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Feature: 15 Years of HIFF
The Shot List
HIFF 15th ANNIVERSARY VIDEO
For this month’s WorkPrint short, we take a look back at 15 years of HIFF.
Check out the video below:
by GEN OLIVER
The Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival has been bringing guest filmmakers to local artists and audiences to celebrate independent cinema through screenings, Q&As, workshops, and artist talks for 15 years.
To commemorate this anniversary and the evolution of HIFF, I met with former AFCOOP executive director Walter Forsyth, former programming chair Solomon Nagler, and current programmer Tori Fleming to round up their memorable moments and behind-the-scenes stories.
HIFF Begins with Walter Forsyth
AFCOOP had been putting annual members’ screenings to celebrate work coming out of the co-op since the 1970s, long before HIFF was ever given a name. But it was during Walter’s time as AFCOOP’s director in the early 2000s that the shape of HIFF started to form.
Back then, he thought it would be fun to start giving filmmakers awards that could appear as laurels on their films and help get their work into more festivals.
“People really liked it. It was really fun and celebratory to get together and show some work—we thought that’s kind of a fun way for the members to get engaged,” he said. “When we gave out some awards, people would really get excited about them. Then we were like, ‘Okay, how can we make this grow, get bigger?’”
The answer to that question, as any arts administrator knows far too well, is to apply for more grants.
At that time, festival funding was a Catch-22 proposition—you ostensibly already had to have an operating festival with conference programming to qualify. It meant that getting HIFF off the ground was a rigamarole process stretching over several years.
“It was not just ‘Let’s put on HIFF!’ It took a while to get going,” said Walter.
Ironically, a clause of the Canadian Arts Presentation Fund from Canadian Heritage stated that the event could not involve competition or awards, but should be geared toward collaborative artistic presentation. Thus, the AFCOOP Awards that first gave rise to the festival immediately became an item of its past.
From its earliest days, HIFF’s focus was to showcase cinema that was outside the commercial realm and foster discussions between the artist and audience that weren’t happening in the city otherwise.
“Creatively, [HIFF] was a reaction to the Atlantic Film Festival at the time, who was doing its thing and had been for a long time,” said Walter. “But it did not show much experimental work, it did not show much challenging work, it did not really put much emphasis on the artist and the artistic vision. We decided, let’s put on an event that celebrates filmmakers, and that is why it was called the filmmakers’ festival, as opposed to just a film festival.”
The first inaugural HIFF in 2007 was built around the “Is Film Dead?” Symposium, a series of panel discussions about the work of media archivists in Canada and the relevance of celluloid in the time of budget cuts and so-called “YouTube.com.”
When asked today, Walter considers the question of “Is Film Dead?” to be ironic. By the time AFCOOP staff were putting on the symposium, they felt confident that digital and celluloid could co-exist as media. The symposium “was more of a reason to get a bunch of artists together and have a symposium,” he said. “Another target towards our goal to put on a festival.”
Though celluloid is no longer the dominant medium for mainstream filmmaking, one look at the HIFF 2021 lineup clarifies that working with celluloid remains a key process and stylistic choice to many independent filmmakers, and it remains central to HIFF programming.
The Middle Years with Solomon Nagler
(LAUREN DIAL PHOTO: Solomon Nagler presents the Atlantic Auteurs program at HIFF 2019.)
A few years in, Sol began assisting Walter with HIFF as the chair of the programming committee at AFCOOP.
As a professor at NSCAD, he collaborated with several members of the university community for programming, crediting folks like Shannon Brownlee and Gerry White from Dal, Darrell Varga from NSCAD, and Jennifer VanderBurgh from SMU. He also involved his students in HIFF as much as possible.
“Because HIFF did not have a lot of money at that time, we would pitch in our money from schools in order to fund as much programming as possible, together with the money that AFCOOP would get together,” he said. “I think from a very early stage, we were trying to focus on screening things that were very different from what they were screening at the Atlantic Film Festival. So, mainly looking at more experimental and independent works. Whenever we saw something that was sort of out-of-this-world, or that we were confused by, we would get excited.”
Sol emphasizes the unique energies brought by the venues across the city: the classic Bus Stop Theatre; the one year surrounded by boats in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, like a satirical image of the Maritimes; a screening at the Lord Nelson Ballroom that did not go quite as planned; and the special feeling evoked when screening in the North Street Church. HIFF visiting filmmaker Philip Hoffman noted, “screening experimental films in old churches is the heart of Canadian cinema.”
The spirit of HIFF always came alive in the post-screening conversations in the lobby, the new artistic alliances formed at the bar, or in the shenanigans at his annual Mussel Party, he said.
When festivals put filmmakers and community first, the effects are tangible, and Sol has seen those effects first-hand. HIFF has made an effort to support and nurture filmmakers’ growth over the years, he said, giving them a venue to share their films and connecting them with like-minded artists to help push their work forward.
“In addition to brilliant narrative filmmakers, there are a whole bunch of experimental filmmakers that came out of showing their work at HIFF,” he said. “They learned that by showing their work, that it was respected and that their vision was respected and unique, that gave them strength to pursue their work in a more robust way, get funding, and live independently on their work.”
Winston DeGiobbi is a prime example of this for Sol, and discovering Buggery, Winston’s first submission to HIFF, remains one of his most cherished festival memories.
“We were looking through all of these local submissions, and then this really nasty-looking DVD popped up with hand-drawn penises and pigs on it, and we popped it into the DVD player and then came the most transgressive, original film that I have ever seen come out of this region in my life,” said Sol. “I thought this person is either a genius or someone we should be a little bit afraid of.”
