NorthwestFest keeps the documentary flame burning with a record-high 80 films

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If you’re a documentary fetishist looking for any flavour of cinematic journalism, Edmonton’s NorthwestFest is the absolute best festival of the year — full stop.

From species-threatening serious — topics include an inside-Wuhan look at the pandemic; the paradoxes of body shaming; and humanity’s ongoing slip into technological obsolescence — to more fun stuff — obsessive record collecting; garbage processing in Edmonton; crazed Evil Dead fandom; and a film about a Christmas stage production of Alien put on by British bus drivers —NWF’s lineup is extra stellar this year, with a record 40 features and 40 shorts.

It’s another “bright side” of being forced into a virtual iteration: no time-and-space competition for that in-person big screen. Just watch any of the 80 films, whenever you want, anywhere in Alberta, May 6-16 at northwestfest.ca. Your biggest challenge, besides fighting for space on the couch, might be deciding what to watch.

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Guy Lavallee, artistic and programming director of NWF and its sister fest Rainbow Visions, knew by December 2020 this year’s program would run online.

“We did go ahead with a fused theatrical edition of Northwest and Rainbow Visions in November, and a couple of films did really well.

“But I think a lot of our audience, like even passholders, chose not to come; they didn’t even ask for refunds … it was tough.”

There were the happy surprises this round, like the sheer volume and quality of pitches, “more submissions than we’ve ever had,” he notes.

Because so many films held back, waiting for the pandemic smoke to clear through 2020, “basically, the consensus is, you can’t just sit on your film for three years. So I think a lot of people just decided, you know what, let’s submit to a bunch of festivals.”

As a bonus, and thanks to enhanced Zoom literacy, the fest has taped a couple dozen interviews from as far away as the U.K. and Australia — each available when you stream its respective film.

Direct Line to home

Speaking of those, Lavallee starts by noting the documentaries that have connections to Alberta, direct or symbolic.

The Line is a film about garbage processing mentioned up top, a portrait by local director Anthony Goertz.

“There’s a company (Quality One) that hires people to work the line in waste management. And they take chances on a lot of people: maybe they were in prison, maybe they are recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, or have been in trouble with the law. And the woman who runs this company, she just feels everyone deserves a second chance.

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“And we have that double featured with Joe Buffalo,” notes Lavallee.

This is Vancouverite Amar Chebib’s short film about the Maskwacis Cree Nation’s international skateboard legend who survived residential school. The film won the Audience Award at SXSW, and is screening at Tribeca in June.

Says Lavallee, “Just watch the scenes of him in the film talking directly into the camera and you’re just mesmerized.”

Joe Buffalo, a short film about the Maskwacis skateboard legend, won the Audience Award at SXSW.
Joe Buffalo, a short film about the Maskwacis skateboard legend, won the Audience Award at SXSW. Photo by supplied

Someone Like Me, one of NWF’s features, started out as the story of a Ugandan refugee moving to Vancouver, “And then COVID hits.

“Now it’s like, you’re a newcomer and you can’t do anything. You can’t leave your apartment. And we haven’t really seen that film yet,” says Lavallee of the NFB film, directed by Edmonton-born Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams, who studied here.

Also of note, Jeromy Deleff’s very local short — Pekiwewin Relief & Prayer Camp — takes us inside the pop-up tent community that made national headlines last year, homelessness hardly yet extinct here.

The programmer also notes ugly echoes in Alberta in White Noise, about the rise of white nationalism in conservative politics, thanks to conspiracy theorists like Richard Spencer.

“I think it’s absolutely essential viewing,” he says. “Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing, right? He’s not yelling, he’s very, very well spoken, well educated. And I think that that movement has realized, by presenting their arguments with people like that, they’ve managed to swell.”

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On the environmental disaster side, Lavallee recommends Hell or Clean Water, set on the shores of Newfoundland.

“Here’s a guy who’s a commercial diver who’s mortified when he discovers all throughout the harbours, under the surface, there’s more garbage than you can even fathom. It’s shocking — from tires and aluminum and tin and metals. And so he makes it a mission, like a one man band, to start cleaning it up.”

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OK, this is all important but very heavy, and life has been very heavy. So let’s stroll through NWF’s fun side a little — sound good?

Lightening the heavy load

“When we rebranded as Northwest Fest in 2015,” says Lavallee of Canada’s oldest documentary film fest stretching back to 1983, “we thought, this is the beauty of documentaries.

“We’ve discussed some of them: you can have films about very, very, very heavy subjects. But you can also have some films about very, very entertaining subjects.”

Don’t say this in front of your British grandmother, but he starts out with Fanny: The Right to Rock.

“This movie’s gonna blow people away. I’m a lifelong music fanatic, and I’m like, how have I never heard of this band — the first all-female rock band ever to be signed to a major label in the United States? David Bowie would mention them in interviews all the time.

“To this day,” Lavallee notes, “rock radio has always been hesitant to play many female artists … unless they’re highly sexualized. But this film is such a hoot.”

Vinyl Nation, meanwhile, flips through the lives of a diverse group of dedicated discophiles.

“There’s kind of this stereotype of your typical record collector, like your comic book collectors: old white guys,” he says, noting the film shakes that up. “Point being that vinyl, which is so popular again, and like music itself, is for everybody.”

Playing NorthwestFest May 6-16, Vinyl Nation looks at record collectors and the thing they so love.
Playing NorthwestFest May 6-16, Vinyl Nation looks at record collectors and the thing they so love. Photo by supplied

And above all these films, Lavallee enthuses about Alien on Stage.

“There’s a tradition in the U.K. called pantomime where groups of families, small local community groups, they’ll put on a play for Christmas. And there’s this group of bus drivers, and one of the bus driver’s kids, they’re like, ‘Oh, do you want to write our play this year?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll only do it if we could do something cool.’”

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So, they do a community-theatre stage production of the sci-fi classic film Alien.

“I think this is the film everybody needs this year,” laughs the programmer. “It’s just a really joyous celebration of community and people working together to do something.”

He notes this is a little like the festival itself, saying, “At the end of the day, it is the longest, continuously-running documentary festival in the country, which, you know, is something. A nice little thing to hang our hat on.”

Supporting indie cinema local to worldwide — not to mention the fest itself — individual films are $12.95 to stream, while passes to the entire festival, all 80 films running through May 16 are $79.99 — tax and processing fees included.

Says Lavallee, “It was really important for us to keep it continuously running, whatever way we can. And maybe next year it’s back to normal — whatever that is.”

fgriwkowsky@postmedia.com

@fisheyefoto

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