Frosty November is film fest month in Calgary

When did November in Calgary become the month for film festivals from the fringes?

Normally it’s music, art, dance and theatre in town that begin to take their bows at this time of year, and the big screens were normally ceded to Oscar-buzz art films, and, generally, the multiplexes gearing up for the Xmas movie crush.

Not now.

As November begins to nip at the hands, ears, toes and and necks of its denizens, the city is hosting incredibly unique and genre-specific events to give film lovers a little, er, extra love.

The Calgary European Film Festival just celebrated its 10th anniversary with its largest event to date. But wait. There’s more.

For fans of animation, the destination is Quickdraw’s Nov. 19-28 event, GIRAF International Festival of Independent Animation.

And finally, the monthly filmgoer fare wraps with the Calgary Underground Film Festival’s CUFFdocs, which runs Nov. 24-28.

All are things that make this city vibrant, more liveable, and are worthy of your support, your time, your attention.

We asked the people who know best from each of the fests to share their thoughts on the filmic fruits of their labours, what you can expect when you buy into their onscreen offerings.

Go. Support. See some good stuff. Stay safe. Stay warm.

Quickdraw Animation Society’s GIRAF

Q: What’s your role with the festival and what do you want Calgarians to know about you?

A: (Peter Hemminger) I’m the co-programmer of GIRAF, sharing all the programming decisions with Quickdraw’s programming director, Ryan Von Hagen (plus a team of volunteers who help us go through submissions, and Quickdraw’s other two staff members helping to make the event actually happen). It’s a really small team to put together a festival of this size, but somehow we keep making it happen.

Q: What’s the elevator pitch for your film festival as you see it and program it now, including a brief history of how you got here?

A: GIRAF is a celebration of independent animation. Every year we curate a selection of short films from around the world that we think are breaking new ground or that we just fall in love with for other reasons, and present them alongside feature films, artist talks and workshops. 

The whole philosophy behind the festival is to give people an entryway into this rich and diverse artistic medium that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. 

We book some pretty adventurous films, but also a lot that are just plain beautiful, or silly and fun. It’s important to us to take animation seriously as an art, but it’s also important to make sure it’s accessible. That’s the best way to get other people as hooked on animation as we are.

When the festival started in 2004, it was mostly focused on the local animation community, sharing their work and teaching each other new skills. It’s grown into a bit more traditional of a film fest over the years, bringing in more films from around the world and moving to a cinema instead of Quickdraw’s studios. But we still try to make sure it has that feeling of community and support, to keep that original spirit.

Q: What are this year’s highlights — both films and any ancillary events?

A: Our featured artist this year is Renee Zahn, an amazing animator whose work is really hard to pin down — she’s done hand-drawn 2D, watercolour, claymation and more — but who has picked up major awards at Sundance, SXSW, and TIFF and had her work shown at every major animation festival out there. She’ll be hosting a retrospective of her work, plus an online workshop.

One screening we’re really excited about is a retrospective screening of Krysar, a very dark Czech adaptation of the Pied Piper from 1986. It’s a stunning movie with an art style that’s inspired by German Expressionism and medieval art, but completely done with stop-motion puppets and it looks like nothing else out there. The only digital version of it was a low-resolution version on YouTube, so we connected with the Czech studio that made it, and they’re getting us a brand new scan from a 35mm print, and GIRAF will be the first time that gets shown anywhere.

And, to quickly go through a few more: We’re working with Calgary Economic Development to put together a panel discussion with a group of video game animators, with artists who’ve worked for studios like EA and Ubisoft, and games like FarCry and Celeste, to talk about the differences between animating for games vs. films; 24 Memes Per Second, an anonymous Instagram account that we love, is curating a pack of their experimental animation favourites and hosting a meme-making workshop; and our shorts packs are always the real highlight of the festival. We’re still confirming a few selections as I write this, but we’ll have around 90 films in 11 shorts packs, which is probably the biggest festival we’ve ever done, and over a quarter of those films are Canadian premieres. 

