By Rachneet Randhawa, January 15 2022—
For years now we have been fanatics about the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) which has emerged as the best in international independent cinema showcasing niche genre films. Every year CUFF hosts their mainstream event including a classic drive-in theater and towards the end of the year, they focused solely on documentaries. We were amazed by this year’s curated list exhibiting everything from horror, Sci-Fci, comedies, thrillers and music-related flicks. Here are our top picks by themed category for CUFF doc’s 2021.
BEST FEATURE → WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED
Although this didn’t win any of the Audience Choice Awards this year, it was a shoo-in for us as we’re big fans of all things Harry Potter including witchcraft and wizardry. The director, Kier-La Janisse, did a director’s cut interview before the streaming of the actual film, briefly giving us an overview of what to expect including key clips from both popular and niche horror flicks alike.
This film is an exploration of the folk horror phenomenon and the cultural specific manifestations in international horror that emerged in the 1970s up until today. Referring to over 200 films and showcasing over 50 interviewees, the film takes an introspective look into how we can celebrate yet conceal and manipulate not only our histories but the mysteriousness of the unknown as we try to uncover spiritual resonance in our surroundings. Cult-classics like Witchfinder General (1968), Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) are all magnified.
The film speaks to the genre’s revival in a whopping three hours and also addresses American, Asian, Australian and European horror. Even if you’re not a fan of folk horror or scary movies in general, this flick serves as a crash course into all things ghoulish.
Country: United States
BEST LOCAL → LOVE: THE LAST CHAPTER:
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, this film illustrates a portrait of three different couples in a Calgary senior’s facility as they navigate the delights and challenges of late-in-life romance. On the outside, we see an ordinary seniors care facility. But inside, remarkable love stories are unfolding.
Despite the hardships, the residents face life-changing surgeries, unfortunate evictions in old age and final goodbyes to family members they chose to romance each other, support one another in difficulties and struggle together. One couple decides to bring out their youthful glee by getting engaged in the facility and moving out into their condo and adopting a dog.
If anything, this film teaches us that despite it being a cliché, love conquers all and that it’s never too late to find love. Given how incredibly difficult it has been this past year for seniors living in-home care facilities with lockdown and restrictions, it was heartwarming to see a light at the end of a winding tunnel.
BEST WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT:
This was a sticky-wicket one as we had two films tie for the best. We simply could not choose just one as both flicks are so uplifting as you are rooting for and cheering on the main characters.
This film is an intimate portrayal of three courageous female wrestlers from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico — a city known for its high murder rate against women. Women are ostracized and surrounded by a culture of machismo as they continue to fight for equality despite being restricted to low-wage jobs in maquiladoras, an assembly factory that pays with often unsafe working conditions and government corruption.
One of the featured wrestlers, Lady Candy, had her daughters taken from her and resides in the USA in which she desperately waits on a visa to cross the border to reunite with them once more. Baby Star, a young single mother who was once a Lucha Libre Star at a young age, is now making her comeback and Mini Sirenita a little person and up-and-coming contender that hopes to compete for the big leagues after having sacrificed so much for her family.
Although the cards are stacked against them, together they challenge the status quo of being marginalized and overlooked as ethnic women by displaying a modern-day Mexican woman both in the ring as professional wrestlers and also as mothers, daughters and sisters. They set the precedent by becoming role models for other Latin American girls who hope to be bold and go for their dreams, goals and desires.
Country: Germany, Mexico
Six transgender women travel to small-town Spain as a retreat of sorts, in which they explore unusual landscapes and the ins and outs of their personalities. Think MTV: The Real World edition of transgender and queer-identifying women but in a zen approach that is empathetic to these women’s daily lived experiences.
The dialogue between them is eye-opening and gives the audience more questions as to why they are ridiculed and discriminated against despite only wanting to be accepted for something they cannot change about themselves. The everyday hardships they face compared to the cisgendered women in finding work and securing jobs and unfortunately are subjected to selling their bodies.
The conversations about identity crises only deepen as they ponder gender reassignment surgery to feel like their physical body fits what they feel like inside. I appreciated the ambiance of the storyline and the subtleness of the plot with the occasional heated controversy between the group members personal issues rather than being a film only about social justice and 2LGBTAIA+ rights. If there is one documentary you have time to invest in be sure check out this one as it would be yet another person that is educated on these underrepresented and marginalized voices.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE/CULTURAL → SATOSHI KON THE ILLUSIONIST:
We’re also big fans of anime at the Gauntlet. Lo and behold appears in this film, which does an extraordinary attempt at summarizing the history that is animation in a couple of short hours. But let us tell you — it does it justice. I can watch this film analyzing classic and beloved anime movies over and over again and I would never tire, that’s how well thought out it is. The plot focuses on the late anime director Satoshi Kon who has made big-name features like Paprika (one of my favorites!) Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers and more.
If you ever take a film studies course at the University of Calgary and study the anime unit, you can be sure it will be a film of Kon’s. Kon was ahead of his time but clearly changed the game for the anime industry and the face of animated cinema.
For instance, he introduced the live-action film and animated movies catered to adults. If you have watched any of his films the level of immersive-ness and attention to intricate detail indicate a genius’ hand was at work. And the storylines are life-like and surreal.
