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Atom Egoyan back in Victoria, where his creative spark began

“It is the best place to live, and we all know that,” said filmmaker Atom Egoyan of his hometown Victoria. “It’s a very precious part of the world, and when you’re growing up, you take that for granted.”
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Director Atom Egoyan poses for a photograph in Toronto, Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

SEVEN VEILS

Where: The Vic Theatre, 808 Douglas St.

When: Friday, Feb. 2, 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 4, 5:30 p.m.

Tickets: victoriafilmfestival.com

Atom Egoyan was on the phone with the Times Colonist this week, for the purpose of discussing his new film, Seven Veils, which opens the Victoria Film Festival tonight.

But the 40-minute phone call, which saw the Toronto-based Egoyan play both interviewee and interviewer, often centred on the city that raised him, and the arts and culture therein. He asked for updates on several theatre houses, art galleries, and performing arts festivals in the area — all of which he frequented dutifully during his youth, and has returned to as patron in the years since.

As an artist, he’s committed to pushing forward. But the two-time Academy Award nominee has been looking to the past of late, with Victoria looming large in his purview at the moment. “I’m at that stage in life where I’m asking, ‘Do I move back?’ ” Egoyan, 63, said.

“Because it is the best place to live, and we all know that. It’s a very precious part of the world, and when you’re growing up, you take that for granted. When you see other places, you understand what makes it so unique.”

Last month, the two-time Academy Award nominee attended a 30th anniversary screening of his breakout film, Exotica, in Toronto. Which effectively sent him for a loop; he’s in Victoria this week for the Victoria Film Festival’s 30th anniversary, an eerie coincidence. The correlation between the two anniversaries was impossible for Egoyan to ignore, especially with a new film that revisits his past as an artist on several fronts.

Seven Veils stars Amanda Seyfried, with whom Egoyan worked on Chloe in 2009. Seyfried’s character is a young stage director who is tasked with remounting a Canadian Opera Company production of Salome, following the death of her mentor, who created the piece. Egoyan directed a stage production of Salome for the same company in 1996 and was at the helm for a remount in 2023.

“At first, I thought it was going to be a very small, personal, fly-on-the-wall type of movie. But it couldn’t be made that way, as it turns out. It was a much larger production.”

Making matters more blurred, there was the arrival of a chamber opera, Adoration, adapted from Egoyan’s 2008 film of the same name, which premiered last month in New York. He was not involved in its creation, but has given its creators his blessing.

The passage of time, and how art and craft evolves, was top of mind for Egoyan this week. “In a way, when you’re younger, you take the momentum of your career for granted. But when you’re older, you really understand what a privilege it is to be doing art on this scale, and to have this support.”

Egoyan, who was born in Cairo, grew up near Cadboro Bay, where his parents, Joseph and Shushan, who died in 2019 and 2022, respectively, relocated when he was three (his sister, Eve, was born the following year.) He attended Glenlyon School and Mount Doug secondary before advancing to the University of Toronto, where he eventually received international acclaim as one of Canada’s top filmmaking talents.

Egoyan, however, said it was his time in Victoria — writing one-act plays as a 13 year-old upstart — that ultimately shaped him. “You have to remind yourself that there were these dreams, and some of them come true and some of them don’t.”

He has worked with Michael Gambon, Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, and Kevin Bacon, among others. And his pair of Academy Award nominations (for directing and adapted screenplay) were for The Sweet Hereafter, his 1997 masterwork and a film that is decidedly bleak and unforgiving. But to hear him tell it, he honed his anything-goes approach during his youth, such as when he wrote and directed The End of Solomon Grundy during his senior year with the drama club at Mount Doug.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is something I dreamt of, and now here it is.’ There was a split between artists who were doing things that were obscure, and artists who were putting on shows that were wildly popular. And while they were doing thosenpopular shows, we were doing something at Open Space that was really weird, and very experimental. I remember always trying to negotiate between those two worlds.”

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Egoyan screened many of his early efforts, including Howard in Particular, a 14-minute short film about a worker at a fruit cocktail company, at various venues in town, including the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. He would stage experimental short film festivals at the gallery, bringing in avant-garde offerings from Roman Polanski, Samuel Beckett, Luis Buñuel, and Kenneth Anger.

Egoyan does not avoid difficult topics in his work, from incest (The Sweet Hereafter) and forcible confinement (Felicia’s Journey) to the complicated relationships between men and women (Where the Truth Lies; Chloe), using sex as a currency. And the powerful Seven Veils is no different in that regard, with a Biblical subtext and a character loosely based on/inspired by someone Egoyan was friends with growing up, who was the subject of abuse.

He’s proud to have the Victoria Film Festival as an avenue for such an effort, and hopes that his and other films in competition this year grow the appreciation for art slightly outside of the mainstream in his hometown.

“We’ve always had a really good film culture in this city. I grew up when art films were being played at The Roxy and Cinecenta, so it’s a great thing to be able to show films and create conversation, and have people watch that on screen at a festival.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com