Varun Raman works on Box Office and as a Cinema Usher at the Watershed. As part of PARALLEL MADNESS, a writing and directing duo with Tom Hancock, they made a short film called TRANSMISSION, which had its International Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. Below is their experience of the festival. Like them on FACEBOOK and follow them on TWITTER.
Fantasia isn’t your regular genre film festival. It’s so much more than that. And in the rarest of instances, it’s everything a lot of film festivals claim to be. Courageous, innovative, open-minded, a spotter and cultivator of talent, and a genuine tastemaker that yields a profound and reinvigorating influence on filmmakers and programmers the world over. And after 21 years, it’s still going from strength to strength, whilst managing to maintain its core ethos and identity.
When people think of “genre”, they usually think of easily classifiable, saleable films with obviously defined markets, subservient to predictable crowd-pleasing tropes. “Genre” is a popular slur amongst the supposedly high-brow, pseudo-intellectual cinemagoers, who seem to think “drama” and “arthouse” cinema are impervious to guilty clichés and such a demeaning classification. Funnily enough, it’s important to remember that they too are genres.
But let’s look at what genre appears to mean to Fantasia. From the films they select and showcase, genre is a defined tone and aesthetic, a sense of fun and a bold and exciting vision, that displays a clear understanding of the mechanics of story, structure and camera plot. With all that said, they actively encourage rule-breaking films that antagonize and subvert the very processes, beliefs and foundations of what their audiences are accustomed to.
Having started back in 1996 as a film festival geared towards solely Asian genre cinema, it has transformed over the years into North America’s version of Sitges (Europe’s leading genre film festival, about to hit 50 this year). It showcased Takashi Miike to North American audiences for the first time in 1997 and unleashed the J-Horror craze with the North American Premiere of Ringu in 1999, where Dreamworks picked up the franchise. Fantasia has justifiably earned some high-ranking fans:
"Fantasia is the most important and prestigious genre film festival on this continent.”
- Quentin Tarantino
"I promise to make many more genre films just so I can get invited back."
- Edgar Wright
"Fantasia remains to this day one of my very favorite film festivals in the world.”
- James Gunn
Now showcasing over 150 features and 250 shorts, it attracts over 105,000 cinemagoers every year. Its raison d'être in 2017 is best described by Mitch Davis, Co-Director General and Co-Director of International Programming:
“As movie-going habits continue to evolve, with an ever-rising number of viewers content to experience films in relative isolation at home, festivals like ours have become even more vital in keeping the spirit, the passion, the sheer energy of cinema alive. Alive as a communal moment of collective discovery. Alive as a shared rush, scream, laugh or cry. Alive as a full-throttled happening that can’t be contained.”
Mitch Davis, Co-General Director and Co-Director of International Programming at Fantasia
They’re like no other. And they’ve been hailed by some as the best in the world. They’re loud, passionate, characterful, open-minded and intelligent. As the adverts and trailers roll, a rock concert anticipation fills the air. But as soon as the film starts, they’re respectful (although there are some people who want their cinemas to be meditation rooms).
What you get with a Fantasia audience is not a rude one, but a responsive one, completely devoted to the film they’re watching. Being in the crowd is a rare and invaluable educational process for filmmakers because they react to everything a film succeeds in doing. From editing nuances and subtle jokes, to the micro-expression on an actor’s face, they simply understand cinema. Mitch Davis has likened sitting in a Fantasia screening as “jumping into a time capsule”, experiencing a film with an audience that doesn’t exist anymore, or at least elsewhere.
“You just kinda feel like Canadian audiences are much more accepting sometimes of slightly stranger fare.”
- Robert Pattinson
They have strange habits too. Whenever the screen goes black and transitions from the commercials to the film, members of the audience begin to ‘miaow’. It’s believed the tradition stemmed more than ten years ago, from a screening of a short called Simon’s Cat (now an internet sensation). The changing of a BetaCam took a little longer than expected. All the audience could see was a black screen. So they started to miaow. Fast forward to 2017, and as you can guess, the tradition has escalated with shushes, moos, baahs and all manners of animal sounds.
Here’s the very first Simon’s Cat: Cat Man Do (2008):
And then there’s the Shin Cup noodles commercial. One the audience never failed to cheer. Here’s the Korean language version.
It says a lot that Mitch Davis has a cinema in his basement. Fantasia selects films that are meant to be seen on the big screen, not videos best suited for laptop viewing and social media marketing campaigns. The festival was not founded by classicist cinephiles, but thrill-seeking fans of the weird and different, and it’s reflected in their programming.
There’s a real freshness to it. And it feels like a lot of the inspiration comes from outside the echo chamber and the usual channels audiences get served up on the festival circuit. The programming team often selects films that would normally be overlooked, due to their challenging, un-conservative, personal nature. A lot of films possess a unique madness that can only be attributed to the filmmaker that made it. There’s no appetite for broad-strokes, box-checking cinema here.
Co-Director General, Programmer and Marketing Director of Fantasia, Marc Lamothe
Former music journalist, Co-Director General, Programmer, Marketing Director of Fantasia and all-around cool guy, Marc Lamothe, always keeps a loose equation in mind: “If we played one Disney film, to balance that out, we would play three films that nowhere else would play”.
