Festival express

The atlantic film festival has become a successful breeding ground for local filmmakers in its 25-year evolution.

illustration Kate Sinclair

In 1981, the world of film festivals was very different. Sundance wasn’t even known by the title of Robert Redford’s most famous role. It was The Utah/US Film Festival, just moved from Salt Lake to Park City. The Toronto International Film Festival was five years old, also under its former name, The Festival of Festivals, as at the time it showcased films from other festivals around the world. Neither were anywhere near as established as they are today, both were still trying to find their place.

The first Atlantic Film and Video Festival debuted in 1981 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and moved to Halifax the following year. It wasn’t until 1989 that it found its current moniker, The Atlantic Film Festival.

The film business itself has transformed many times. The ’80s saw the new blockbuster age, and a new awareness, outside the studio boardrooms, of box office totals. Business boomed and the value of commercial releases became tied more closely to the opening weekend grosses. Film festivals, despite being in some cases very much about the deal, continued to trumpet the new, the odd and obscure. In 1989, Steven Soderbergh’s Sex Lies and Videotape showed at Sundance, and the American independent film revolution was born. It lasted through the ’90s, with small, boutique studios like Miramax challenging, and then becoming, major players. More recently, the diminishing cost of digital cameras, the ubiquity of the internet and the acceptance of the DVD as an archival and commercial medium changed movies yet again.

Welcome to the digital age.

So many memories... but the ones that always pop up quickly for me are the ones that make me laugh out loud, and they usually involve elaborate pranks played on overtired fellow staff members. I once posed as a publicist from a well-known Toronto PR company to prank call and convince our executive director (Gregor Ash) to discreetly hire escorts for a well-known director of one of our opening night films.

- Lia Rinaldo,Festival Director

The AFF grew slowly through the ’80s, varying between four and seven days-long festival dates and focusing on filmmakers of an Atlantic pedigree. Bill MacGillivray, Ken Pittman and Paul D. Cowan all showed their work during this period.In 1990, at the 10th Annual AFF, a student film called The Movie of the Week screened, and won its director the “Most Promising Filmmaker Award.” He was Thom Fitzgerald, who has gone on to be the most critically lauded filmmaker to come out of Nova Scotia. He has shown all his feature films at the AFF, with The Hanging Garden, The Event, and this year, 3 Needles, all opening the festival.

“It was so incredibly informal and fun,” he says, recalling the festival of 15 years ago while sitting in a lounge at the Halifax International Airport. His flight to Toronto, where his film, 3 Needles, is screening in a special presentation, has been delayed. “, the Atlantic Film Festival was a kitchen party with movies.”

He recalls the festival couldn’t afford to keep visiting filmmakers in hotels, so festival supporters would put people up. Fitzgerald recalls the scene at a singer’s pad where an after-hours speakeasy had been set up.

“People were asleep on a piano. All these film agency executives were sitting around smoking pot,” he says with a chuckle: “It’s very different now. Now all the executives smoke pot in their hotel rooms.”

Chuck Clark recalls this period and the early ’90s under the aegis of executive director Gordon Parsons. Clark is a lighting and camera technician and was a long-time projectionist at the old Wormwood’s repertory theatre on Gottingen Street.

“The Wormwood’s was the central place for the AFF. The offices were upstairs next to the film co-op,” he recalls. “Gordon was a real showman, an intellectual. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film.”

Clark says part of what kept the festival small was that there wasn’t a lot of local stuff to show. “Nowadays,” he says, “they’re coming in from all directions.” He also remembers one of the earliest efforts to show international film were pictures from Iceland.

“They were these incredibly shot movies, all based on Icelandic legend,” he says. “They looked amazing, but were boring as dirt.”

Halifax hyphenate Ron Foley MacDonald has been a senior programmer with the AFF for years.

“The Wormwood’s personnel sort of ran the festival,” he says. Most of the screenings were at the Wormwood’s, with prestige screenings elsewhere in town, including the 100-seat Film Board Cinema on Barrington that burned down in 1991.

“In the beginning the festival was one of the islands of Canadian cinematic sovereignty,” says MacDonald, recalling the young outlaw club of directors from Toronto such as Bruce MacDonald, Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema who’d come to town with their movies. “It used to feel like a little industrial round-up, like the Nova Scotia Wood Lot Owners Convention. Now it feels like you’re part of a large engine, a train being pulled by a big locomotive.

“There’ve been some people like Mike Clattenburg and Thom Fitzgerald who’ve really utilized this festival.”

The reason I’m here is Gordon Parsons. The reason I became a lover of film is Gordon. I remember the fire , because somehow out of a pile of ashes he made a film festival happen. He just got up the next morning, even though inside I’m sure he was having a nervous breakdown, and said, ‘Well, everything is gone, let’s start again. We’re having a festival.’

—Lee Anne Gillan,Senior Programmer

Thom Fitzgerald’s career has been charmed, with his first feature, The Hanging Garden, having screened here as well as at Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, London and in festivals across Canada. By his own admission he hasn’t had a great deal of box office success, but he concurs that the festival circuit is “an arena in which I have thrived.”

He feels that a good film festival is really a reflection of its audience.

