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CIFF opens and closes festival with pair of award winning, crowd pleasing Canadian films

The Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) is now just weeks away, and with anticipation building for the 2023 edition, the festival released their full line-up of films on Aug. 30.

Opening the festival this year is the 2023 South by Southwest audience award winning film Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life, which tells the story of Alberta College of Art and Design graduate and internationally renowned visual artist Geoff McFetridge.

The film, directed by Dan Covert, focuses on McFetridge’s impact on the world of art and design, and what it means to live a meaningful life.

Closing the festival is another Canadian film, Hey, Viktor!, which is making its way to CIFF after premiering at Tribeca in June.

That film, directed by Edmonton filmaker and actor Cody Lightning, is a mockumentary about a fictional version of Lightning attempting to make a sequel to 1988’s coming-of-age drama Smoke Signals.

“It’s always challenging to figure out and opening and closing. But, I feel like we almost a little bit more back to our roots where we used to love to celebrate Canadian and local talent and voices in our openings and closings,” said Brenda Lieberman, CIFF Lead Programmer.

She said that despite those hard choices, the pair of films are representative of Alberta and of Calgary.

“Geoff McFetridge just had so much of an impact locally back from when he attended school here to where he’s come in his successful career. So it’s a it seemed like a no brainer,” Lieberman said.

Sara Cory, a producer with North Country Cinema and the producer for Hey, Viktor!, said that it was special to have her film close out CIFF.

“We have a very special film on our hands here. We’ve known that since before we started shooting when reading the script. So to have the honour of being the closing night festival is really special and important to us and, and we’re very grateful to [Steve Schroeder] for that,” she said.

The lineup of films for 2023 includes 16 World, North American, and International premiers, and 20 Canadian feature premieres.

Among the films selected for the festival are multiple award winners, including Cannes Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall (Dir. Justine Triet), Evil Does Not Exist (Dir. Ryüsuke Hamaguchi who was nominated for an Oscar for Drive My Car), and the Cannes award winning film Perfect Days (Wim Wenders).

For a full lineup of all the films at CIFF this year, see ciff2023.eventive.org/films.

Starting at the beginning, with CIFF

Cory said that North Country Cinema has been making films for almost 20 years, and that they started off at CIFF by producing shorts for the Alberta Spirits shorts package.

They had their first feature film, The Valley Below (Dir. Kyle Thomas), play in 2014 at the festival.

“As a producer, it’s really important for the film festivals to be supportive of your film. You know, it’s really hard to get attention without them,” Cory said.

She said that coming from Tribeca, going to the Toronto International Film Festival early in September, followed by CIFF in October were huge for Hey, Viktor!.

“Being locals in Alberta, we made this film in Edmonton on the Enoch Cree Nation. So it’s really nice to bring it home to Alberta,” Cory said.

“It’s great that they have an Albertan feature that’s that’s closing the festival, because we’re Albertans loud and proud.”

Part of that pride, said Cory, was the way that the film touches on both comedy and important social issues—much like the premise film Smoke Signals did in the 80s.

“There’s many laughs, but it’s not it’s not just comedy. Cody as as the writer with [Samuel Miller] hit on a lot of culturally important things right now,” she said.

“Cody always says, ‘we laugh at our pain, we laugh with our pain, and that’s that’s how we get through it.’ So that’s that’s what Hey, Viktor! focuses on.”

Documentaries with local focus, international importance showing at CIFF

Among the films announced on Wednesday in addition to the narrative features, were the documentaries.

Tom Acton’s film Close the Divide, which explores the gap in reality and perception over climate change, is one of the films that is also competing for the DGC Canadian Documentary Competition award.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion in the world in terms of how we’re going to do this, how are we going to conquer it? How are we going to combat this when we want to live the way we are continuously,” Acton said.

“We don’t really want to go backwards, right? So there’s this bind that we’re in. And I think that because of that, it’s creating a lot of emotions for people ranging from anxiety, eco grief, depression, and extremism in some cases.”