So how has Fantasia grown over the years, and maintained its core ethos and identity? Having talked to a number of filmmakers with features at the festival, it became apparent that almost all of them previously had shorts there. The festival has always had an eye on the future, willing to cultivate relationships with filmmakers, but also on the lookout for forging fresh new ones.
With a high filmmaker, press and industry turnout, and festival passes providing entry to most of the films, and the go-to drinking venue of the Irish Embassy just around the corner, the opportunity for the big-shots to mix with the up-starts couldn’t be easier.
Fantasia also really looks after its own, and supports the filmmaking infrastructure of its home province and country. Canadian filmmakers can submit their films for free, and seven shorts programmes are dedicated to Quebecois filmmakers, lending them legitimacy, encouragement and vital access.
In 2012, Fantasia went ahead and organised FRONTIÈRES: “an international co-production market and networking platform specifically focused on genre film financing and co-production between Europe and North America”. It now leads the field and has extended through partnerships with Cannes and Amsterdam. FRONTIÈRES successes include Julia Ducornau’s Raw, which premiered at Cannes, and Turbo Kid, which had its world premiere at Sundance.
FILMS & DIRECTORS TO LOOK OUT FOR
DRIB is a real discovery and probably the best satire you’ll see this year. Part meta-documentary, part dramatic reconstruction, Kristoffer Borgli’s top-drawer takedown of branding culture possesses meticulous camera plotting, an acerbic script with fantastic dialogue and memorable performances from the supporting cast, including Brett Gelman (whose workhorse character acting career has been starting to pay dividends), and Under The Skin’s Adam Pearson.
TRAGEDY GIRLS – it’s taken over twenty years to find a worthy successor to Scream, and almost fifteen years to find one for Mean Girls. But writer-director, Tyler MacIntyre and writer, Chris Lee Hill have done it. It’s fun, poppy, subversive and fresh, with up-to-date social commentary on the narcissistic social media generation. And it’s packed with entertaining and inventive deaths, with brilliant supporting roles for Craig Robinson and Josh Hutcherson. Tragedy Girls is the best slasher film made in years, and a clear announcement of Alexandra Shipp (Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse) as a big movie star of the future. Don’t be surprised if this is a smash hit.
ASSHOLES – on arriving at the airport, we were already hearing rumours that Peter Vack’s gross-out comedy must have slipped onto the programme without the sponsors noticing. The screening of this film is testament to Fantasia’s bravery and pluralism in terms of its programming. Imagine throwing Woody Allen, Lena Dunham, Bret Easton Ellis, John Waters and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia into a blender. And what you get is Assholes. Its unity of concept is astounding. And equally shocking, is how Vack managed to convince his sister (Betsey Brown), his mother, his father, and even himself, to act in it.
Betsey Brown puts in a shameless, powerhouse performance, and should be on everyone’s radar soon. It would be very telling to see which distributors and cinemas have the guts to take on this film. Go on. We dare ya.
GOOD TIME received two standing ovations. And with Robert Pattinson and the Safdie Brothers in attendance, the crowd was raucous. Shot on 2-Perf 35mm film, Good Time is imbued with the feel of a hard-edged New York City film from the 1970s Golden Age, and can best be described as Dog Day Afternoon meets After Hours.
Tense, frenetic, bizarre, funny and always shifting gear from minute to minute, it’s a thrill ride you just can’t get off, but also a film that poses some painful questions on what separates selfishness and love. The Safdies have proven themselves, and Pattinson is consistently demonstrating he’s not only a very interesting actor, but a great producer in the making who gets daring and unique projects from exciting filmmakers off the ground.
BAD BLACK demands you to forget everything you think you know about cinema. In this Ugandan action thriller, director Nabwana I.G.G. will teach you the rules all over again. Want proof? Here’s the film’s opening scene:
Self taught and using salvaged equipment, Nabwana works in the realm of $150 - $200 budgets for feature films. In 15 years, he’s racked up 40 features. The fact we are hearing about him is no joke or coincidence. This guy’s an inspiration, along with his collaborators working out of ‘Wakaliwood’, the nickname for a slum district in Kampala.
Bad Black is never lacking humour, thanks to VJ (Video Jockey) Emmie on commentary, taking liberties as he translates the dialogue and adds his own little affectations and interpretations, constantly knocking on the 4th wall. The child actors have guts and range, and the martial artists involved are certainly talented. All this earned the film a Best Director award in the action genre and the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest 2016. Bad Black is a window to another world.
GAME OF DEATH is an all-out visual party tanked up on narcissism, campiness, nihilism and invention by Montreal filmmakers Sebastien Landry & Laurence “Baz” Morais-Lagacé.
Like any party, it takes 10 minutes to warm up but once the game has started, you’re fully in a Cronenbergian, Raimi-esque, ticking, mass-murder-spree time bomb, with some Coen Brothers thrown in.
