Without question, film festivals are the mecca for filmmakers and film buffs alike. They’re a place where you’re among your own, where you can debate the pros and cons of HD versus film, get to know your fellow cinephiles and, above all, watch some fantastic work that most would otherwise never have the opportunity to experience the way it was intended to be: on the big screen. Whether it’s the next homegrown indie, a critical darling from the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival, or a cringe-inducing body horror film from the son of one of our greatest Canadian directors (David Cronenberg), you’ll find it at the Calgary International Film Festival. Executive director Steven Schroeder, director of programming Bruce Fletcher and programming manager Brenda Lieberman are passionate and committed to bringing Calgarian audiences cinematic fare that perhaps they didn’t even realize they wanted to see.
“I like to push the boundaries of the audience,” admits Lieberman, a confirmed genre enthusiast and co-founder of the Calgary Underground Film Festival. “I like to find something that maybe isn’t something they would normally see in terms of a genre or a type of story, but they’re going to trust us at the festival and sort of explore what we’re presenting and, you know, walk away saying, ‘Wow, I never thought I’d like a romantic comedy but I totally loved this one’, or, ‘This movie was super dark and twisted but it made me laugh.’ ”
She adds, “Filmmakers want that. They want programmers to take a chance on them.”
According to Fletcher, CIFF is “a festival for the people of Calgary. It’s really about the audience, first and foremost. That is the key thing that differentiates it from a festival in, for example, Los Angeles or Sundance in Park City: those are business festivals. Calgary is a festival for the audience and our job is to make sure that everybody goes to the movies and has a really good time at the movies so they want to come back again next year.” This is only Fletcher’s second year with CIFF, but he is incredibly enthusiastic about the festival and about working with Lieberman to select which of the many submissions would end up in competition. “More often than not, Brenda and I will argue about the merits of a particular film. That’s actually part of the fun of it, too,” he says with a smile.
“Our job is to present the films in the best possible spotlight so that people become aware of them, so people know that these films, like Cody Fitz, that was made in Calgary, or Coming Home, that was made in France, exist. Once somebody knows that it exists, then they can actually find it, go see it, find likeminded people in the audience and the lineup and actually see the movies that they want to see. Our job is to provide alternative to the multiplex. For 11 days every year, you can try something new. We’re like dim sum that comes once a year,” Fletcher laughs. “Filmic dim sum, you know?
“In my mind, a perfect film festival film has people who love it and people who hate it. Every great work of art is going to have a split in the reception. If it’s new, if it’s really new, if it’s something that’s really unique, if it’s something that deserves to be seen, deserves a platform, it’s going to have its detractors.” Fletcher knows that every festival is going to have its share of controversial work, like Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, which screened last year at CIFF. “Sometimes… artists will take content further than the audience is really willing to go.”
Steven Schroeder had more than 15 years of experience in the world of arts festivals prior to his involvement with CIFF. “People get excited about festivals in general, it’s why I love working on them. My previous gig was with One Yellow Rabbit at the High Performance Rodeo and I’ve worked on other festivals, as well. I actually thought I was done with being an executive director of organizations — I had gone out freelancing and really loved it — but then when the opportunity came here to work at the film festival, I just… I’m a film buff, so I just jumped right on it!
“CIFF really burst onto the scene in 2000, in the sense that 8,000 people came in the first year with a festival that had no marketing budget, no track record, you know, nothing. It just proved that… they just completely hit on something that people were ready for and wanted. I think, even after 12 years, we still haven’t fully tapped the potential of what the city wants its film festival to be.”
Schroeder didn’t hesitate to share his affection and admiration for his programming team. “One of the things that I really love about Bruce and Brenda, as our senior programming team and Bruce as director of programming, is they have a great sense of being able to mix the films that are going to appeal to a lot of people… films that a lot of people are going to be excited to see, with artistic merit and quality and integrity. It’s a false dichotomy to think that you can either be commercially successful or artistically satisfying. One of the things I love about CIFF is that I think we really know how to put those things together.”
“We really, first and foremost, care about whether or not we respond to the film particularly,” Fletcher reveals about his and Lieberman’s selection process. “How it’s going to play is a secondary consideration. How many people want to see it is secondary to whether or not we love it and would love to show it to people.”
“I think it’s exciting just finding a film that deserves to have an audience, and finding the right audience to check it out, to come and support it,” Lieberman says. “It always amuses me how typically the right audience will find the film. It’s a thing that I just love to do, I’m obsessed with it. I get obsessed with finding the great films and I get obsessed with trying to find them an audience, and I hope that the audience is happy in the end when they see them.”
Lieberman speaks of the struggles that many smaller festivals endure as a result of their lack of any sort of track record, a diminishing issue for CIFF with each passing year. “A combination of the programmers and the festival’s growth and history make it easier to try and fight for certain titles that we want to get. We’re not going to win on all of them — and no festival will, they’re always going to lose a few of their battles — but, I think we’ve come a long way. We’ve gotten to know the audience more, too, and the audiences are getting more sophisticated, as well. So, now they can look for the new Pedro Almodovar film and they’ll know they want to see it at the festival and they’ll come and support it. So, the longer we’ve been around, the more we can start to show the history of a filmmaker’s work.”
Schroeder, Fletcher and Lieberman are all very keen to share the work of local filmmakers with festivalgoers, as well. “I’m really excited by the crop of Canadian and Albertan films this year,” Schroeder says, “really well made, well told, interesting, engaging stories from our own backyard. It’s an international film festival, we have a broad mandate, you’ll see every genre, right? So, we have a very broad scope in one sense, but it’s like we’re people who love to go and backpack around the world to all kinds of crazy cultures, but we love our own backyard, too.” He adds, “My experience, and what I’ve learned looking back at the festival historically, but also what I’m sensing this year especially is that… it’s a wrong impression that people are less focused and interested in Canadian and Albertan work. Calgarians are legitimately excited and legitimately curious to see feature length films made by their brother and sister Calgarians.”
Fletcher agrees: “Just because it’s from Calgary doesn’t mean anything because filmmakers are born — you’re born a filmmaker. You’re like an artist, a painter, a writer, a musician, you know? You’re born to tell stories with pictures and music and words, and you’re a filmmaker. The talent pool, those guys go everywhere, right? And sometimes you’re lucky enough to have a bunch of them come up in your backyard every now and then. Our job is to make sure we don’t miss any. Every community no matter how small, Lethbridge, Canmore, wherever, every year in high school there could be the next Steven Spielberg, so our job is to keep an eye on the ground.”
Among other things, CIFF 2012 marks the festival’s first foray into the world of 3D filmmaking.
“This year is the first year that we’re doing a 3D spotlight,” shares Lieberman. “We have introduced a 3D spotlight this year that’s going to be in the festival and we’ve got about… about six 3D films being showcased.” She continues, “We’ll be doing a 3D panel on it, as well, which is exciting.”
“Exploring things like what’s going on in the 3D world, exploring things like what’s going on in Alberta, those are the sort of things we can expect to see,” Schroeder adds.
“Really, one of the ways that we think that CIFF can carve a bit of a distinctive path compared to maybe, like, the Toronto International Film Festival or others — which are great festivals in their own right, obviously hugely important festivals — but we’re really focusing on being a discovery festival. You might see some celebrities at CIFF, but that’s not the point… I mean, the point for us is to really have people get excited about what they discover and have a good time.”
The Calgary International Film Festival runs from September 20 − 30. For more information, visit calgaryfilm.com.
By Thomas Lee