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Photo courtesy Calgary Underground Film Festival

The Calgary Underground Film Festival’s 2021 full film lineup

By Ava Zardynezhad, April 20 2021—

The Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) has been a Calgary staple for 18 years and running.

“It’s a big milestone for us turning 18, so we’re officially adults,” said Brenda Lieberman, one of the lead programmers of this year’s festival. 

Due to the pandemic and subsequent restrictions, the festival will look different this year. The festival will be online with screenings happening both live with other films available on-demand. Passes went on sale earlier this month and are still available. Full passes are available as always. There’s also the option of a Five Film Flex Pass. In addition, this year, the festival has introduced a Household Pass. Brennan Tilley, another of CUFF’s lead programmers, encourages everyone to “take advantage of that if they’re planning on watching with a group.” 

Despite some changes, however, many things remain the same. For example, Tilley has given reassurance that CUFF merchandise will still be available from the festival’s website

Moreover, CJSW will still be providing playlists for each film that have been “added to the different film pages [on the CUFF] website,” said Lieberman. Some of the live events will also be DJed by CJSW hosts. On the opening night of the festival, “we’re going to have Adam Kamis again, doing an hour of pre-show before the film begins,” Lieberman added, encouraging attendees to join the livestream early. 

This year’s opening film is Golden Arm, directed by Maureen Bharoocha. The film will be available live on April 23 at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a Q&A with Bharoocha and Betsy Sodaro and Mary Holland — the lead actresses. 

“That’s the only time that’s going to screen and for that period we won’t have anything else available on the platform. But then all of the other on-demand titles that are available throughout the festival will go live shortly after the Q&A wraps up,” said Tilley.  

“I love this lineup. There’s so much diversity and we’re all really excited about everything that’s in the festival this year,” said Leiberman. 

Before the festival officially kicks off, CUFF programmers will be celebrating National Canadian Film Day with a screening of Hobo with a Shotgun — a gory cult classic. The film will be available live on April 21, followed by a Q&A session, after which it can be streamed on-demand until April 23.

The opening film, Golden Arm is a lighthearted comedy — with an almost all-female cast — following a small town baker, training for a major arm wrestling tournament. The film features many familiar faces including Betsy Sodaro and Mary Holland — as previously mentioned — as well as The Office’s Kate Flannery and Glee’s Dot-Marie Jones. Funny enough, Jones is a previous arm wrestling world champion

Following the live premier of Golden Arm on Friday, Saturday’s live events include a puppetry panel and one of the festival’s bigger screenings. 

The festival is showing two films featuring puppets this year, engaging in, “lewd and grotesque acts that you won’t want to miss,” according to Lead Programmer, Cameron MacGowan. These are Frank and Zed and The Old Man Movie

Frank and Zed is centred around a doomed village, the title characters and a whole lot of blood and gore. The film was a seven-year feat, not to be missed. Similarly captivating, The Old Man Movie is an Estonian film which features a trio set out on a wild cow chase to save the world from a lactose-based apocalypse after they free said cow from their grandfather’s abusive care. 

Next up, we have a hidden gem from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Coming Home in the Dark is yet another international entry from New Zealand. After watching it, MacGowan predicted “Netflix is going to buy [the film] tomorrow, there’s no way [CUFF is] going to get it.” However, Netflix is yet to catch wind of this well-kept secret and we’re lucky enough to be able to watch it during CUFF for two days only — April 24 and 27. The film will only stream live on both days and the streaming will be followed with Q&A sessions with director James Ashcroft. “Catch it before all the cool kids know,” were MacGowen’s final words on the matter. 

The next film which will be premiered live but will also be available on-demand for 48 hours is Vicious Fun — the first Canadian entry on the list. The film involves Joel, a film critic, who has to survive a night trapped among serial killers in a self-help group. The film will be streamed live on April 28, followed by a Q&A with the film’s cast and director Cody Calahan. However, it will be available on-demand from April 29–30. 

