Reeling in Alberta

The synergy and symbiosis of festivals and filmmaking

By Mari Sasano

Early May in Grande Prairie. About 100 filmmakers, cinephiles, volunteers and curious attendees mill about in front of the Regional Theatre, chatting. The petite and energetic Terry Scerbak, founder and organizer of the Reel Shorts Film Festival, all but disappears in the crowd; only her clipboard suggests she might have a unique role today.

Reel Shorts is an unpretentious, laid-back event. No red carpets, no velvet ropes. No VIP room. Just a chance to see 100 short films from all around the world—not least from our own province. It’s a unique opportunity for residents of Grande Prairie, a fast-growing, young city with a median age of 30 and a hunger for arts, entertainment and culture. Scerbak wants to offer them films that will never be shown at the multiplex. Until Reel Shorts, residents had to travel to Edmonton for such offerings. “Most of the people who come to Reel Shorts haven’t gone to another festival,” says Scerbak.

Albertans have a history of taking things into our own hands and Scerbak has done just that.

She never intended to become a film-festival organizer. She was an aspiring writer in Edmonton who took classes but never considered herself an artist. When her husband’s work brought her to the Peace region, and she found herself with some extra time on her hands, she decided to make her first film.

“I happened to have a script… It got into the Edmonton Independent Film Festival in 2006, in the In Our Own Backyard program. That was the first time I saw a package of short films,” she recalls. Back in Grande Prairie, she told her writing group about the festival. A simple question—wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like that here?—and one thing led to another. The following year, the first Reel Shorts took place, five short-film packages over three days.

This is how local film festivals are made. The Banff Mountain Film Festival began in 1976 when a group of avid outdoorspeople wanted something to pass the time during the off-season. In Edmonton the Third World Film Festival, which eventually became the Global Visions Film Festival, opened in 1983. Alberta’s first international film event, Local Heroes Film Festival, was started by a group of filmmakers and cinephiles in Edmonton in the mid-1980s. The Calgary International Film Festival’s inaugural event was in 2000. Cinephiles in Calgary hungry for more started the Calgary Underground Film Festival, co-founded by Brenda Lieberman and a group of like-minded film buffs in 2003. “We saw the potential to fill a need for more provocative, edgy cinema,” Lieberman says. “To do something really connected to the ground level, the audience level. We wanted to be a festival that was approachable and inclusive.”

Festivals play an important role in the development of local film, and in encouraging and supporting local artists. The festival venue gives local filmmakers a chance to have their work seen by larger audiences and brought to the attention of critics or movie reviewers. Festivals give audiences a chance to be surprised by unusual material, and for critics to discover new talent.

The Calgary International Film Festival’s first opening-night gala in 2000 featured local filmmaker Gary Burns’s waydowntown. The film won the Best Canadian Feature prize at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival. Gary Burns is now, of course, an internationally recognized writer and director of feature films.

Guy Lavallee, programmer for Global Visions, says festival audiences crave local films over bigger, more commercial work—once they know such films exist. “So the question and the challenge has always been, okay, so how do you engage people in coming to see things maybe they haven’t necessarily heard of or that you want them to take a chance on?”

Local films often don’t have the marketing support to register on the larger cultural consciousness. They depend almost exclusively on festivals for screen time. During Lavallee’s tenure at Global Visions, which began in 2011, he has increased the percentage of Alberta-made films from 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the total shown. The goal, he says, is to continue to increase that number to at least 40 per cent. Crowds showed up for two Alberta-made feature documentaries in 2014—Rosie Dransfeld’s Anti-Social Limited and Ava Karvonen’s Albert Karvonen: Philosophies on Life, Nature and Wildlife Filmmaking, and both films made it into the top 10 of the audience awards. Lavallee also programmed four packages of Alberta-made shorts. It helped that in 2014 the Enterprise Edmonton Film Commission sponsored the first Local Visions Awards, a juried competition with cash prizes for the best Alberta film over 20 minutes and best Alberta film under 20 minutes.

Festivals play an important role in developing local film and encouraging artists, whose work is brough to critics’ attention.

The Alberta government’s support of the film industry has been inconsistent over the years. The Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation was created in the early 1980s with the intention to woo foreign (i.e., Hollywood) productions to our province to employ Albertans, but also to provide funding and guidance for independent productions, domestic and foreign. AMPDC funding kick-started Edmonton-based filmmaker Anne Wheeler’s internationally acclaimed career: she made Bye Bye Blues and Loyalties during that period, in Alberta.