It has colour, fun, practical effects and a number of ingenious shots, but it’s the structure and rhythm that keeps all of these things alive, and makes the two young directors stand out. An effective action movie inherits its DNA directly from suspense films. Not everyone remembers this, or fully appreciates the implications, but Landry and Baz do, as they allow a sense of promise to build up and deliver on. Game Of Death owes to its previous form as a web-series, resulting in a rhythm that shimmies and shakes, keeping you second-guessing and engaged throughout.
TERREUR 404 plays on the internet error code page that comes up when you’re looking for something that doesn’t exist. On the same lines as The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, this Quebecois 85-minute anthology is divided into eight playful, irreverent and scary episodes, united in tone by the direction of Sébastien Diaz, and the writing of Samuel Archibald & William S. Messier. The anthology is bound to the core theme warning against the dangers of the internet and how it could impact our everyday lives.
Diaz and his writing team demonstrate their understanding of the mechanics of horror. Each episode is impressively economic, as every shot is considered and propels the plot, without betraying the tone. Diaz, Archibald and Messier are future satirical arthouse horror darlings. But throw anything at them and they will, no doubt, do a great job. Terreur 404 can be watched HERE.
BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is Takashi Miike’s 100th film. This one’s produced by Jeremy Thomas and has an effortlessly cool trailer.
And our reason for being there, asides from enjoying all the films mentioned above? Our short film, TRANSMISSION, had its International Premiere at Fantasia, and opened the CELLULOID EXPERIMENTS program.
It was perfectly contextualized and projected alongside shorts that dared to do something different, whether it be a non-linear narrative or a unique filmmaking process. Highlights include Michael Bartolomeo’s Solved, Gonçalo Almeida’s Thursday Night and Lorenz Troebinger’s Wattmarck.
The other films we heard good word about but didn’t get to see: Bitch, Night Of The Virgin, Bad Genius, Better Watch Out, Jailbreak, Confidential Assignment, The Villainess, Lowlife and Agnieszka Holland & Kasia Adamik’s Spoor.
The family feel of Fantasia, which is largely thanks members of the core team having stayed on for a good many years. And having the Irish Embassy as a hub for filmmakers, programmers, critics, industry folk, the festival’s hospitality crew and volunteers to meet, it’s very easy for people from all disciplines to naturally start chatting and make friends. People aren’t always looking over your shoulder, hoping to speak to somebody more important. The unpretentious and open vibe adds to the lively buzz of being there.
The projection. Always nice and loud. The maestros in the main theatre celebrated 15 years at the festival.
Concordia University. As all venues are close together, it’s easy to navigate, and the lecture halls are astounding. All it takes is a dimming of the light to suddenly transform them perfectly into cinemas. The film students who attend the university are lucky. And there’s a good selection of screen sizes and capacities (700, 400 and 160), ensuring each film has the right amount of audience to screen size ratio, and providing the best context for a film to play in. Concordia has also supplied lots of volunteers for the festival, and even some former students, who have turned out to be future filmmakers that play at the festival, such as Dead Shack’s Peter Ricq.
The Vladimir Poutine, at VLADIMIR POUTINE, a restaurant that only serves decadent variations of poutine, a Quebecois dish that consists of fries, cheese curds and gravy
Montreal is a must-visit city with a thriving arts scene and a great quality of life, thanks to a reasonable rent cap and healthy wages (we’re looking at you, Britain). It’s basically an island with a mountain bang in the middle. It’s predominantly French-speaking, but the people also have the uncanny ability of being able to immediately switch to English. Montreal runs the perfect tightrope balancing act of feeling just as much European as it does Canadian, and being just as calm and tranquil, as it is happening and busy. It’s got views, a sense of genuine multicultural integration, a long-standing passion for live music, a generally subversive sense of humour reflected in its art culture, and food to send you out on dedicated day trips to find. There’s almost too much to do.
A view of Montreal from the Chalet du Mont Royal
Fantasia is a bar-raising exercise, re-invigorating for both cinema and the soul. Rather than seeing genre as a stale, reductive, box-checking device, it jumps on the back of it and uses those developed short-hands to keep the audience orientated and saddled in, whilst encouraging filmmakers to break new ground. Contrary to hearing proclamations everyday that cinema is on the wane (even dead), it’s safe to say that cinema is still very much alive, thanks to many unique, exciting and purposeful voices burgeoning.
To recognise and identify this, requires the Mitch Davis mantra of cinema as a shared thrill-seeking discovery. And programming that compels people to say, “now that’s a film we have to see at the cinema”. It takes a rejection of quotas and demographic-centric models (or at least a sincere attempt to navigate them). And it takes more than an insurance policy of targeting an audience who just haven’t learned how to stream movies yet. Because that’s an audience that will eventually disappear.
It’s time to disturb the viewer, defy their expectations and positively influence their watching habits again. To surprise and antagonize them. To instill them with a belief that their life, or their outlook, could be somewhat affected, even enriched, by the film they’re about to see, and not to go in thinking they’re going to witness more of the same.
There is hope for a bright and exciting future ahead. Providing commissioners, programmers and critics start looking beyond the usual channels heavily relied upon by mainstream and independent cinema. It’s time to break out of the echo chamber and go snuffling for truffles. Going to Fantasia’s a good start.