CIFF: The Real Deal!

Brain Scan - 09-30-14

After seeing twenty films in eight days, I can confirm that Movie Maker got it right. The 15th Calgary International Film Festival was definitely an crowd pleaser. Featuring World, North American and Canadian premieres (in the case of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, pictured above – both the 2D and 3D North American premieres), as well as films with huge awards buzz (like Whiplash and Foxcatcher), and an emphasis on Canadian and Albertan films, CIFF’s programmers put together a selection that genuinely had something for everyone.

Culling a third of its eighty-seven feature films from hundreds of applications, CIFF’s programmers featured a number of first-time directors. Of the films I attending, nine were from first time directors from around the world (Canada, India, England, Tanzania, the U.S.) – ranging from sci-fi (Project M) to horror/true story (Backcountry), to romance (The Honour Keeper), to musical (God Help the Girl), to mockumentary (Little Spartan), to road movie (Big Significant Things).

At least three of CIFF’s films came from legends – Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg), Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard) and The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky). Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet – you might know him from Amélie, or The City of Lost Children. Michael Radford may be best known for Il Postino (The Postman), but his gentle romantic comedy Elsa & Fred (starring Shirley MacLean and Christopher Plummer) may change that.

Projet M Debris

Of the nine first-time directors I mentioned above, several – including Project M’s Eric Piccoli and The Honour Keeper’s Pushpendra Singh – were particularly brilliant and were not out of place being discussed alongside Cronenberg, Godard or Jodorowsky.

It’s not just the films – though most of the ones I saw were terrific. There were interesting and unique bits of entertainment scheduled to keep people waiting in line from getting bored and the final day of the festival was composed entirely of audience selected encores.

The transition entertainment was based on the films it preceded – a power pop trio played before screenings of Go Help the Girl; two young Chinese girls played traditional pieces on their guzhengs (ancient Chinese stringed instruments) before Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home; three mimes in space suits wandered the lines for Project M, miming spacewalks in the theater; a cowboy demonstrated rope tracks before the documentary Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo – and definitely helped liven up the between movie waits.

Coming Home

Genre was not ghettoized – low-fi Swedish sci-fi title LFO screened first in the afternoon, before encoring as the closing show Saturday night; Project M’ one screening was in an early evening timeslot; the festival’s opening night gala was the whimsical T.S. Spivet (which shot in Alberta and had a largely Canadian cast).

Audience response was generally lively – Calgarians see more movies per capita than anywhere else in Canada – and are one of the top five in North America. It was hard to miss groups engaged in lively conversations before and after every screening. In two lineups, I had wonderful conversations with people I might never see again – unless of course, we run into each other in lines at future festivals.

There were glitches, of course – Murphy’s Law applies to film festivals, too. A screening I particularly wanted to see was canceled because of technical difficulties and its make-up screening turned out to be opposite Foxcatcher, so I ended up missing it. On the plus side, the cancellation led directly to my seeing the excellent Elliott Smith doc, Heaven Adores You – which I might not have seen otherwise (so many movies; so little time!).


A couple of times, one box office opened perilously late, and more than one screening started late because of unexpected demand, but these kinds of glitches happen. Despite the occasional problem, though, the CIFF volunteers were unanimously cheerful, hard-working and terrific ambassadors, overall, for the festival.

As CIFF’s Executive Director, Steve Schroeder noted, without the volunteers – and, of course, a record-setting turnout (many of whom scheduled their vacations to attend) – the festival just would not happen. That would be a shame – my eight days (out of the Calgary International Film Festival’s eleven) were not just a highlight of my year, but one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. (I’m still exhausted, but damn! It was worth it!)

Figuratively, at least, the festival is not quite over. Over the next few days, I will be posting two or three more reviews of movies you should be watching out for.