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Calgary Underground Film Festival brings fringe documentaries to Calgary

By Rachneet Randhawa, November 24 2021—

For almost two decades, the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) has been showcasing fringe essentials for the local arts and culture scene every April. Now comes the ninth annual CUFF.docs, a subsidiary event that runs from Nov. 24–28 which presents the best in non-fiction films and curates documentaries screening more than 20 full-length features and also shorts in various subjects, styles and genres.

The Gauntlet sat down for an interview with one of the founders, festival director and one of the lead programmers, Brenda Lieberman, to learn more of the preview of upcoming attractions. 

Lieberman wears many hats as she plays multiple roles doing various tasks and is involved year-round in festival programming. This is made possible by their small but strong organizing team who also hold full-time day jobs. The programming is divided between the lead programmers, Cameron McGowan and Brennan Tilley, lead publicist and marketing guru, Laura Carlson and volunteer programmers. 

Lieberman would define a documentary as a style of filmmaking and storytelling based on true stories that are mostly interview-based. 

“Documentary is really about honing in on a subject or a theme or topic and letting the subjects tell the story.”

What sets CUFF apart from other film festivals in the city? For one, they don’t always aim for the broadest and mass appeal Hollywood blockbuster’s usually gain, and instead opt for target audiences with stories and genres that are a little less frequently told. 

“So things that push boundaries a little bit more and a little different than what you would get on mainstream media,” says Lieberman. 

They advocate for off-the-beaten-path stories with a modicum of love of narratives that are genre films. Originally launched in 2003, CUFF emerged at a time when there weren’t a lot of film festivals in the city and they found there was a void in the film industry. 

“At the time when we started 20 years ago, there was really only one other major film festival in Calgary and an experimental one,” says Lieberman. “So we just felt that there were a lot of films on the festival circuit that weren’t getting a screening , so we looked at positioning ourselves in a different time of the year so that we could fill the void that we felt was needed in Calgary.” 

And lastly, the shorts packages she recommends are quite diverse this time. Lieberman’s top pick from the selection of CUFF documentaries this year is To Ride — a story about a stand-up comedian, featuring Dana Gould and Bobcat Goldthwait. It’s unique, as they don’t get very many comedy documentaries. Luchadores is another one that showcases Mexican female wrestlers and how the sport has changed their lives. 

One of the biggest challenges during COVID-19 was, and still is, reduced capacity and navigation — especially with what their most recent festival is going to look like, as there are still many unknowns. 

“It’s still a challenge to get films to be willing to screen online and negotiate all the parameters,” she says. “And I think for this festival, we’re really hoping people are going to embrace coming back to cinema, because we’d like to get the audience comfortable doing that again.” 

Due to restrictions, they are following Alberta government guidelines this year with proof of vaccination  or a negative test within 72 hours atop giving wristbands to customers who are attending the cinema in person. 

For those who hope to be one of the qualifying entries for the festival, they take everything from student films to local films — although Lieberman mentioned it’s not easy and very competitive. On average they get 500 entries for the CUFF.docs and 1,200 for the regular CUFF festival in April. 

As for local films, there are about five films and 20 shorts for CUFF.docs this year and nine films with 40 shorts for the main CUFF festival. 

“So it kind of all depends on the festival at the time of the year,” says Lieberman. “And what local films are applying. It is challenging to get into festivals because the competition is tough. But there’s a lot of support from the festivals to show local films. So it’s always worth applying and getting a waiver.” 

As for how events like this shape the culture of the city, Lieberman claims that it has created a niche sense of communal belonging. 

“We’ve become a large cultural component of the city, that for a lot of people, it feels like there’s a sense of community and fandom with it. And people look forward to it,” says Lieberman. “It’s become one of the largest arts events in Calgary and annual events. So for that, we feel fortunate. And that we’ve built it for the audience.” 

One thing participants at these events should do to get the most out of their time is to keep an open mind. 

“I think the best thing to do is just to try and dive into watching a handful of films — like buying a multipack or having a chance to go with some friends if you can or solo if you can’t — and looking for if there’s a potential for people to talk about these films with others who’ve seen them.”

As for how youth and students can be more involved in the film arts, CUFF.docs offers keynote speakers and live Q&A panels, especially for those aiming for a career in film making. However, Lieberman recommends volunteering at these events as they are always looking for ways to grow their audience. 

“If the students could come and spread the word to their friends and their family and help us grow audiences that would be really amazing,” says Lieberman.

Some final shout-outs from Lieberman are to be open to trying out new things like going to a film festival. 

“If there’s an opportunity, if somebody hasn’t been to the festival, we just want to encourage people to come and check it out. And experience something different. So participate, check things out, spread the word [and] rate the films for the audience awards.”

The Calgary Underground Film Festival 2021 for documentaries starts next week and has both in-person screenings at the Globe Cinema and virtual options with student pricing at $8 per show. Be sure to stream a flick or two in between study breaks and open your mind to new pathways of knowledge.

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