Fantasia 2015: Like Summer Camp, But For Cinephiles

August 13, 2015

by Jason Gorber

Montreal's Fantasia Fest ran July 14th-August 5th.
Montreal’s Fantasia Fest ran July 14th-August 5th.

The life of a film critic at a festival is a strange one at the best of times. There’s something particularly unnatural about cramming three (or even seven!) films in a day, keeping your mind straight and in focus, and then somehow trying to have something interesting to say about someone else’s work. Most festivals are both physically and emotionally taxing – chasing premieres, tying down interviews, meeting deadlines – that it becomes easy to complain about. It’s easy, but also stupid – because it’s not like we’re lifting bricks here, let alone going through the toil of actually making the damn film.

Still, it’s always nice to not have the pressure cooker of a mega-festival to revive a bit of love into your job. Why not have a sense of vacation while working, doing what you want to do without feeling the strain of weeks of sleepless nights and bleary-eyed missives?

It’s why a festival like Fantasia in Montreal feels very much like a summer camp for film nerds. You get to hang out with friends from all over the world that have come here as part of the festival circuit, you get to experience the charm and delights of this bilingual city, and you have the catharsis of watching films where, more often than not, a villain is eviscerated (or liquefied!) for your on-screen entertainment.

For almost two decades Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival has been home to some of the strangest and most provocative films that play in this country. Founded as a showcase for works broadly considered part of “genre cinema” – think action, horror, thriller as opposed to period drama – it’s grown into one of the leading festivals of its kind in the world, joining an elite group that includes Austin’s Fantastic Fest, Korea’s BiFan, or Spain’s Sitges.Despite its seemingly specific focus, Fantasia’s programmers do a quite remarkable job at presenting films reaching quite diverse audiences. Its unusual length (more than three weeks!) allows many films, both Canadian and international, to screen for the enthusiastic and supportive local crowds.

When I attend the big guys – TIFF, Cannes, Sundance – there’s an anxiety built-in when trying to see as much as possible in as short a time as we have allocated. Inevitably things fall through the cracks and one’s left with a feeling that you’ve missed a slew of interesting films simply due to scheduling conflicts and time constraints.

Fantasia, meanwhile, is one of those precious wake-up-at-the-crack-of-noon festivals, and it’s all the better for it.

Given the leisurely pace, with a half-dozen films playing per day stretched over the weeks, you can immerse yourself more readily into some of these films. You’re provided some space to breathe, meaning maybe you’ll find some gems you might otherwise have never sought out.

One film this year was Goodnight Mommy (aka Ich seh, Ich seh), the Austrian psychological thriller directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. The work first bowed at Venice and TIFF last September, but catching it during its Quebec premiere at Fantasia proved to be an ideal environment for this quiet yet powerful tale. Borrowing stylistically from fellow countryman Michael Haneke’s more violent works, the story of Elias, Lukas and their mother is surreal and effective.


A still from “Goodnight Mommy.”

Amusingly, some of the more hard-core horror fans in attendance felt the film’s “twist” underwhelming, perhaps missing the fact that there’s no twist at all, the film going out of its way very early on to show the circumstances of these characters. If pure fans of shock-and-awe horror were put off due to their expectations, the rest of the audience were completely drawn into the sterile setting with its increasing level of tormented characters.

For the last several years the middle week of the fest has been home to Frontiers, a place for filmmakers to pitch ideas and network about co-production deals. It’s been a tremendous success, spawning a sister market in Belgium to cover that sector as well. As films broadly considered “genre” are ideal for smaller international works to find audiences all over the globe this marketplace is ideal to spawn the next generation of films for future festivals.

One such work is Turbo Kid, the charming throwback to 1980s action fun. The film is written and directed by Montreal filmmakers RKSS, the moniker for the triumvirate of Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and her brother Yoann-Karl Whissell. The trio pitched the idea for the film several years back, and after playing Sundance, South-by-Southwest and BiFan the film played to a rapturous local crowd. A mix of The Road Warrior with BMX Bandits, the film manages to be nostalgic without being obnoxious about it – no small feat given the exploding heads and silly costumes.

The film feels very much like it earns its future cult status, if making such a judgement doesn’t result in some sort of Ouroborosian blemish on the time-space continuum. With cameos from the likes of Michael Ironside there’s some name recognition, but it’s the sweet and playful leads Munro Chambers as ‘The Kid’ and Laurence Leboeuf as his companion that elevates the film from being just a showcase for shlock.

After ten days of hit or miss films (and plenty of time spent at the Irish Embassy Pub, an evening ritual for filmmakers and journalists alike that’s as ingrained into the festival as the screenings themselves) I closed out my time there with Sono Sion’s Love & Peace. Three of the half-dozen films Sono’s releasing in 2015 played this year’s Fantasia, and Tag ended up winning the major prize, the Cheval Noir.


The poster for “Love and Peace.”

Where Tag is certainly more provocative, I had a terrific time watching Love & Peace. It’s a quirky musical with Kaiju elements and a Christmas fable all thrown in. The disparate parts shouldn’t work, but somehow the melange comes together, and we’re left with a film that’s both sweet and silly while also being thoroughly enjoyable. The terrific score doesn’t hurt for falling for the film, but what I think I enjoyed most was the sense of playfulness throughout.

Sono’s works are often unrelenting, and while I’m drawn to works like Cold Fish with their visceral and violent nature, it’s sometimes nice to sit back and enjoy a slice of weirdness that’s also unequivocally enjoyable. That’s not to say, of course, that Sono doesn’t inject some moments that might offend some more sensitive viewers, but given that this is as close as he’s likely to come to crafting a heartwarming holiday classic I think one should take that in stride.

From snagging warm bagels after a midnight screening, enjoying a string of sunny summer days before taking in a series of films, or even parlaying your stay into catching a live read of The Big Lebowski script scheduled during the Just For Laughs Festival, attending Fantasia is a wonderful escape for a few weeks for any fan of these strange and sometimes wonderful films. It’s a festival big enough to give you a sense of the breadth of genre filmmaking, but still small enough for you to feel part of the community of fans and filmmakers alike, a unique and wonderful band of brothers and sisters gathering together in the dark to laugh together, to be scared together, and given one of the stranger traditions of the fest, to meow in unison before the screening starts.