We keep finding more and more brilliant films every year, and the festival keeps getting bigger because there are too many films that we just can’t bear to cut.

Q: We know they’re like your children, but pick a favourite, can’t-miss film amongst the brood and tell us why.

A: If there’s one surefire gateway into the festival, it’s our Indie Animation Mixtape series, and Side A is really meant to be an overview of everything the festival is about. It opens with a short from our featured artist about the emotional life of a black hole, and from there goes on to showcase a real range of animation styles, techniques, and moods. It also includes the newest short from one of my absolute favourite contemporary animators, Yoriko Mizushiri, whose films are sort of the animated version of ASMR — very slow-paced and tactile in a way that sends shivers down your spine.

Q: How is the fest adapting to our current COVID times for the 2021 event?

A: We’ve moved online only for the second year in a row. Last year we stuck to Alberta for the screenings, but this year our films will be available across Canada. We’ve partnered with some organizations in Halifax, Regina and Winnipeg on events over the last year, and we’re excited to build on that and share these films with an even wider audience.

That said, we’re still really hoping to hold an in-cinema Best of GIRAF in the new year. There are a lot of great things about online screenings, but there’s nothing quite like seeing these films on a theatre screen.

A scene from CUFF.Docs film Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror from Canadian filmmaker Kier-La Janisse

CUFF.Docs Documentary Film Festival

Q: What’s your role with the festival and what do you want Calgarians to know about you?

A: My name is Cameron Macgowan and I am a lead programmer for the Calgary Underground Film Festival. I have been programming with CUFF for a decade and have been with CUFF.Docs Documentary Film Festival since the beginning! I am also host of the Calgary Underground Film Festival’s podcast CUFFcast where we interview active members of the genre film community and discuss all things CUFF. 

Q: What’s the elevator pitch for your film festival as you see it and program it now, including a brief history of how you got here?

A: CUFF.Docs is a documentary film festival put on by the Calgary Underground Film Festival and was started because we were finding ourselves turning down some amazing documentary films for our main April festival so we started an entire film festival only for documentaries in November. There are so many documentaries that align with CUFF’s ethos of cutting edge, interesting and relevant cinema and with the large number of amazing modern documentaries, we still find ourselves needing to kill some darlings. 

Q: What are this year’s highlights — both films and any ancillary events?

A: This year we have two shorts packages as we had an unexpected number of amazing documentaries to choose from, we are also presenting a local feature documentary from filmmaker Dominique Keller called Love: The Last Chapter, which is both her Alberta premiere but also her first theatrical screening of the film. We are also very excited to return to the Globe Cinema for in-person screenings as we had to cancel this element of the festival in 2020 due to the pandemic. 

Q: We know they’re like your children, but pick a favourite, can’t-miss film amongst the brood and tell us why.

A: My absolute favourite film that we are presenting is Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror from Canadian filmmaker Kier-La Janisse. This extremely stylish documentary (complete with collage art sequences from Guy Madden) examines the roots of cinematic folk horror fables internationally and shines a light on some beautiful films that many folks might not have seen. Even a die-hard cinephile like myself had a pen handy to write down some of these beautiful lesser-known titles so that I could remember to watch them later. I’ve seen the film twice now and am struck by how it manages to be so full of rich information yet is able to communicate that info in an ephemeral and moving way.

Q: How is the fest adapting to our current COVID times for the 2021 event?

A: Due to the pandemic, we will have reduced capacity for our in-cinema screenings and all folks who attend our in-person event will need to provide ID and proof of double vaccination (or negative test) at the cinema as well as wear a mask at the cinema. We are also offering virtual screenings online through our secure platform for most of the selections. Keep in mind, we have two crowd-pleaser docs that are only available in cinema: This Is Gwar and Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time, but all other films will be available virtually.