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The Song of Nature, photo courtesy of Serendipity Point Films

Calgary international Film Festival begins with Gala opening at Jack Singer Concert Hall

By Troy Hasselman, September 19 2019 —

The 20th edition of the Calgary International Film Fest (CIFF) opened on Sept. 18 in a red carpet gala at the Jack Singer Concert Hall that doubled as the Western Canadian prèmiere of French-Canadian director François Girard’s drama The Song of Names.

CIFF Executive Director Steve Schroeder was especially excited for the opening after himself and the rest of the CIFF organizers worked tirelessly for the last year to put the festival together.

“It feels amazing,” Schroeder says. “Not everybody realizes that putting on a film festival, especially one this size, is a year-long undertaking. One of my favourite questions is ‘Oh so, what do you do the other months of the year? Do you have another job?’ There are 15 staff that work year-round for the festival because there are partnerships, there are long-term marketing plans, there’s strategy, there’s relationship building in the industry, it’s a huge undertaking and a labour of love but it feels really good to finally see it. It’s almost a shame that after 11 months of work you only get to do it for 12 days.”

CIFF Executive Director Steve Schroeder, photo by Troy Hasselman.

Schroeder also outlined some of the numerous  events happening at CIFF this year, including the Closing Gala block party on Sept. 28, which will feature two choices of movies this year, the Centrepiece Gala at Studio Bell and free screenings at the new Central Public Library.

“We’re really excited to close the part of Eighth Ave. S.W. outside the Globe Cinema for the block party, we have pretty much all the bars and restaurants on the street participating so that’s going to be really fun,” Schroeder says. “We haven’t done something like that, I think since 2006 so that’s going to be a blast from the past. I love having two film choices, I love when the audience gets to choose between films. I think that’s just such a great film festival experience. In addition, we have the centrepiece gala at Studio Bell with a music film for that, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band because there’s a big through-line in our festival of music. I really love that we’re screening at the new Central Library, free screenings, five films. Not necessarily films that have played at the festival but films that were made in Alberta. We hope that reaches a new audience and grows awareness of the festival. Things like that are exciting in an anniversary year.”

CIFF has grown since it’s initial run in 2000 with this growth being reflected in the number of films being created here in Calgary, with notable recent examples including the Academy Award winner The Revenant, the upcoming Jumanji: The Next Level and as well the upcoming Ghostbusters film. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi noted the growth in the Calgary film and television industries over the last two decades and advocated for government support of our local film industry.

“The last time I was standing by a swimming pool chatting with Hollywood producers, which has happened once in my life, what they were really telling me is what attracts them here is not just the magnificent scenery but actually the talent of our crews, and the crews are incredible here,” Nenshi says. “What we need to do is to make sure there’s a policy environment that allows the screen-based industries here to grow, because we already have the talent, we already have the scenery, we already have facilities and we’re missing the piece that will really make this industry blow up here.” 

CIFF has made moves towards making itself a more diverse festival with female directors making up nearly half the lineup and Indigenous representation making up a larger portion of the festival as well.

“One of the things I’m most excited about is our percentage of films directed by female filmmakers,” says CIFF Artistic Director Brian Owens. “It’s been going up and up and we’re almost to parity this year at about 45 to 46 per cent. Also, really including First Nations and Inuit people and also Indigenous people from around the world. We’ve got nine or 10 Indigenous features which makes me very proud.”

The Song of Names stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen and tells the story of two childhood best friends, both musicians, who are separated by events that stem from the Second World War and the search that ones goes on for the other decades later. The musicality of the film, also present in other works from director François Girard such as The Red Violin and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. 

François Girard, photo by Troy Hasselman.

“François’s work is always fantastic and mostly themed towards music,” Owens says. “Since we present in this beautiful concert hall, the story of two best friends, one a concert violinist and one a concert pianist, just seemed to be the perfect opportunity to present this film. I think the audience will totally recognize why we selected it when they see the scenes.”

The film deals with themes of memory which attracted Girard to the project, which came from a screenplay by Academy Award nominated screenwriter Jeffrey Caine that was itself adapted from a novel of the same name by Norman Lebrecht.

“The script came to me and this story between two half-brothers touched my heart and I wanted to serve it and it serves an even bigger mission of memory,” Girard says. “We live in a very amnesic world and I think film is a great antidote to that.”

The film prèmiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) earlier this month to a strong reception and has since played at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, Girard is excited to see the wider reception to the film as it plays at more festivals and goes into wider release.

“We just premiered in TIFF and it was great reaction there, then we went to Halifax and we’re in the beginning of the film’s life and each time is a new encounter with the audience which is the main interest for me because that’s the job I do,” Griard says. “I’m the audience before they show up and that job has ended, then I get to see how people react to it and this is the beginning of that.”

CIFF will run on screens across Calgary’s downtown core until Sept. 29. For more information about the festival, a list of movies screening, schedules and tickets visit their website.

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