Film Festival Joy

Calgary International Film Festival audience
The audience takes in screening | Photo: Courtesy of the Calgary International Film Festival

Film Festival Joy

Calgary International Film Festival’s artistic director describes the magic of film festivals

My first major festival experience was at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002. I came up to Canada from the States with my partner for a “vacation” and to sneak in a few reviews for a film review site I had started in the late 1990s.

I won’t ever forget the first two movies I saw, Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It was a truly amazing experience and I was undeniably hooked.

I love movies (obviously) but seeing one at a festival is something entirely unique. As good as they are, a regular movie at a regular multiplex is well… just regular.

After attending a festival, long after the credits roll, you remain bonded to the people who shared it with you. You can chat about the film with your fellow audience members—even if you attended the screening by yourself.

In my 15 years, I’ve seen friendships form and grow, I’ve seen three marriages result from meetings at a film festival, and those are just the ones I know about.

One of the most amazing film festival experiences I’ve ever had was when I programmed a documentary at the Nashville Film Festival called In My Father’s House. It was about songwriter and rapper Che Smith (he co-wrote Glory from Selma). Che was already slated for a Q&A—but we actually turned off the sound over the closing credits, played the backtrack and Che emerged from the wings and performed his song live.

I hope to give the audience experiences just like that. That particular moment can never be replicated, but moments like that can and will happen every year. It ended up receiving the highest audience award score I’ve ever seen in my career—4.99 out of 5 (one person gave it a 4… I have forgiven them, by the way).

I hope filmmakers have memories just as special. I hope they meet that one audience member whose life is altered by their work. I hope they engage with another filmmaker here and end up working together on a future project. I hope they have an experience so moving that they continue to create films in hopes of returning to the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) every year.

A lineup outside the Globe Cinema at the Calgary International Film Festival
A lineup outside the Globe Cinema | Photo: Courtesy of the Calgary International Film Festival

One of my favourite fan and filmmaker interactions also occurred at the Nashville Film Festival—my first year there. I had a filmmaker named Kimberly Reed in attendance with her documentary Prodigal Sons. It recounts her story of returning to Helena, Montana for her 20-year high school reunion. The catch—Kimberly was Paul in high school.

The first question in the Q&A was from a man who was near the front row in the centre. He stood and said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but we graduated together. Like you, I had to get out of Helena. I’m glad to see you’re doing so well.”

She invited him down to the front of the house and they gave each other a nice, long hug. It was incredibly touching and no one could have predicted it.

Try as they might, video on demand and streaming services can’t create community. You can share the experience with a friend or family member or two. You can talk about what you saw on social media, but it’s still not a truly shared experience.

I think as home viewing expands and streaming services keep creating billions of dollars of new movies and episodic content, a film festival and the cinematic experience becomes even more important.

In the theatre emotions are heightened, laughter is contagious, and the tears are shed with others who are shedding them along with you. There is so much to split us and divide us in the world today but the cinema brings us together. I think that’s crucial to the film festival industry’s success in this day and age.

CIFF has a long history of high quality and varied programming and is a great prelude to awards season. The volunteers here are so engaged and the spirit is absolutely vibrant. CIFF has the quality of one of the “big festivals” on the circuit without the pretension and I look forward to continuing my work with the team to create even more unforgettable film festival experiences.

There is a strong desire within the arts and among the people of Calgary to work together and create a world-class city for the people who live here and the people who come to visit us and I’m very glad to be here.

The first Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) was held in 2000 for six days, and was attended by 8,000 people. Within three years, attendance had more than doubled to over 20,000 for the expanded 10-day festival.

This week, CIFF’s 20th anniversary festival gets under way, showcasing over 200 of the most compelling films of the year from Canada and 54 other countries. The festival hosts gala events, screenings, special presentations, and the Behind The Screen series that emphasizes unique and exciting ways for filmmakers and fans to interact. The festival runs September 18 to 29, 2019 and the full schedule can be found at

Artistic Director Brian Owens joined CIFF last October from his prior role as the Artistic Director of the Nashville Film Festival. Under his leadership, the audience of that festival doubled and is going strong into its 49th season. Before that, he was the founder and executive director of the Indianapolis International Film Festival, which he launched in 2004.