By Jonathan Lawrence
The Calgary Underground Film Festival, now in its fourteenth year, will be returning this April to shock, startle and surprise local film lovers. Each year, the team behind the festival somehow manages to round up a few dozen of the most esoteric, thrilling, thought-provoking, funny, and downright weird films you’ll ever see, and this year is no different. Programming Director Brenda Lieberman was able to tell us all about it.
“I love the lineup this year,” says Lieberman, positive as ever. Her unwavering optimism towards her festivals, including the Calgary International Film Festival, is the hard-earned product of endless hours screening and narrowing down the exponentially growing number of independent films submitted each year. Selecting the films that make the final lineup isn’t as simple as choosing names out of a hat, or by seeing what other festivals are playing. Calgary’s film festivals are truly crafted with the city’s audiences in mind.
“We’re always looking for a broad mix of films so we can appeal to everybody,” she says. “There’s some that are very edgy or provocative or challenging in different ways, but not for the sake of it,” acknowledging the simplistic and inaccurate view that these are films with all style and no substance. “We feel really passionately about the films [and] connected with them in different ways. There’s different styles for everybody. We wanted to make sure we had an animation film this year (My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea). They’re all accessibly weird, they all have something uniquely amazing about them.”
One such film was a documentary called “Love and Saucers,” which tells the story about an elderly man who believes he’s had extraterrestrial communication throughout his entire life, including having interspecies romance with one. You can’t make this stuff up, folks, but damn if it isn’t fascinating.
“I love that film,” chimed in Lieberman.
Calgary’s art scene has been growing every year, though it’s hard to explain why. Perhaps the demographics have shifted, or social media has improved the exposure to these events, but regardless, the Calgary Underground Film Festival is seeing record attendances each year. Lieberman says if last year’s success is any indication of this year, then they’re in business. “[It was] the best year we had and that’s what people feel about this year. If we keep the numbers up we can potentially expand next year.”
Interestingly, although other underground film festivals around North America draw bigger audiences, such as the Chicago Underground Film Festival, Calgary’s version shows more films and runs longer. “You’re programming to fit your audience but you’re also having to program a little bit in a bit of an ebb and flow and with an eye open what is going on in your city.”
It seems though at this rate that Calgary’s may join the ranks of Chicago or Boston. Lieberman states that each festival works closely with one another, which she says “keeps [them] on their toes.”
Although each film in the lineup looks promising, we asked Lieberman which ones most excited her, a question which proved to be as difficult to answer as the dreaded “What kind of music do you listen to?” After some careful thought, she conceded that the Israeli film, People That Are Not Me, and the other world films were particularly worth seeing. “[They’re] all outstanding. I love all of them.”
That said, she expressed how excited the festival programmers were to obtain The Little Hours after seeing it at Sundance, a comedy about a group of emotionally unstable nuns starring Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman and Fred Armisen, to name some of the comedic cast. “The second I saw it, I said this is perfect for our opening,’ she says. “We’re looking for something that’s going to be really fun to kick off the festival.” She assures that it’s still going to be accessible, despite being quirky and edgy. “Having a religious comedy on Easter Monday we thought was perfect,” she joked.
Despite the growing success of film festivals in Calgary, it’s not without its challenges. Digital streaming trends have presented problems for all forms of media, and film festivals are no exception. Lieberman explains the pace in which things are moving to Netflix means that film distributors are not necessarily planning festivals as part of their strategy. She suggests that the festival might have to consider picking up films faster than they come out or that they might have to consider down the road what it means to show a film that’s already been released. She stresses though that the experience is far better with an audience. “The point of all this is that it is more fun to come out to be part of a festival,” she says. “It encourages conversation.”
One the best aspects of the Calgary Underground Film Festival is the Saturday Morning All-You-Can-Eat Cereal Cartoon Party, which is as fun as it is wordy – so, a lot. Each year, the festival celebrates retro cartoons and cereal for a day of pure nostalgia and has grown in popularity immensely. “For years, we were just in one theatre and we were selling it out and then we expanded to two theatres,” Lieberman said. “This year’s Saturday is Earth Day and we’re gonna be switching a lot of our stuff to biodegradable and compostable. It’s really fun and crazy and people can bring their kids, people wear pyjamas and dress up.”
Equal parts fun, odd, and bold, the Calgary Underground Film Festival has something for everyone. This year, they created a new online system where if people choose to buy more than five tickets at a time, they’ll get a much more efficient price. So max out that dollar and spend some time underground this April. See you down there.
CUFF will run from April 17-23 at the Globe Cinema.CUFF, CUFF 2017, Globe Cinema