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Bright lights of screen and industry converge on Yukon

The only feature film festival north of 60 lights up Yukon cinema screens next week. Starting February 18, the Available Light Film Festival launches a jam-packed five days of screenings and industry events - plus

The only feature film festival north of 60 lights up Yukon cinema screens next week.

Starting February 18, the Available Light Film Festival launches a jam-packed five days of screenings and industry events - plus a chance to get up close and personal with some major players.

The seventh annual Available Light Film Festival features 22 films from six countries, including everything from a program of NFB Animation for Kids, to a bio-pic about punk/poet/goddess Patti Smith (Patti Smith - Dream of Life), to an off-kilter portrait of a Norwegian train driver (O’Horten), to comedian Bill Maher investigating the curious world of organized religion (Religulous).

The festival has evolved over the years from an initial 16 films to this year’s more “refined” version, says director Andrew Connors.

“The first couple of years we spread out over two weekends,” he explains, “but for the resources that we have, it makes more sense to go full out for five days.”

The festival grew out of Connors’ desire to see films that Yukoners don’t normally get to see in a cinema setting.

“Now, with the availability of high-end digital prints, we’ve been able to move to the Yukon Arts Centre, which is the premier arts presentation space.

“They’ve got a very powerful projector that provides an excellent image and audio, and the use of the arts centre allows us to do all our workshops and industry activities in the same space.”

Connors himself has been the main programmer for the last two years, a job that begins the summer before the festival.

A lot of the programming comes out of the trip he makes each fall to the Vancouver International Film Festival.

“We don’t do a big call for submissions. It’s more of an invitation process. We now have ongoing business relationships with distributors around North America, so we can call them up and say, ‘Send us all your new releases.’”

Industry guests such as renowned Winnipeg director Guy Maddin, who attended last year’s festival, are pleasantly surprised by Yukon’s active film community.

“I think Maddin and Jody Shapiro, his producing partner, were really pleased with the audience response and the number of people who came and the atmosphere around the festival,” says Connors.

Documentaries are a key programming mandate, “mostly because audiences here want to see documentaries in a cinema venue.”

For the last three years, they’ve made up 50 per cent of the programming. Besides, “after years in the sweater-vest wilderness, the documentary aesthetic is finally cool,” Connors adds.

“And even some of the fiction films we’re presenting were made in the spirit of documentary filmmaking.”

In fact the blurring of the line between documentary and fiction is a dominant theme in the festival ‘09 program, reflecting an important trend in North American cinema.

Among these genre-bending films is Mothers and Daughters by Carl Bessai, who’ll be in attendance at the festival along with the film’s star, famed Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal (Dances with Wolves, North of 60).

“It’s about that universal experience of bonding between mothers and daughters, shot as a totally low-budget film and made in collaboration with the actresses,” says Connors.

“There’s interludes within the film that are documentary scenes, where the director is interviewing each actress about her character, and the actress is talking about her experience as a mother or daughter. It’s a very interesting blend of fiction and nonfiction.”

Bessai and Cardinal will give a workshop together on February 22nd on the fertile collaboration between director and actor.

The opening film of the festival, Passage, is another genre-bender by renowned Canadian documentary maker John Walker that mixes traditional documentary with the fictional recreation of historical events.

Passage tells the story of Dr. John Rae, the man who came closest to solving the dark mystery of the Franklin Expedition, something for which he was never forgiven.

“The film follows the main actor, Rick Roberts, as he develops his character, and they go to Arviat and then they go to Orkney and they go to John Rae’s old stone house,” says Connors. “We get to know about John Rae through the actor’s eyes.”

In fact the scene where John Rae tells Lady Franklin about the cannibalism by her husband’s crew was shot in the same naval office in London where Rae would have delivered the news.

“It’s a fictional re-enactment of history in a documentary format,” adds Connors.

Walker, who will be also be in attendance at the festival, will lead a documentary master class on February 19th.

Other highlights include Frozen River, nominated for Best Actress and Best Screenplay Oscars, which tells the story of a single mother who gets drawn into human smuggling on a Mohawk reserve on the Canada-US border.

Also nominated for an Oscar (Best Feature Documentary) is The Betrayal, a film that documents 23 years in the life of a Laotian family as they make the difficult adjustment from the chaos of war and revolution to a new life in the immigrant ghetto of Brooklyn.

The film that won Best Canadian First Feature Film at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival is also part of Available Light.

Before Tomorrow, an Arctic period piece set in the 19th century, is the newest film from the prolific Isuma Igloolik filmmaking community.

David Hamilton, producer of Deepa Mehta’s epic Water, will also be on hand to present their new film Heaven on Earth at Available Light and in Dawson City.

This year, for the first time, both Telefilm Canada and The Harold Greenberg Fund will take part in the festival, with representatives at information sessions on funding and eligibility criteria.

Other panel discussions will look at subjects such as creating media content for the cellphone and PDA screen, and the world of feature film financing.

You’ll also be able to read about Available Light Film Festival on a daily blog at written by Geist Magazine contributor Michal Kozlowski.

All events take place at the Yukon Arts Centre, Qwanlin Cinema and the Old Firehall. Advance tickets and the five-film pass ($40/$35 YFS members) are available at the Yukon Arts Centre box office and Arts Underground. For a complete list of screenings and ticket information, visit or call 393-3456 (FILM).

And see you at the movies!

Patricia Robertson is a Whitehorse-based writer. Her most recent

collection of short stories is

The Goldfish Dancer.