He said that his film is about integrating the psychology of climate change along with the science and engineering of the topic, in a way that connects experts to people instead of politics to people.

“We’re leaving people with a lot of hope and optimism that you know, human beings can do this and, and so I think if we really want to see the the true possibilities of our future, we first need to close the divide between each other,” Acton said.

Acton’s film, which he co-produced with former broadcast journalist and founder of Deluxe Design Group, Chris Kreiger, is also a Calgary-based story in that it directly addresses the issues facing the city around energy production and change.

“I think that people are hungry to get past maybe the doom and gloom that we always hear about, and also get past the kind of politicized narrative that we hear,” Acton said.

“Personally, when I started this, I wanted to have people that were activists and people that maybe work in the energy or oil and gas industry, watch it together and be a catalyst for discussion. So for me, I hope that our audience is filled with people that might be activists filled with people that are in the oil and gas going gas industry here in Calgary.”

He said that he has been working to have his film shown around the world at festivals in London, San Francisco, and New York, but said it was an honour to have it competing at CIFF.

“I think this is kind of a microcosm of the world, Calgary, in the debate of how we’re going to move forward and still respect the environment. And so for me, it’s the perfect place,” Acton said.

Producers and directors of films showing at the Calgary International Film Festival gather at the Sandman Hotel for the announcement of the 2023 lineup, in Calgary on Wednesday, August 30, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Programming a festival like CIFF getting harder

Lieberman said that although in some ways it’s become easier to get films to CIFF because of how established it has become over the past two decades— the festival celebrates its 24th year this year—in other ways the changing nature of the film business has made it harder.

“These titles are the top of what people are looking for. The distributors, and the strategies for different films, are changing. It takes a lot of work to make sure that we can secure these films,” she said.

Programmers have gone through thousands of submissions, looked at films that have played at other film festivals, and have sought out independent films that are potential audience breakouts.

Still, she said, this year has an amazing lineup that the programmers from all of the various film festival sections like shorts, narrative features, and documentaries, that will appeal to audiences.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying as a programmer, or a curator, to bring together a really nice mix of films from award winning titles, most anticipated titles, and then new discoveries,” Lieberman said.

“Things we feel like would be good introductions to the festival, to highlighting different independent voices and directors, but something that’s going to appeal to everyone. So, there is a delicate art to trying to piece together the lineup in each section.”

That lineup, said Brian Owens, CIFF’s Artistic Director, was bold this year.

“From World Premiere short films and Award-winning features from Cannes, Toronto and other world-class film festivals, there is something anyone and everyone can enjoy,” Owens said.

Adam Keresztes, CIFF’s shorts programmer, said that to produce this year’s 11 different shorts packages, and to put the right shorts in front of feature films was difficult.

“We get 3,000 Shorts submitted every year. That’s a lot of short films to go through and it gets narrowed down to about 100 that make it in the festival. So there’s usually hundreds more that we love that just can’t make it,” he said.

“We have our packages set, and then we keep a list of ones that are still really good that maybe didn’t fit in a package. And then once the feature lineup gets gets brought in, we look at films that could pair really well with with a short.”

He said that one of the great things about seeing shorts at CIFF, is that people get a chance to catch some Oscar buzz before there is Oscar buzz.

“CIFF is an Academy Award qualifying film festival for shorts. And that means that we do have a jury award that gets given out to the best overall short film, and that one then is eligible to be submitted to the Oscars,” Keresztes said.

“We’ve had so many great films in the past that have come through that program, but we also screened tons that make it into the Oscars.”

Among those films that Calgary audiences saw first were an Irish Goodbye, which won for best live action short film in 2023, and Queen of Basketball, which won for best documentary short in 2022.

For animated films, local animators Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis were nominated for Flying Sailor.

“Come and check these films out because you don’t then need to be like ‘how can I watch these short films when they get nominated for Oscars?’ You might have seen some of them already if you come to CIFF and check them out.”

CIFF runs from Sept. 21 to Oct. 1, 2023.

To purchase tickets, see www.ciffcalgary.ca.