls "the Quebec tradition of filmmaking."

He explains: "But sometimes to reach the world and make sure your voice doesn't disappear, other things have to happen. It's a very complex question. Yet I think I've been enriched by my Toronto connections and supported by the Toronto public in a very beautiful way."

That is, supported by Toronto people who aren't laughing their guts out at Adam Sandler. The rest of us care.

By BRUCE KIRKLAND - Toronto Sun - Monday November 23, 1998

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