It all started with a ravine. Well, a ravine and the freight-train bridge that cut through the green space’s quiet serenity – a barrelling, piercing reminder of our industrial world’s intrusion into nature. It was in this spot, in the suburbs of Calgary, that filmmaker Graham Foy first found inspiration for The Maiden, his startling feature debut that will play the Toronto International Film Festival this week, just a few days after making its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Giornate degli Autori program.
“The bridge was a connection point for a lot of us growing up. I would walk to school past it, and I always clocked the changing, eclectic graffiti there,” recalls Foy on a sunny, sweltering day in Toronto, a few weeks before he and Daiva Žalnieriunas, his wife and producer, prepare to leave for Venice.
Spray-painted on that bridge’s walls were messages of love, indecipherable graffiti tags and makeshift “RIP” memorials for lost friends.
“Things would get painted over all the time, but often the RIP messages would be maintained, even the one extremely high up on the bridge that would be terrifying to paint,” Foy says. “These were the images that struck a chord with me, that had me both reflecting on my youth and imagining the secret histories behind the messages. That’s where the story of The Maiden emerged.”
An intensely atmospheric meditation on friendship, grief, and both the pains and wonder of being an outsider, The Maiden is a haunting work that lingers.
Its story is split in two, the first half focusing on Colton (Macel T. Jimenez) and Kyle (Jackson Sluiter), high-school friends whose “MAIDEN” graffiti tags give the film its name. With little to do but kill time, the pair engage in a cycle of gentle adolescent destruction punctuated by moments of surprising tenderness. It is a routine that feels safe and comforting, until a shocking incident breaks their world apart. The film then segues into the tale of the boys’ classmate, the shy but perceptive Whitney (Hayley Ness), who embarks on an unexpected journey that cosmically loops back to the initial tragedy that tore Colton and Kyle apart.
Shot in Calgary and nearby Cochrane, Alta., The Maiden offers a number of compelling narratives for those looking to read the tea-leaves of the ever-changing Canadian film industry.
Its poetic, beautifully cold shots of Calgary’s bedroom communities could, for instance, mark the launch of Alberta as a cineaste’s new capital, a welcome departure from our cinema’s obsession with Toronto.
Produced under Telefilm’s microbudget Talent to Watch program, the film could also remind the powers-that-be at the federal agency that our young artists have the energy to do so very much with so very little, while also deserving so much more. (The Maiden is one of a record six first-time Talent to Watch features playing TIFF this year.)
And, as one of three Canadian TIFF films this year set to be released by Daniel Montgomery and Kazik Radwanski’s highly respected MDFF production company as that outfit branches into film distribution, The Maiden could mark the start of a new Canadian art-house power player. (Foy’s movie, along with Ashley McKenzie’s Queens of the Qing Dynasty and Antoine Bourges’s Concrete Valley, will be released in indie theatres and cinematheques over the next year, a strategy similar to how MDFF distributed Radwanski’s own acclaimed drama Anne at 13,000 ft. last year.)
But more than any of the above possibilities, The Maiden announces the arrival of Foy as one of this country’s most exciting emerging talents.
Raised in the Calgary suburbs, the filmmaker spent most of his youth wishing that he was anywhere else. But after leaving for film school in Toronto, distance illuminated much of what once seemed forgettable.
“Alberta now had a nuance to it, a mystery. I wanted to explore this new perspective on a place while also staying true to all the things I knew about it,” Foy says. “And I didn’t want to tell a story that was misanthropic. I wanted to show a different side of Alberta that hadn’t been depicted before.”
With two short films on his C.V. – plus the 2018 Prism Prize for most outstanding Canadian music video for Charlotte Day Wilson’s song Work, directed under Foy’s alias Fantavious Fritz – he applied for the Talent to Watch program and eventually secured just enough money (a little over $300,000) to make the kind of production that can be ideal for first-time feature filmmakers: there were few resources, but lots of control.
Still, making microbudget cinema is never easy, and it becomes doubly challenging when shooting during a pandemic. Carefully laid plans fell through, such as when the high school that Foy and Žalnieriunas originally secured, thanks to the pair volunteering to teach workshops over two years, ended up quashing their shoot due to COVID-19 restrictions. Money had to be stretched, then stretched again. And cast members got pulled in unexpected directions, as when one actor’s father caught COVID-19, resulting in the loss of the production’s last two shooting days.
“It was the economy of imagination, which provides for some special things in the film,” Žalnieriunas says.
“That’s the spirit of the film, creating some kind of magic with nothing,” adds Foy.
MDFF’s Montgomery, who also produced Foy’s short films, says that the director “has a softness, sensitivity and willingness to embrace pure artistic collaboration. I knew from our very first conversations that The Maiden would be a special Albertan debut.”
For Foy, Montgomery and Radwanski’s participation was confirmation that his career is headed exactly in the direction that he once could only dream. During his film-school days in Toronto, Foy eagerly spent his free nights attending MDFF’s renowned indie-cinema screenings as they evolved from sweaty get-togethers at the tiny Double Double Land art space to the Camera Bar, The Royal and, now, TIFF’s own Lightbox.
“It was an invaluable exposure to a kind of filmmaking that I didn’t even know was possible,” Foy says.
“They created such a community, going all the way back to those tiny rooms where we’re all drinking warm beer discussing film,” adds Žalnieriunas. “That’s where these friendships began.”
Ultimately, it is friendship that lies at the heart of The Maiden, both in theme and genesis.
“Making it felt like being in a band. We all had to play together for it to sound right,” Foy says. “It’s great to get validation from Venice and TIFF. But personally, the collaboration was what I get the most value from.”
The Maiden screens Sept. 12, Sept. 15 and Sept. 17 at TIFF (tiff.net)