“The programmers have a lot of sway,” he says, “but it comes down to the people.”

In the 2003 Berlin Film Festival, Fitzgerald’s AIDS drama The Event won the Reader Jury of the Siegessäule Award, a prize given by readers of a German gay magazine. Fitzgerald was shocked to receive the honour—the audience had sat absolutely stony-faced throughout the screening.

“Halifax is way more festive,” he says. “Toronto audiences are filled with business people,” though he does credit some of the Toronto crowds as refreshing movie obsessives.

“They’re the saving grace,” he says. “The business side is heck to go through. It’s fraught with tension.” 3 Needles has a Canadian distributor, but not an American. To land that US distributor is one of the goals of his visit to the TIFF.

Bemoaning the lack of intimacy at the Toronto festival, Fitzgerald finds a certain friendliness still exists here at the AFF.

“I’m invited to three parties a day for every day I’m in Toronto,” he says. “But it’s mostly press and meetings. I pass other directors in the hallways and we wave sympathetically to each other as we’re dragged to the next E-Talk Daily spot.

“In Halifax, there’s definitely time to talk to other directors and the audience.”

The first year I started to do the Late Shift, the gala was Hedwig and it was pretty cool because it was the first time that I had a program to do myself. And I remember walking into the theatre and there was a line-up all the way down past the concessions to get in, and it was sold out. It was pretty rewarding. You know, it doesn’t mean anything to most people, but it’s a nice validation of what you’re doing.

—Andrew Murphy, programming manager

Sam Fisher is a film director. He’s also a professor of film at NSCAD. He’s worked in the film industry for years here, in Montreal and in London, as a writer and set-decorator.

He says these days, a filmmaker who wants to get his or her movie out there has to do a little research and plan a strategy.

“There are so many festivals,” he says. “Mini DV, horror, shorts, children’s films, women’s films, gay and lesbian. There’s literally hundreds and hundreds—you could spend thousands of dollars . You have to be much more educated.”

Fisher admits he’s more business oriented than some filmmakers. He’d like to see his most recent film, a short children’s film called Scary Stuff developed into a feature film or a TV series.

“I want to move that machine,” he says. “The festivals really help.”

Because there are so many festivals, having your film shown at one may not forward your career. Even having big recognition at a prestigious festival doesn’t necessarily lead to audience acceptance in the marketplace. Fisher cites Sundance 2004 Grand Jury Prize-winner Primer as an example. The opaque time-travel thriller grabbed critics, but remains little seen by the public.

“It’ll probably have a long life,” he says, vague as to whether that’s a consolation, but he quickly adds, “What was the name of Will Smith’s last movie?”

Fisher’s Scary Stuff screened last year at the AFF. He admits that a picture has to have a certain quality to be accepted at a festival, but niche is more important than ever.

“It’s kind of like broadcasters now,” he says. “They have a fixed amount of stuff that they will show.”

For this reason Fisher is very happy we have the AFF in town. He finds it is less niche-driven, more open to all sorts of films, calling it “the Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger of film festivals.” He concurs with Fitzgerald that it’s the intimacy of the festival that appeals; he can talk to people more easily here, both on the creative and the business side of things.

“I’d love to sit down with Robert Rodriguez and talk about the effects in Sin City,” he says, “but am I going to talk technology or money? It’s not about cutting the deal, it’s about learning the lay of the land. It’s much better to make a call later to someone you met at a festival rather than make a cold call.”

As far as what makes a great film festival, outside of the attributes he’s already ascribed to the AFF, Fisher is a little more philosophical.

“If you’re running the 25th annual something, you know it’s reputable,” he says. “Robert Redford lent Sundance some kind of credibility. But prestige—is it real or is it imagined? Maybe a film festival is just like a big party. If everyone says it’s good, then maybe it’s good.”

I remember when the festival was at the Westin, and several people talked about the hotel being haunted. Weird things were happening in their rooms at night, and they actually switched hotels. They’d be lying in bed when the TV came on, and there was no way they could have turned it on, and they felt this presence in their room. And these were really credible people. It was so bizarre. But they were from Toronto.

Jan Miller: Strategic Partners director

The opening film at the 1997 Atlantic Film Festival was The Hanging Garden. At the time they screened short films before the main feature. From the Ashes, a student film by Vancouverite Kevin Cottam was the short, about six minutes long.

“This was his world premiere,” says Gordon Whittaker, executive director of the AFF for four years up until 2000, and now the director for the Atlantic Region of Telefilm Canada. “Kevin had flown all the way from Vancouver, he was so excited.”

When the film started it was silent.

“Kevin bolted from his seat. He was a madman, he was so upset,” says Whittaker. There had been a problem with the sound, but it was fixed about a minute into the running of the film. “It showed me how important these events are for filmmakers. Needless to say, (due to these technical glitches) we stopped showing shorts in front of features.”

Whittaker says the AFF has really ramped up since 2000, with events like Viewfinders, the film festival for children, filling out the year and complementing the main festival. Plus, Strategic Partners, launched in 1998 during Whittaker’s tenure, is still going strong, of which he’s particularly proud.