Kon is definitely one of the influencers of not only anime but contemporary Japanese culture. After looking at the director’s cut analysis of these beloved and classic anime movies more in-depth, I find that I have to go back and rewatch them to tell a new tale.
BEST NEW AGE → DEAR MR. BRODY:
This was another one of those conflicted categories in which we had two golden contenders between Dear Mr. Brody and Better Living Through Chemistry. Both address themes of psychedelics.
Dear Mr. Brody is a biography of Michael Brody Junior, the hippie millionaire who offered world peace for the price of a postage stamp. Long story short, in January 1970, the then 21-year-old who was heir to a margarine fortune organized a heist announcing that he would donate a $25 million inheritance to anyone in need, no strings attached.
Within literal days Brody and his young wife become instant celebrities as they are inundated with pleas for help from strangers. The core of the plot is the bombardment of thousands upon thousands of letters they received in the mail requesting assistance from Brody. Spoiler alert — most of these letters have been unopened to date.
The narrators of the film open a good majority of them during the filming of the movie. Although Brody’s intentions were genuine, he becomes a pawn of the paparazzi and tabloids as they berate him into admitting that the whole fiasco was a farce.
It turns out Brody most likely had an undiagnosed mental illness with symptoms of grandeur and delusions and alongside the use of drugs only exacerbates his downward spiralling condition. Nonetheless, its themes of meditation on desire, need, philanthropy and love make it a perfect flick for the holidays.
Country: Japan, France
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY →
The better of the two new-age film’s from a Gauntlet Critic’s Choice perspective however is Better Living Through Chemistry. I found Dear Mr. Brody to look at the glamor, bells and whistles of being in the limelight for a moment rather than getting an intimate look at the protagonist’s life story. It is more of an eye-candy type of film.
Fortunately, Better Living Through Chemistry gives us a more profound and intimate understanding of Sasha Shulgin (1925–2014) a chemist who not only discovered 200 psychedelic substances including MDMA and 2CB, but alongside his wife laid the foundations for the field of psychedelic psychotherapy.
Shulgin’s revolutionary approach and scientific expression set the gold standard in psychedelic research while his wife Ann’s skills are used in public education and spreading these ideas to the mainstream. This film has subtle magic to it, as after watching this film, you start to question reality and the conventional standards and practices set by modern and western medicine including the behemoth that is the pharmaceutical industry.
It’s almost akin to the Matrix in which you can opt for the blue pill and remain ignorant to the controversies and exploitation of the pharmaceutical industry, or go for the red pill and learn the life-changing truths that there may be alternatives out there as remedies or solutions to mental health. For example, their book PIHKAl: A Chemical Love Story sets the precedent for uncensored examination of psychoactive compounds and a form of therapy using substances such as MDMA in therapeutic settings.
BEST SHORTS PACKAGE → YOU BE YOU:
Who doesn’t appreciate a good short? There were two packages his year with our choice being You Be You. The story goes that everybody is unique and many of the protagonists in these mini-films stay true to who they are for better or worse.
The package consists of six sequences. For starters, the feature-length short film on the Canucks Riots Part One and Canucks Riots Part Two shed a light on the controversy of history repeating itself after the Canucks loss both in 1994 and 2011 during the Stanley Cup Finals which is resisted from dozens of perspectives as they revisit the quarrel of hockey fans alike. It was disheartening to see local businesses and bystanders attacked as it gives us a retrospective look into how traumatic this uprising was.
Second, Normalizing Awkwardness showcases artist Carolie Stokes who lets go of her fears, overthinking and jumping to conclusions and allows herself to unfold in the creative process as she makes a genuine connection with her audience.
Next, we had New Horizons which examines Australian Olympic bobsled coach, Heath Spence as he lives in Pyeongchang, Korea, during the pandemic. He leads a new generation of bobsled pilots for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games. Moreover, They Used To Call Me Crazy is a lighter-mood flick centring around a dad who decided one late summer night in 2018 on how he got his nickname.
Then we had Rat Tail – perhaps one of my favorites of the bunch. It gives us an introspective look at Chad Sogas, a young boy who donned a rat tail for nearly a decade and how his doing so unexpectedly shaped his journey of self-discovery and unconditional self-love in regards to mental health.
The comedic relief and satire make the darker undertones of his battle with mental illness seem more resilient as he tells us of his story of being a fun-loving and happy-go-lucky son, brother and friend as a boy to becoming a self-loathing man full of self-hatred as he grew into adulthood. Chad shares the pathways of healing with the rat tail symbolically serving as a euphemism.
And lastly, we had a foreign film from Germany, Terms and Conditions about a rural farming family that despite the many challenges of remaining open for business despite price dumping, droughts and digitization continues to trek forward. They face the hard truth and awkward reality of having to potentially sell the farm property if things don’t pan out.
Country: Canada, USA, Germany
Some of the films are available to watch on the Apple Store and Google Play. Also be sure to check out the hot tracks on Spotify curated especially for the CUFF 2021 documentary editions by our very own campus radio station CJSW. As you sit back and relax during the holiday season be sure to check out a documentary or two that we have recommended to expand your horizons.