Other noteworthy films include: 

Cryptozoo, a film by Dash Shaw. This animated feature tells the story of crypto-zookeepers through an imaginary world and their efforts of capturing a Baku — a dream-eating, hybrid creature. The film will only be available to stream on May 1–2 and features voice talents from Canada’s favourite gem, Michael Cera. 

Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is a feature with cult-classic potential. In this musical retelling of The Tempest director Lloyd Kaufman tackles issues like addiction and how big pharmaceutical companies perpetuate the problem without any care for people. According to MacGowan, the film features “ parts by Calgary’s own — and Night Terrors’ and Globe Cinema’s own — Cody Cook.” MacGowan also prophesied that “we’ve got a modern classic on our hands,” with this film. 

Denmark’s Riders of Justice is a dark comedy directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, starring Mads Mikkelsen. The film follows a widower on his path to get justice for his wife after it’s suggested that the tragic train accident that took her life was not accidental. 

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez is another film that was highly recommended by the CUFF programmers. This might also appeal to the comic fans out there. Bad Attitude is our first documentary on this list and it takes us through the life of underground artist Spain Rodriguez. The film was directed by Rodriguez’s ex-wife, Susan Stern. “You’re going to spend $300 on comic books after you watch this, I guarantee,” said MacGowan. 

Fully Realized Humans comes from the mind of The Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard. The film follows a couple as they explore their own dysfunctional upbringing, less than a month before the birth of their baby. Lornard stars alongside Jess Weixler, who co-wrote the film and was eight months pregnant while shooting. 

On a similar note, Together Together is a more main-stream film that features Ed Helms as a single man who in hopes of  becoming a father, hires a younger woman to be his surrogate. The film depicts the ups and down of their relationship and eventual friendship. 

Workhorse Queen is a must-watch for those who watch Rupaul’s Drag Race religiously. The documentary follows Mrs. Kasha Davis — Ed Popil by day — who participated in the seventh season of Rupaul’s Drag Race. The film explores the divide and the impact created by reality television in the drag community. 

Alien on Stage is another documentary with a pretty self-explanatory title. The film tells the heartwarming story of a group of bus drivers who set out with a big dream — bringing Ridley Scott’s classic film, Alien, to the London stage. Alien on Stage shows how a disaster of a drama performance ended up becoming an unexpectedly successful comedy show. 

The festival also shows two Alberta features — Bloodthirsty and Range Road

Bloodthirsty, directed by Amelia Moses, is a self-discovery journey disguised as the transformation of a vegan musician into a bloodthirsty werewolf. Range Road is a drama, exploring grief, forgiveness and the complexities of family life. 

The festival includes 29 feature films this year, only a selected few of which are presented here. The full lineup and trailers can be found on the CUFF website

In addition to features, the festival presents three short film packages that include films from the United States, Canada, China and the United Kingdom. Must-watch Canadian shorts include Joe Buffalo, about the life of Indigenous skateboarder Joe Buffalo. A residential school survivor, Buffalo’s struggles on his way to professional skateboarding are explored in this short. There are three shorts from Calgary included in these packages — RKLSS, Another Man’s Treasure and The Curse

The last few days of the festival will feature a diverse range of programs. The much anticipated Found Footage series is back, this time diving into VHS tape trading. This event will take place on April 29. 

Saturday, May 1 will be the last full day of events. These will include a morning of cartoon-related programming with Shaturday Morning Cartoons with Nick and Joe, as well as Saturday Morning All-You-Can-Eat-Cereal (At Home) Cartoon Part! 

In the afternoon, the festival programs will come to an end with a live script reading of Hurt Them, a revenge thriller written by David Surridge and George Perry, being directed by Calgarian director, Michael Peterson. Readers will include Barbara Crampton, Andre Hyland and Michael Ironside. 

The festival will run from April 23–May 2 and the programs and films will be available all across Alberta.

Be sure to join the virtual community throughout the festival by engaging with CUFF’s social media — you can follow the festival on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and share your CUFF experience with #CUFF21. The festival even has stickers on Instagram and Facebook this year. 

Also, be sure to check out CUFF’s podcast — CUFFcast hosted by MacGowan and Rhett Miller. 

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