This month’s Toronto International Film Festival marks the 15th anniversary of the screening that launched Canada’s premiere independent film distribution company.

It was in September of 1994 that Hussain Amarshi saw the Tunisian drama Silences of the Palaces and decided to acquire it on behalf of his newly minted company, Mongrel Media.

When asked about the differences between then and now, Amarshi opts for a bit of understatement. “The festival has definitely expanded,” he says. “And so have we.”
That’s a modest way to say that Mongrel is currently the big dog in the yard, releasing roughly 40 foreign, art-house and documentary films into Canadian theatres annually and twice as many on DVD.
Devoted cinephiles will tout Mongrel’s commitment to the best of world cinema: In 2008, the company put its weight behind the endearing Kazakh fable Tulpan, the edgy Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In, and the microbudget American drama Wendy and Lucy, which was selected as the year’s best film by the Toronto Film Critics Association.
Mongrel’s slate for TIFF 2009 includes Michael Haneke’s Palme D’or-winning period piece The White Ribbon and Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, as well as two Canadian features: Dilip Mehta’s Cooking with Stella and Rubba Nada’s Cairo Time.
It’s an eclectic selection, which Amarshi says is typical of Mongrel’s mandate.
“Our specialty is foreign and independent cinema,” he says. “We’re very conscious of our strengths and limitations. Our strength is positioning films for festivals and for critics. Our limitation is that we are a small company — a company made up of only 20 people.”
Amarshi isn’t content to simply play the small business card, however. In an economic climate where art-house films are even harder pressed to compete against big-studio items, Mongrel has gotten more aggressive.
The online ad campaign for One Week helped to make it one of the biggest Canadian hits of last year.
“We’ve been forward-looking in terms of technology and delivery methods,” says Amarshi. “In June, we set up our own specialty label on iTunes. We’re using YouTube to post trailers — we had 100,000 views of the One Week trailer before the film opened. We’re doing everything we can to push the reach of our films.”

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