The Whistler Film Festival will forever remember 2004 as the year of the growth spurt.
At the tender age of four the festival watched its submission rate increase more than 100 per cent from the year before and introduced two major prize competitions with awards in the tens of thousands of dollars. A total of 92 films were screened, up from 40 in 2003.
Unfortunately, as any gangly teenaged boy tripping over his new shoes will tell you, with a growth spurt comes growing pains. The bane of Whistlers spurt was a squirrelly DigiScreen projection system. The Montreal-developed technology digitizes films and runs them as a program, explained festival programming director Bill Evans, but due to faulty encoding weeks before the system had arrived several films, most notably The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess and Being Caribou , began running out of sync. Love Crimes was hit the hardest, and the festival arranged for a re-screening on Sunday evening.
"We had to trust that it would be done properly and it wasnt," Evans said, "it left us with egg on our face. If theres a lesson for next year we really have to build in time to test everything."
Despite the glitches, Evans stands by the DigiScreen technology and the festivals decision to use it.
"Part of the festival has always been showcasing new technology," Evans said. "The positive side of it is every other film that we screened. I think that it will be the norm in the future, within the next five years."
Tech-wars aside there were a multitude of shining moments in this years festival. The inaugural Philip Borsos Award for best Canadian feature film went to B.C.-based documentary maker Kenny Hotz for his wacky tongue in cheek film about hanging out at a World Catholic Youth rally with the goal of meeting Pope John Paul II.
The announcement at the Sunday awards brunch was preceded by an emotional reading by Borsoss widow, Barrett Borsos, of an e-mail from Donald Sutherland, star of her husbands film Bethune, that praised the late directors vision and dedication.
Hotz thanked "The Grey Fox", referring to both Borsos and his most renowned film, and "the blond fox", referring to actor and jury member Deborah Kara Unger.
Appearing slightly dazed after leaving the stage the $10,000 awards first ever recipient exclaimed that he plans to "milk this puppy for all its worth," and will return to future festivals, describing the Whistler experience as "booze, buds, broads and bacon."
Unger, a seasoned veteran of multiple acclaimed Canadian and American independent films, said her experience on the Borsos jury had been positive.
"This festival has the potential, if nurtured properly, to do for Canadian independent film what Sundance has done for American indie cinema," Unger said. Asked whether the fest might one-day draw elite Canadian directors such as David Cronenberg, and others of his calibre with whom Unger has worked, she replied "the elite have to start somewhere."
The festivals other big monetary winner was Kirby Morrow, whose script The Boxing Day Classic , about a fictional 50-year-old hockey game in Jasper National Park, won the inaugural Short Scripts competition. Morrow received $1,500 cash and a package of services worth approximately of $18,500 to bring the film to the screen. Morrows film must be completed in time for next years festival.
The festivals most popular film was also its first. A mostly local crowd flocked to the opening gala screening of Alberta director Randy Bradshaws dramatic film Crazy Canucks , a bio-pic of the famous Canadian mens downhill ski team from 1974 to 1976. The film was preceded by words from film subject Steve Podborski and received resounding applause for its concluding remarks that "the sport had lost a true gentleman" in referring to the 1990 death from cancer of Crazy Canuck and Whistler legend Dave Murray.
The film was voted the winner of the Audience Award for best feature film.
The response for a film with a local connection and a sense of community ownership harkens back to the to 2003 Audience Award winner In the Shadow of the Chief , a world premiere historical climbing documentary set in Squamish.
"It goes to show that this is an event that has a strong community base," said festival director Shauna Hardy.
Evans also noted the importance of continued community support. "Im very conscious of the fact that this festival has to reflect the community that its based in," he said. "Were not trying to come in and change it, make it something that imposes itself on the community. I think we expanded it a lot this year in terms of the types of films we were able to bring in, but we will also want to retain ties to the community and bring in films that will be popular here."
More than 1,000 people attended the screening of Crazy Canucks . Attendance was also up for Festival Forum workshops and 15 films were deemed sellouts/near sellouts.
According to Evans the festival can now take a few years to become accustomed to its bold new size and growing national and international profile.
"I dont see us expanding beyond what weve got," Evans noted, "just consolidating."
2004 Whistler Film Festival Award Winners
Philip Borsos Award for Best Canadian Feature Film
Directed by Kenny Hotz
Best Adventure Film
Call It Karma
Directed by Geoff Browne
Best Documentary Film
Directed by Velcrow Ripper
Short Scripts Competition
Audience Award for Best Feature Film of the Festival
Directed by Randy Bradshaw
CBC ZeD Audience Award for Best Short Film of the Festival (tie)
Man Feel Pain
Directed by Dylan Akio Smith
A Russian Wave
Directed by Becky Bristow
For more information on the award winning films go to www.whistlerfilmfestival.com.