This year’s Calgary Underground Film Festival is bigger than ever

The Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) has come a long way from its beginnings showing films at local bars such as Broken City. This year, from April 18 to 28 CUFF takes over the Globe Cinema downtown.

As it celebrates its 21st anniversary, the largest genre film festival in Western Canada brings audiences 11 days packed full of films and shorts, spoken word, retro arcade games, cartoons, script reading and more, according to lead programmer Brendan Tilley, who says diversity is the key to this festival. 

“Close to a year of film watching goes into programming each edition of the Calgary Underground Film Festival,” says Tilley, although he notes the team officially starts considering submissions in July.

“We have a team of previewers supporting us in finding films that defy convention. Our core team each has slightly different tastes in what we gravitate towards, but the common theme is that we are looking for films that depart from what we have seen before.” 

Tilley says CUFF has garnered recognition for its programming of horror and genre films, but the lineup remains as diverse as ever and the team loves unearthing a great film that captures an underrepresented subculture.

“As an underground film festival, there is an expectation of us highlighting the transgressive. What I think is sometimes overlooked is how we can also find what might on the surface appear to be a family drama, but which is told in a way that pushes the boundaries of convention,” Tilley says.

“We pride ourselves on highlighting under seen gems of Canadian cinema,” Tilley says, adding CUFF is known for its popular additional programming. 

On April 17, the night before CUFF officially starts, the festival kicks off the fun with a free screening for National Canadian Film Day, an annual event that started in 2014 with 70 screenings across the country. Last year, National Canadian Film Day featured 1,584 events and more than 2.5 million viewers.

CUFF also encourages the creation of new film. In the 48-hr Movie Making competition, over 20 teams of burgeoning filmmakers race to film all over Calgary the weekend of April 5 to 7 to create an entire short film from scratch with prompts provided by CUFF on the first night of the challenge. The completed films are then screened as part of the festival.

“The energy and creativity on display in these finished films is always extremely inspiring and the screening itself is an utter blast. Tickets always sell fast so do not delay if you want to see proof that the kids are alright,” says Tilley. 

Another popular tradition at CUFF: the 14th edition of the All-You-Can-Eat Cereal Cartoon Party on Saturday morning.

“Each year has a new selection of cartoons that we keep secret until they screen. If wild, non-stop cartoon madness is not enough for people, we stuff people with as much sugary cereal as they can handle,” Tilley says. “In past years we have exceeded 100 varieties of cereal. This may have been too many options and admittedly spread the quality a bit thin. We have settled on a ‘sweet spot’ of around 80 carefully selected varieties collected via our travels. We will have around 75 kilograms of cereal to fuel the madness.”

The popular Indie Game Bash also returns this year, bringing together gamers, indie game enthusiasts, and game developers. Along with this one-night event of gaming on the screen at the Globe, there will be a set of games available for play on arcade cabinets throughout the festival and beyond.  

“This remains a highly popular aspect of the festival. Moviegoers arrive early to play games before the films and sometimes we need to strongly encourage people to finish playing so we can close up the theatre after the last film of the night has ended.”

The annual script reading event is also back as an exciting opportunity for Alberta scriptwriters to share with an audience a script that is in development.  

“This year’s script is a lot of fun and I think our audience will highly enjoy the reading,” says Tilley.

CUFF has resisted the strain of inflation and maintained an affordable price point for movie tickets. The standard ticket pricing of $10/$8 for members has remained consistent since 2010, something that is important to organizers.

Edgy. Independent. Alternative. Thought-provoking. Unconventional.

The 21st annual film festival pushes the boundaries of traditional storytelling and filmmaking techniques from a mix of genres, including horror, science fiction, comedy, documentary and experimental films.

CUFF celebrates and honours the independent films living on the fringes of mainstream culture hoping these unconventional films do not “fall through the cracks,” says CUFF lead programmer and Calgary filmmaker Cameron Macgowan.

“Film festivals are extremely important to the cultural fabric of any city as they give people the opportunity to watch films and interact with filmmakers that don’t have an overpaid PR team backing them,” Macgowan says. “Cinema gives all filmmakers the chance to tell their stories and showcase their unique point-of-views despite what their budget may have been.”

Just as smaller films rarely have a chance to stand out in a saturated mainstream media marketplace without the help of film festivals such as CUFF, film festivals such as CUFF rely on independent theatres to be able to share those important stories.

That’s why news of Eau Claire Market’s impending demise and demolition later this year to pave the way for the construction of the Green Line LRT and the potential sale of the building the Globe is housed in worries local filmmakers such as Macgowan.

The Globe Cinema and the Riley’s Printing building next door are currently for sale through Avison Young, which notes the significant 8th Avenue frontage and versatile development opportunity of the two buildings. “Don’t miss this chance to be part of the transformative growth along 8th Avenue in Calgary,” reads the listing.

“We are losing cinemas that play first-run modern independent movies and I worry that without the proper support, Calgary will only be left with screens showcasing blockbusters and popular retro films,” Macgowan says. “I recall many nights and days having my mind blown by boundary-pushing movies at Eau Claire market and will always fondly remember my time spent in that bizarro mall. Eau Claire Market was one-of-a-kind, and Calgary is lesser off without it.”

While what will happen to the Globe remains to be seen depending on who buys it, losing it would be a massive blow.

“The elegant throw-back atmosphere of the Globe Cinema and its rich history as an important Calgary institution make it the perfect home for our festival,” Macgowan says.

The Globe is the official home base to CUFF, so the possibility of losing the theatre is a scary thought for CUFF festival director Brenda Leiberman, who is also the festival’s lead programmer.

“We feel like it’s our home. But we don’t want to make it doom-and-gloom because we don’t know what will happen as it’s been on sale for so long,” Leiberman says, adding that even if it’s a “pipe dream,” she hopes CUFF can work something out with the new owners if the building sells. 

“I think that would be a real shame and blow to the city if we didn’t have a traditional art house, independent cinema downtown that all of our film festivals and groups can use. We’ve been there for so long that it feels like we wouldn’t know what to do without it.”

Leiberman says the festival serves as a chance to curate innovative and eccentric content for audiences that would otherwise get swept under the rug.

“I think that film festivals are really important because there’s a ton of films out there right now,” she says, adding that it’s their job to sift through that content and bring audiences the best of the rest.

“Everything’s better on the big screen with fewer distractions with like-minded people and the energy and vibe of the room. Everything is funnier, everything is scarier, everything is more emotional – the whole experience is more elevated.”