By STEVEN HOWELL
---- — MONTREAL — The big screen takes an artistic turn tonight as the International Festival of Films on Art’s 31st edition begins.
The festival, known as FIFA, offers a unique repertoire of more than 250 films.
Anne Lagace Dowson, FIFA’s English spokesperson, first started attending the festival as an arts reporter in her 20-year career for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
“This festival is much better known to Francophone Montrealers than it is to Anglo Quebeckers and art lovers in the area,” she said. “And I thought that was really a shame.”
Lagace Dowson was asked to be the English-language spokesperson about two years ago.
“And I said, ‘Absolutely,’ because the little known or very wonderful secret about this festival is that despite the French profile, most, if not all, of the films are in English or subtitled in English,” she said. “So it’s super Anglo-friendly.”
The 11-day festival screens 259 films from 30 countries in nine venues around the city. Lagace Dowson promises there is something for every fan of visual or performing arts.
“Everything around you is defined by some creative person — from the chair you’re sitting in, to the color of your walls, the building you’re in, to the music you listen to,” she said. “And that creative person may very well be profiled at this festival.”
Consider some of this year’s more well-known subjects: George Harrison, Edward Hopper, Salvador Dali, Harper Lee, Salmon Rushdie and Amy Winehouse.
“And all of these films are basically love stories to these subjects because they’re made by people who love the artist and the artist’s work,” Lagace Dowson said.
Some of the films, she added, are years in the making, with filmmakers gaining unparalleled access to their subjects.
“They go right into their studios, houses, performance space,” she said. “It’s right up close and personal.”
Here’s a sampling of what to expect at this year’s festival.
Under the Street Art banner, Montreal plays a vital backdrop in “Making a Name,” a documentary that explores identity through the world of graffiti.
Equally colorful, the no-dialogue stop-motion fantasy animation “Le Songe choregraphique de M. Malade” is about Monsieur Malade, a patient who lies in his hospital bed imagining he is the participant in a lighthearted ballet. It’s all told with Lego figurines.
Architecture is highlighted in “Modern Ruins — Detroit: Hope for the Motor City,” a documentary that delves into the rebuilding of Motor City through the work of local artists.
Literature is explored in a number of works, including the festival’s opening film, “The Fatwa — Salman’s Story,” which looks at literary censorship and the death sentence imposed on Salman Rushdie, the author of “The Satanic Verses.”
“Frankenstein: A Modern Myth” investigates the ongoing intrigue of everyone’s favorite Gothic monster. Written by Mary Shelly when she was 19 years old some 200 years ago, the film follows a recent staging of the work at the National Theatre in London by director Danny Boyle.
“Harper Lee: Hey, Boo” is an intimate look at “To Kill a Mockingbird” by author Harper Lee. The work won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, was made into an Academy Award-winning film and was the only novel that Lee ever wrote. The film explores attributes of the Deep South and includes interviews with Lee’s 100-year-old sister, Alice.
For those who like to wear their art, the fashion banner offers a number of eye-catching film classics.
From haute couture to ready-to-wear, “Golden Eighties” looks at French fashion, with designers Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier in the spotlight.
“Antifashion” explores fashion trends inspired by a world full of recessions, wars and AIDS, while “Go Global” showcases the likes of corporate logos, marketing and branding.
For music aficionados, there’s “Amy Winehouse — The Day She Came to Dingle,” which follows the singer’s appearance on “Other Voices,” an Irish television series filmed in the city of Dingle, Ireland.
“The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour Revisited” follows the viewer outrage of a psychedelic-inspired Beatles film broadcast on the BBC on Boxing Day in 1967.
And speaking of the Beatles, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” is an intimate look at the life of Harrison that is directed by Martin Scorsese.
Besides film screenings, FIFA presents a juried series, a filmmaking info fair, talks and discussions, and a children’s series.
The festival continues through Sunday, March 24. Screenings cost $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $9 for youths, and $5 for children. A booklet of eight coupons costs $85 for adults. For the complete program and venue addresses, call (514) 874-9972 or visit www.artfifa.com.
Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at iTunes.com.