“The continuing growth of Strategic Partners—it’s fast becoming the co-production event in Canada,” he says, but he is quick to point out that film isn’t all about commerce. “There’s nothing wrong with a film that is just a festival film. What a tremendous opportunity to see in a short period of time a canvas of our culture. I mean, if you look at the multiplexes, at what we have to put up with—at the festival you will see the vast majority of quality filmmaking.”

Of film festivals in general, Whittaker says all the big ones in Canada have found their distinctive style by catering to their local markets and utilizing local and national corporate sponsorship.

“If you go back 10 years, most festivals were more grassroots,” he says. “Now they’re sprouting all over. You’ve got to know what you’re trying to achieve. is such a destination. It has a personal nature. It’s a great opportunity to meet key distributors or potential partners in the future.”

Of particular interest to Whittaker this year is the program of short films.

“It’s all about the next wave.”

The festival opened three days after 9/11. The opening night film was driven down from the Toronto Film Festival by the head of Telefilm, the film’s producer and two others. They were all crammed in the car with the film. They were determined to get it to the theatre in time to screen it that night. That sort of camaraderie was evidenced throughout the festival.

—Andrea Dawson-Gosine, operations manager

The current executive director of the Atlantic Film Festival is Gregor Ash. He volunteered for years at the festival and worked his way up through the ranks. He remembers the numbers of “bums in seats” in the early days of his time with the AFF as being around five or six thousand and a part-time staff to keep it all together.

“We slowly shook off the idea that we were just about esoteric, art-house films that only a select group of people are interested in,” he says. “We have that as part of what we are, but film is film. A broader audience is embracing the films, the program is bigger, we have better access to films than we’ve ever had.”

Now the AFF has 14 full-time staff. Ash says the budget for the festival since he started has gone up 500 percent. Last year the AFF had roughly 20,000 patrons, the same number expected this year (coincidentally, the same number of giddy film fanatics are expected at Sundance in 2006). In the thrill and the hard work that is the lead-up to the 25th annual festival, Ash is concerned about one of their traditional outlets: the CBC.

“We’ll see how that absence affects us, we don’t know at this point.”

Ash certainly doesn’t fear the future or the rapid pace of technology. He has seen the future, and it looks good:

“There’s a huge change going on. Hollywood box office has been going down, but the cost of producing movies hasn’t, obviously. With the advent of digital distribution, downloading, digital theatres, the access to films—now you’ve got Amazon, Zip.ca, TiVo. Hollywood is now considering simultaneous theatrical and DVD releases. Some say this is the future. The audience is getting more sophisticated.

“On the other side of that, people want to get together to see film. Look at Al Fresco (the late-summer outdoor festival). We get 1,000 people to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and it was on TV a couple weeks before we screened it.

“It’s like downloading music. It’s not that they won’t buy music anymore, it’s that they’ll listen to more variety. More and more you can ship on demand. It’s a brave new world. For me, I think it’ll mean that film festivals are much more important. What we do is we take a lot of the guesswork out. Lia Rinaldo and the programmers watched over 1,300 films plus the ones they saw at festivals. We get to say, ‘Take a chance, these ones are good.’ There’s definitely something in that program for everybody.”

I don’t usually get star-struck, but it was quite a thrill meeting Norman Jewison. It was just for like three minutes—he used my cell phone twice. He asked very nicely, he was very down to earth and he didn’t have any star attitude whatsoever. He was here for the Academy Luncheon for our 20th anniversary, and we showed a montage of his work. I was amazed at the range and scope of his work, and I thought, ‘He’s a legend, he’s Canadian and he’s here.’ I jokingly would tell people that I was going to send him my cell phone bill and ask for my seven dollars back. But of course I never did.

—Ivy Ho, communications manager

“It’s ideal—we’re not slavishly tied to Toronto,” says Ron Foley MacDonald of what continues to be unique about the Atlantic Film Festival.

“We’re like NSCAD. We’re nicely placed between North America and Europe. We reflect what’s going on in other parts of the world.” He notes that every year there’s been at least one international co-production, mentioning Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of St. Pierre and Nick Willing’s The River King, showing this year.

“We’ve been in a much larger part of the world cinema puzzle.”

Thom Fitzgerald compares the AFF to a festival in the Spanish town of San Sebastian. “The whole town really believes in the word ‘festival,’” he says. “In some places, they should call the film festivals ‘markets,’ or ‘trade missions.’”

Having seen the best the world has to offer in the culture of film festivals, he asserts the best part of any fest is how it connects local filmmakers with local audiences.

“The spectrum of films seen by the community in which they’re made—you have to have the audience around you,” Fitzgerald says. “The Atlantic Film Festival plays a profound role in how we grow as artists.”

About The Author

Support The Coast

At a time when the city needs local coverage more than ever, we’re asking for your help to support independent journalism. We are committed as always to providing free access to readers, particularly as we confront the impact of COVID-19 in Halifax and beyond.

Read more about the work we do here, or consider making a donation. Thank you for your support!

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Get more Halifax

The Coast Daily email newsletter is your extra dose of the city Monday through Friday. Sign up and go deep on Halifax!

Recent Comments