By Jennie Orton
CALGARY — Fifteen years ago the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) touched down and brought in an audience of 8,000 cinephiles over five days. At first glance that doesn’t seem like a lot, but for a new festival with no sponsors or grants or track record, the number was impressive and indicative of something CIFF executive director Stephen Schroeder believes sets Calgary apart as a movie-watching populace.
“I think Calgary is an awesome demographic for a film festival. Far from being the ultra conservative people that we are sometimes painted to be, Calgarians are really curious and open-minded, they’re very educated, they’re very well-travelled, they’re very engaged with the world and the stories told by filmmakers and artists around the world,” Schroeder says. “People really show up here.”
Since that first successful year, CIFF has grown to be the largest film festival outside of coastal fests and the monstrosity that is TIFF; it has achieved this by sticking to its main creed – which is that CIFF is for audiences, focused more on bridging the gap between the audience and the material than having a red carpet that makes the tabloids.
“Because we’re not a celebrity-watcher’s festival, though some celebrities do come and that’s great, we really try to centre on the storytelling. We are more of a movie-watcher’s festival.”
Schroeder applauds the Calgary audience’s keenness as something that artists who have attended have been impressed by.
“One of my favourite things to hear, that makes me really proud, is we often hear from the directors that we have the best Q&As and screenings that they have seen.”
That engaged atmosphere is something CIFF is promoting more and more as the festival ages. New partnerships this year with TELUS and Canon have enabled the festival to offer not only a quality venue with TELUS Spark but an interactive experience with the Canon Experience Centre where festival goers can learn hands-on about cinematography and movie-making tools. TELUS has offered up Spark for the Youth by Youth Cinema Competition, or YYC, which is a selection of submitted films by school-aged students.
New this year to the festival atmosphere is the inclusion of an artist’s budget to enable the hiring of various performers to entertain attendees between films, thus creating a more constantly involving and multi-sensory experience. There will be musicians playing between features during the music series, comedians onstage during breaks between comedic features, art installations in venue lobbies, all in the name of creating a way for many types of artists to engage the festival experience.
Of course, the real meat of the event is the films themselves and this year the offerings are very intriguing. The Gala Features, which were announced on August 14th, promote everything the festival celebrates.
The Opening Gala, happening on September 18th at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, will feature director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, starring Helena Bonham Carter. The film is about a boy who invents a perpetual motion machine. Once he finds out it is to be honoured by the Smithsonian, he runs away from home to attend the event. The CIFF screening will be the North American premiere of this film and due to the fact it was filmed outside of Calgary and boasts the bounty of our Albertan landscape as a filming location, it sits as the perfect opener for a festival that brings an international stage to our Calgarian front yard.
The Jubilee as an Opening Gala venue is one of the many milestones Schroeder recognizes from the 15-year journey of the festival.
“To have 1,200 to 1,400 people all enjoying the movie, there is a different dynamic when you have that many people in the audience.”
The Black Carpet Gala, Sept. 25 at the Globe Cinema, will feature a film by Blaine Thurier of New Pornographers called Teen Lust. A comedy penned by Jason Stone of This is the End fame about a young virgin who attempts to lose his virginity before his parents sacrifice him as one for their Satanic cult ritual. This film carries with it the benefit of seeing Carey Elwes play a Satanic cult leader – picture it, because every time I do, I erupt into excited applause.
The Closing Gala, Sept. 28 at the Grand, will feature what Schroeder calls “one of the strongest locally made films we’ve seen in a long time,” Ally Was Screaming, a dark comedy involving the posthumous scheming surrounding a dead woman’s winning lottery ticket, builds a palpable atmosphere of human desperation and greed. The film boasts the distinction of being written, directed, filmed and mostly acted by local talent.
Galas aside, there are noteworthy offerings in every series. The Music Series is returning this year with six films that investigate the multi-faceted world of music and music makers. Notable mentions are Sundance Audience Award Winner Whiplash (Sept. 25, 9:45 p.m. & Sept. 27, 2:30 p.m at Eau Claire), which is an American narrative film about an aspiring Jazz drummer; Finding Fela (Sept. 21, 6:45 p.m. & Sept. 24, 5:15 p.m. at Eau Claire), a documentary described as a “hall of mirrors” dissection of the life and persona of late Afro beat musician Fela Kudi; and Jalanan (Sept. 27, 7:15 p.m. & Sept. 28, 4:30 p.m. at Eau Claire), an Indonesian Film that translates to “Streetside” in the native language about busker musicians in Jakarta. Director Daniel Ziv will be attending the festival in Calgary, making him the longest-travelling filmmaker in the festival’s history.
Most buzzworthy this year is the new David Cronenberg film in the Headliners Series called Maps to the Stars (Sept. 20, 9:30 p.m. at Eau Claire), described by Schroeder as “one of the darkest films I’ve seen in a while.” A scorching satire of Hollywood, it features Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson and John Cusack and is a film Schroeder described by saying “I had to take a shower after I saw that movie.”
But again, the big names aren’t what drove Schroeder to build CIFF – it remains the audience.
“Ultimately it’s about engaging the audience and, I hope, growing the audience. Just expanding this fascination we have with the visual storytelling of film.”
His visible excitement is infectious and it encourages such in the varied audience.
“It’s just a way of communicating, you know, what the world is and how it’s going and all the stories that make it interesting.”
For all the details and showtimes, check out CIFF’s website at www.calgaryfilm.com.AB, Alberta, Ally Was Screaming, Calgary International Film Festival 2014, CIFF 2014, Eau Claire, Finding Fela, Globe Cinema, Jalanan, Stephen Schroeder, Teen Lust, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, Whiplash