Think back to your 16th birthday party: what images pop in your head? Socially conscious documentaries? Porn stars? Raucous screenings of cult classic gay films? None of the above?
The Fairy Tales International Queer Film Festival clearly has a one-up on the rest of us in the party department then. As Fairy Tales roars on through its teenage years and onto adulthood, it seems fitting to take a look at the workings behind this incredibly diverse and unique film festival.
It all started in 1999, under the umbrella of the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (CSIF). Fairy Tales has grown exponentially since becoming its own separate entity in 2004.
As such, it is a daunting task to be the executive director and a programmer for a film festival that for years has opened the door for thought provoking and creatively diverse queer arts to exist in Calgary.
With nearly a decade’s worth of work with Pride Calgary and the Miscellaneous Youth Network under his belt, James Demers faces the task head on.
Demers lists off some of the criteria that the programming committee looks for when accepting films.
“The biggest criteria for picking a film is, ‘Is it gay enough?’ and that’s so we don’t fall into ‘gay best friend syndrome,’ where there just happens to be a gay character but they’re not the focus of the movie,” he says.
“[Another is] production quality in contrast to content, so if the content is exceptional, then we will compare that to the production quality. For example, I’ve had films smuggled to me from Beijing and the production quality was rough but the content was amazing,” he adds.
Demers also touches on the importance of the film choices.
“We’ve all seen the ‘you get murdered because you’re gay and you must hide it’ storyline. It’s been covered. The queer community has moved beyond that. It’s made me passionate about being able to curate film that spoke to the community in a progressive way.”
One queer filmmaker who continues to create progressive and dynamic works of art is the notable Sandi Somers.
Somers’ first film submitted into the festival was an erotic, film noir, lesbian film, Gens de Phoque, which spurred success for the filmmaker, playing in cities like Boston and Paris. Its origin however created some controversy.
“[The film] was from a show I co-created with five other lesbians across Canada. When our show opened in 1994, it was received with great resistance from mainstream media. We received bomb threats and all kinds of negative press insisting that lesbians and feminists were taking over Calgary,” describes Somers.
The times have thankfully changed. To this day, Somers produces a plentiful amount of art and her view on the direction of the queer film community is comforting and insightful.
“There is now much more acceptance for films from the queer community,” she says.
“Back in my early days, there wasn’t very much funding directed towards lesbian work. Now there is little or no resistance in Canada to fund queer work but there is still a strong need for queer festivals to continue to exist. Gay films that freely and radically celebrate gay life may not have as big a chance of getting into ‘typical’ film festivals.”
The Plaza Theatre in Kensington has welcomed Fairy Tales for the last couple of years and veteran projectionist, Alan Toth, has been there for just about all of them. Toth feels the festival has had a positive impact on the theatre and vice versa.
“[The festival] definitely helps business. The audience comes in and sees the theatre and they see how great it is and we usually get feedback on what movies to bring in during the rest of the year. It helps bring a wider audience to the theatre,” he says.
“The programmers, volunteers and audience are all awesome. They come here year after year and know [The Plaza] loves having them and takes care of them,” adds Toth.
A few key films worth checking out at this year’s festival include: George Takei’s documentary, To Be Takei, which takes a look at the actor’s childhood in a Japanese internment camp during WWII, his time on Star Trek and his much publicized fight for gay rights; an unsettling glimpse into a Christian behaviour modification camp for homosexual teens in Kidnapped for Christ; Fire in the Blood, the critically acclaimed documentary on the crusade to bring low-cost pharmaceutical drugs to HIV/AIDS-stricken countries in Africa and Asia; and my personal favourite, a special retro gala party featuring an interactive screening of the ‘90s cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader on 35mm with live performances and a high school party theme that’s sure to induce nostalgic glee and excitement.
Looking to inspire the future generation of filmmakers, Fairy Tales also has the Youth Queer Program, which provides young filmmakers with the opportunity to create their own film anchored around sexual identity, Demers explains.
“The application process begins in September. All we ask for is some concept on what you want to make, then we accept six filmmakers and get to it,” he says.
The participants are guided along the way with workshops that cover topics from pre-production straight on through to post-production. Once finished, their films are shown during the festival and the creators are given a chance to speak about their work onstage to a live audience.
Meeting Demers in the Fairy Tales office, it’s hard not to notice the giant board that features the festival’s impressive and massive line-up. Hours of hard work and creative material summed up with a few markings on a white board. Demers stares at the board thoughtfully and muses:
“We go from poets falling in love in Brazil, to underground newspapers, to youth programming, to Burning Man, international pharmaceutical espionage, literally in seven days. There’s something for everybody.”
Fairy Tales Queer Film Festival runs May 23-25 & May 28-31 at The Plaza Theatre. Check www.fairytalesfilmfest.com for more info and festival line-up.
By Alonso Melgar