That program was gutted in 1997 during the Klein-era cutbacks. Film industry spending plummeted from $152-million to $52-million within a year and continued to slide. As a result, in the late 1990s, many of those skilled enough to work on crews—cinematographers, directors, entire production companies—left Alberta for greener pastures in Toronto, Vancouver and even Saskatchewan—anywhere with support for the film industry, which at the time was pretty much anywhere but Alberta. Dave Cunningham, who was making documentaries at the time, remembers the exodus. “Oh, everybody left. When Ralph Klein came, that destroyed everything.” Cunningham was loath to uproot his young family and made ends meet with educational videos and other niches. But bigger-budget productions were lured elsewhere; many filmmakers felt they had no alternative but to leave. In the meantime, independents continued working, at a smaller scale.

While government support for the arts is vital and necessary, the Alberta film world is really about audiences, festivals and artists. One of these factors can catalyze the others. In Grande Prairie, once the idea of a film festival became possible, so did the idea of training local people to make their own films. Scerbak founded screenwriting and filmmaking workshops that have produced 11 short films since 2007 and a 2012 feature-length film. Her festival also runs Frantic 48, in which local filmmakers write, shoot and edit short films within 48 hours. The completed films are shown during the festival.

All this creative activity has given rise to the Peace Region Independent Media Arts Association (PRIMAA), a group of like-minded artists working to develop the production and exhibition capacity of the area. It completes the circle: An audience wanted films; a festival created filmmakers; filmmakers satisfy the audience. That dynamic creates artists and keeps them around.

This is a typical story across Alberta. The Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta (FAVA) is another case in point. In 1982 a group of young filmmakers and would-be filmmakers were grousing about how hard and how expensive it was to make anything here. Up to that point, if you didn’t own the equipment, you had to find someone who would rent (often at high cost) or lend you the gear. (A side note—when Werner Herzog visited Edmonton’s Local Heroes festival in the 1990s, he advocated doing whatever you needed to do, including theft, to finish your film. He also left a pair of his boots at FAVA, one of which has gone missing. If you’ve seen it, please return it.)


Grade 2 and 3 students at Reel Shorts before the screening of Magic Time. (Beauchamp Photography)

This small group of artists spawned the National Screen Institute (parent of the Local Heroes Film Festival) to foster exhibition of Canadian films and mentorship for aspiring writers, producers and directors, and FAVA. The NSI retreated to Winnipeg in 2002, but Local Heroes continued as the Edmonton International Film Festival and FAVA continued sharing gear, know-how and community connections.

One of the products of this indie system is Trevor Anderson, an internationally recognized short-film maker originally from Red Deer, now based in Edmonton. Like many 21st century filmmakers, he started out making short videos on VHS as a high-schooler. He made his first film on Super 8 through FAVA, and his second, Rock Pockets, won the Lindalee Tracey award at Hot Docs in Toronto in 2007. This was followed by numerous award-winning short films including The High Level Bridge, praised by Roger Ebert as “better, minute for minute, than most of the features at your multiplex.” Anderson’s work has been widely screened. He has had opportunities to relocate, and considers it off and on, but says he finds Edmonton his best option.

“If I were looking to be a director for hire? It might be smart for me to leave this market, move to somewhere like Toronto or Vancouver, and hustle daily in hopes of maybe directing that toothpaste commercial. But that’s not my goal,” he says. Edmonton, he believes, enables him to produce his work with top crews. “If I schedule my production carefully, I can often access the A-crew, who, you know, don’t have a commercial this month. It’s pretty good for people who want to be in control of their own work.” And Alberta is again supporting filmmaking through the efforts of Alberta Film, part of the Ministry of Culture, which was created to do the work that the AMPDC used to do.

Alberta’s festival audiences crave local films over bigger, more commercial work–once they know such films exist.

Back in Grande Prairie, the 2014 edition of Reel Shorts took place May 7–11 in two venues and offered 18 program packages plus guest speakers and a filmmaking and screenwriting competition. School groups ensured that 1,000 young people were exposed to short films and introduced to Grande Prairie’s arts community.

A festival to entertain a group of enthusiasts is cultivating the next generation of local film fans and filmmakers. In 2013 Reel Shorts became accredited by the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, making shorts screened at the festival eligible for Canadian Screen Awards. There are only four other festivals in Alberta that are so accredited: EIFF, Global Visions, CIFF and the Banff World Media Festival.

“The opportunity to do whatever the heck you want to is huge here,” says Scerbak. “There’s money; there’s talent. It’s an opportunity to learn and create. If you have any kind of talent and drive, you can do anything here. In my opinion, you need to have three things to have a thriving film community: a film school, a festival and filmmakers. We’re basically trying to be all three.”
Terry Scerbak is being modest about her tremendous role in creating a film scene where there was none. She is an important part of the synergy of festivals and independent filmmakers serving a growing demand from sophisticated Albertans for local and less commercial films.

Mari Sasano makes and promotes film in Edmonton. She teaches at Grant MacEwan University and sits on several arts boards.


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