After a few years, Sol and others from the universities began to back down from their programming roles. Nelson MacDonald took the programming reins, elevating the festival with his connection to other Canadian filmmakers and festivals. During this time between 2014 and 2016, HIFF developed more robust international programming, as well as the initiative to bring external programmers to Halifax to look at local work, connect with the local filmmakers, and help them get programmed at other festivals.
In 2017, the HIFF Programming Committee was founded, with the aim of making space for new voices in programming and further developing and diversifying HIFF’s offerings.
The New Programming Committee with Tori Fleming
(ARCHIVED PHOTO: Dan Boos, Zack Miller, Tori Fleming and Dawn George of the HIFF 2017 programming committee.)
Tori’s first HIFF was at the Bus Stop Theatre in 2009, as a NSCAD student new to Halifax, and she hasn’t missed one since. She remembers taking classes with Sol, who always encouraged the students to attend. Then, as a new graduate, she found that HIFF was a supportive environment for emerging filmmakers by encouraging experimentation and staying accessible.
“Here is a festival showing incredibly experimental work, and work that people I know made for $50 with their friends, that takes them really seriously and values them as being important,” she recalled. “That makes a huge difference in feeling like whether or not it is still worth making work when you are at that brand new, entering-the-world stage of being an emerging artist. And I do not know how people keep moving forward and continue making work if you live in a city that does not have something like HIFF or AFCOOP.”
The elusivity and exclusivity of many film festivals does not just appear in the onscreen content. As Tori explains, it also affects the environment of the festival and what types of interactions are able to take place.
“It always feels like if somebody shows a film I am incredibly impressed with, I can just find them in the lobby and chat, it feels like we are all equals,” she said. “We see these incredible filmmakers flown in from abroad talking to second-year film students, and it all feels very normal. You are not going to see that at other film festivals. I think that is really special and the reason that HIFF is integral to Halifax.”
In 2017, Tori joined the new programming committee that was formed along with Heather Young, Daniel Boos, Dawn George, and Zack Miller. In this new committee, the programmers watch every single film and agree on each slot only after reaching unanimous consensus.“HIFF is one of the most difficult programming jobs I have had, but it is by far the most fulfilling.”
The long yet rewarding process also adds to the close-knit nature of the committee. “Zack or Danny Boos can tell me the exact opinion they think I am going to have on the film, and they will be right,” she said. “Because we all know each other’s opinions so well.”
When considering the evolution of HIFF during these years, she says that favoured themes and aesthetics have shifted around, “but one thing that is very consistent: we are always interested in showing work that could inspire what is possible for people in Halifax. We are showing things that are possible for the filmmakers that work here.”
Every year, Tori walks out of HIFF a little bit more inspired to create things, reminded that starting a project is often the hardest part. She loves that HIFF masterclasses show time and again that incredible films often come from filmmakers getting scrappy, calling in favours, and using a pool noodle to rig a lighting set-up in their room.
The transition to online festivals for HIFF 2020 and 2021 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been the most drastic shift in the past five years. Tori admits that though she loves being cuddled up with her dog in her home, and the move online has gone well, she can not wait to be able to watch films with strangers in a crowded theatre again, feeling everyone’s reactions, followed by conversations about movies in the lobby.
Returning to “normalcy” will be a process—many artists feel paralyzed to continue their work and there are immense amounts of grief floating through the air. “I think as artists and people who run culture, there will have to be a lot of facilitating grief that will happen for the next decade,” Tori noted. “There will have to be art about grief.”
Tori believes the supportive and nurturing environments of HIFF and community arts organizations will play an important role welcoming back filmmakers into the community, and guiding them towards creating. HIFF’s unique festival environment will be more integral than ever.
HIFF has evolved a lot over the past 15 years, but what has remained consistent are the commitments to supporting the local filmmaking community, to presenting out-of-the-box, experimental works, and to cultivating an environment of celebration and collaboration. None of this would be possible without all the talented filmmakers and film lovers of the HIFF and AFCOOP community that continue to contribute their work and show their support. Thank you for 15 years, and here’s to many more!
Gen Oliver (she/they) is HIFF’s 2021 Festival Assistant. They studied Cinema and Media Studies, Contemporary Studies, and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of King’s College and are also currently a Halifax RISE Ambassador under Apathy is Boring.
For a special HIFF take on Screen Memories, our technical assistant Henry Colin took a deep dive into previous work of some of this year’s featured filmmakers. Here’s some past films you can check out too before we bask in their latest features together at HIFF this week.
Manakamana (USA, 2013, dir. Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez)
Pierrot Lunaire (Germany/Canada, 2014, dir. Bruce LaBruce)
A White Butterfly on a Bus (China, 2018, dir. Xinyuan Zheng Lu)
Henry Colin is HIFF’s 2021 technical assistant. He’s also an independent filmmaker who’s directed a number of award winning short films, including Turtle in the Wrong Shell, Passage and In The Cold.
Want to contribute? Send your SCREEN MEMORIES to firstname.lastname@example.org
HIFF 15TH ANNIVERSARY SHIRT
Celebrate 15 years of HIFF with this special anniversary T-shirt!
Shirts are $20 and available for pick up at the HIFF office or can be shipped anywhere in Canada for +$5.
Orders will ship by June 24, 2021. If you choose to pick up your shirt at the HIFF office, we’ll notify you when pick up is available.