Around this time last year, the organizers of the Whistler Film Festival (WFF) were dealt about the worst hand you could imagine for an event that was just weeks away from opening night.
“We were licking our wounds because we had just been informed that we would have to shut down the theatres and focus on online offerings only,” recalls director of programming Paul Gratton.
But instead of lamenting the situation, organizers set to work, transforming the 2020 edition into an entirely online model. That 11th-hour shift, combined with an extensive research project the festival undertook to gauge the future of film festivals in a post-pandemic world, proved invaluable for organizers looking to this year’s edition, which will for the first time incorporate in-person and online screenings.
“Everything has been developed in this hybrid model,” said executive director Angela Heck at a press conference this week unveiling the festival’s full lineup. “I can tell you it’s not an easy soundbite to talk about in this way, but it is the reality of developing film festivals and presenting the work that we do in 2021.”
Dec. 1 to 5 will mark the in-person portion of the festival, which, per provincial guidelines, will allow moviegoers into theatres at full capacity, with masks and proof of vaccination required, while films will be available to screen through WFF’s online portal from Dec. 1 to 31.
The industry content summit, meanwhile, will also run in a hybrid format, from Dec. 1 to 10.
Selected from more than 1,550 submissions, this year’s lineup features 81 movies in all, representing 20 countries, including 40 feature-length films, half of which are directed by women, a milestone for the festival.
“That’s quite a threshold to attain. I’m not sure any other international film festival can say that,” notes Gratton.
Already generating Oscar buzz, the opening night film, The Lost Daughter, will screen in-theatre Dec. 1 and marks award-winning actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first foray into the director’s chair. Starring Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Peter Sarsgaard, the movie is based on the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante and effectively “sets the tone for our whole film festival,” Gratton says. “It’s a very innovative, chance-taking, indie-spirited movie.”
The closing night film on Dec. 5, Chasing the Line, is another potential Oscar contender and one that should appeal to Whistler audiences. Directed by Andreas Schmied, the biopic centres on Austrian champion alpine ski racer Franz Klammer and hones in on the fateful few days leading up to his 1976 Olympic gold medal win.
“It’s not a documentary; it’s actually an exciting theatrical movie that integrates acting, very cool 1970s music and actual footage from the Olympics,” Gratton says.
As always, WFF will feature a healthy dose of CanCon, with 61 per cent of its lineup made up of Canadian films, including 15 flicks up for the coveted Borsos Competition for Best Canadian Feature and $15,000 cash prize. In the running this year are: Serville Poblete’s Altar Boy; Valerie Buhagiar’s Carmen; Jeffrey St. Jules’ Cinema of Sleep; Luc Picard’s Confessions of a Hitman; Shelley Thompson’s Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor; Stephen Campanelli’s Drinkwater, Carl Bassai’s Evelyne, Renée Beaulieu’s Inès; Jason Brennan’s L’Inhumain; Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Arturo Perez Torres’ Lune; Sarah Fortin’s Nouveau Québec; Jonathan Keijser’s Peace by Chocolate; Zoe Hopkins’ Run Woman Run; Philippe Grégoire’s The Noise of Engines; and Katie Boland’s We’re All in This Together.
For online viewers, WFF will be premiering one or two movies a day from Dec. 1 to 25, with all films available to stream through Dec. 31. Kicking the online portion off on Dec. 1 will be the Canadian premier of Robin Hauser’s $avvy, a documentary that explores why it’s so important for women to understand and take control of their financial freedom. The closing online film, the aforementioned Peace by Chocolate, screens Dec. 25 and tells the story of a family of Syrian refugees who settle in Nova Scotia and establish a successful chocolate manufacturing company.
Overall, WFF’s 21st edition will feature a dozen world premieres, three North American premieres, and 21 Canadian premieres. In a nod to its reputation as one of North America’s most filmmaker-friendly festivals, 41 per cent of this year’s lineup is made up of first-time directors.
“That’s a very particular niche that I think Whistler has developed,” Gratton says.
“We’re very much about priming the pump for talent in Canada.”
Pique will have more on the festival as opening night approaches. For more information, visit whistlerfilmfestival.com.