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Photo courtesy of the Calgary Underground Film Festival

CUFF.Docs showcases overlooked documentaries

By Troy Hasselman, November 22, 2019 —

Since its beginnings in 2003, Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) has been an annual mainstay, attracting both ardent cinephiles and curiosity seekers every year to its festival in April that showcases innovative, unique and often overlooked films that you wouldn’t find at other festivals.

“I think with the changing distribution landscape we changed a bit over our history too in terms of what we do,” CUFF lead programmer Brennan Tilley says. “There aren’t that many things that are entirely underground films anymore. What used to be films that were found nowhere are found through various services. We still focus very much on things that push boundaries, things that defy convention and form content and style. As well, we are still considered Western Canada’s largest genre film festival.”

The festival keeps a broad definition of what constitutes a documentary and has included docu-dramas and mockumentaries in the past. This year will focus specifically on documentaries, not because of any policy change but just because of the quality of documentaries that were released this year.

“This year is focusing solely on the documentary,” Tilley says. “We have played around with mockumentaries and docu-dramas, but we’re finding so many great documentaries that don’t fit into our April festival, whether it be through number of slots available or through release timing. We launched this seperate festival while still keeping documentaries in our main festival and still following that model of defying convention, form, model or style, pushing boundaries, playing with the form, having interesting topics and that kind of stuff.”

The festival will open with a screening of Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan, a documentary made about the final tour of a dying magician. Tilley says this film will set the tone for the festival.

The Amazing Jonathan. // Photo courtesy of the Calgary Underground Film Festival.

“I think it is the perfect example of what we look for at CUFF.Docs,” Tilley says. “The opening film sets the tone so it’s something we take seriously. I saw this film at Sundance this year and was blown away by what it did. It’s a first-time feature filmmaker, first time documentarian. Ben Berman who has done a bunch of comedic shorts and worked with Tim & Eric and Eric Andre and other alternative comedians. I’d known him from some of his work there and had heard this was going to be a documentary full of twists and surprises and I’d say this is certainly the case.”

Albertan filmmakers will as well be showcased in the festival, with highlights including a documentary following a day-in-the-life of a rural Alberta theatre community and an Albertan-made documentary about a marathon in Afghanistan.

“We really try and have a role in supporting the local industry,” Tilley says. “We have table reads at our main festival, we have various production roles on helping feature films. We do everything we can to help support local film. In this festival we want to highlight Rosebud, Alberta, a short documentary about life in Rosebud, Alberta, best known for their theatre productions. It’s a day of life in the town. We also have a film about sports competitions for seniors and the dedication they have to performing these various competitions. The feature, The Secret Marathon is from an Alberta filmmaker and marathon runner.”

Along with the films there are some aspects of the festival that will highlight the film-watching experience including podcasts and videos of live feeds from around the world that will screen at the festival.

“Programming-wise we always look for different things,” Tilley says. “Some of the initiatives we play with at CUFF.Docs comes into our pre-show and lobby. We’ve been doing podcasts for a few years and we’re working on that again this year, pretty tailored to different films as well as some of the onscreen content as well. This year we’re working on some other live feeds but I’m not sure if they’ll come to fruition. Last year there were people that watched the live feed of the giraffe being born, you can access CCTV in certain urban centres, there will be live streaming Twitch stuff. What I’d call a new initiative is our real life watching pre-show style programming that will enhance the feeling of going to the festival.”

Markie in Milwaukee. // Photo courtesy of the Calgary Underground Film Festival.

Other highlights of the festival include a documentary shorts package. Ski Bums, a feature length documentary about noted skiing filmmaker Warren Miller will also play. Another highlight is feature length documentary Markie in Milwaukee, which tells the story of a 46-year-old fundamentalist preacher who comes out as transgender, goes through a transition and de-transitions 10 years later.

“We have a documentary short package at CUFF.Docs this year so that’s something I’m really excited for,” Tilleys says. “I think having Ski Bums is going to be one that’s really exciting to see in Calgary. I saw that one at the Slamdance Festival in Utah. There are so many people here that remember the Warren Miller Ski film tours—that’s going to be really exciting to watch that with a Calgary audience. Markie in Milwaukee is about a fundamentalist preacher in Milwaukee who comes out as transgender at 46 and ends up detransitioning 10 years later and following through her that whole process and it raises a lot of questions about what identity means and questions that and being true to one’s self. That’s one that stands out to me in handling a topic in a way I haven’t seen before.”

CUFF.Docs will take place from Nov. 27–Dec. 1 at the Globe Cinema. For information about tickets and to see a full schedule for the festival visit the CUFF website.

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