Film fest ditches local cinemas and steps it up a notch

Whitehorse's Available Light Film Festival will not be held at either of the local cinemas this year. They're not nice enough venues, said festival director Andrew Connors.

Whitehorse’s Available Light Film Festival will not be held at either of the local cinemas this year.

They’re not nice enough venues, said festival director Andrew Connors.

“They need to improve their projection and their atmosphere.”

Instead, the whole event is taking place at “the best cinema in the territory,” the Yukon Arts Centre.

And it’s opening with 65_Redroses, an observational documentary following a young woman with cystic fibrosis who’s waiting for a double lung transplant.

When Philip Lyall, fresh out of film school, found out his old friend was in the hospital, he was shocked into making a film.

“I didn’t even know double lung transplants existed,” said the new filmmaker. “And I thought, ‘How do I not know these things?’ I’m not even an organ donor.”

Lyall and fellow graduate Nimisha Mukerji spent a summer and fall with Eva Markvoort as she waited for a double lung donor.

“We were waiting for someone to die in order for her to live,” said Lyall. “And we caught the whole process, there were some pretty volatile moments.”

The whole crew became organ donors in the process, a side-effect of making the film, and of seeing it.

Initially it just seemed like an interesting story, but during the filming this greater message emerged, about social consciousness, he said.

And after the documentary aired on CBC, hundreds of e-mails flowed in from donor converts.

65_Redroses screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival, one of the top three international festivals in the world, said Connors, who heads down every year to check out as many films as possible, scouting for the Whitehorse film fest. In Vancouver, 65_Redroses won Favorite Canadian Film and Favorite Canadian Documentary.

“Whitehorse has an audience that really comes out for documentaries,” said Connors.

And at this year’s festival there are a couple documentaries with local content.

CBQM, directed by Whitehorse’s Dennis Allen, takes a look at life in Ft. McPherson through its local radio station. While LePage Park and the arts centre concert feature in The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights.

Right after the intro, the movie kicks off in Whitehorse, said director Emmett Malloy, who was going to try and make it back for the festival, but is stuck in Hawaii recording with Jack Johnson.

Watching Jack and Meg White play in the local park feels like something from a long lost time, he said.

Then, when the duo began the tour by blowing the doors off the Yukon Arts Centre, Malloy knew he had a film. At the end of the show Jack came off the stage exhausted, and it was still light out, he added with a laugh.

But The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights is not just about a great band playing in some out of the way spots, it also tells a story, said Malloy. The White Stripes have been around for more than 10 years, but there is still an air of mystery around them and their relationship, he said. And during the film you “will learn more about them than you ever knew and still will leave knowing nothing at all.”

Although he’d made a music video with the band and considered himself a friend, Malloy had some doors slammed in his face at the beginning of the tour, when the camera crew got too intrusive. But as the tour went on, the comfort level went up and Malloy and his crew got more than enough access.

“It’s not only a story about one journey, but of 10 years together,” he said.

Booking the festival, Connors tries to give the audience a little taste of everything, from Islamic punk to East Coast dump-scavenging prostitutes.

“My programming mantra is to really try and represent what’s happening in the world,” he said, mentioning My Tehran for Sale.

Shot covertly in Iran’s capital, the film captures some of the country’s youth and their struggle for cultural freedom. “It tells the story of part of the world and people we’d never get to meet,” said Connors.

Last Train Home takes viewers to another part of the globe, as Chinese immigrant workers struggle to get home for Chinese New Year. “It’s the largest annual human migration on Earth,” said Connors.

When Connors chooses a film for his festival, the first step is contacting the distributor to get permission to screen it.

Bigger festivals, like Toronto or Cannes, choose from a whole host of films that are submitted, but a small regional film fest, like Whitehorse, usually has to solicit the movies it wants. And sometimes it has to pay for them.

Standard rates for films released by a Canadian distributor average around $150 or 35 per cent of the box office, whichever is more. But international films can run as high as several thousand dollars per screening. On top of that, Connors is flying a host of filmmakers and industry guests north to give workshops and answer questions.

It’s a lot of work, he said. “But it’s also a great party.”

One filmmaker Connors is particularly excited about meeting is Crackie director Sherry White. The film, about a dump-scavenging prostitute, played by Mary Walsh, and her young granddaughter Mitsy, is a not a comedy, but White is funny, said Connors. “She’s a bit of a firecracker.”

Probably the festival’s most mainstream film is Cooking With Stella, a comedy about two new parents posted at an embassy compound in New Delhi with a loyal thief for a cook. Written by well-known filmmaker Deepa Mehta and her brother Dilip, the film stars Canada’s Don McKellar and Lisa Ray.

Prom Night in Mississippi, with Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman, is also a prominent documentary that follows Charleston High grads as they head into their first integrated prom in 2008.

Being Caribou director Leanne Allison is coming back to Whitehorse with Finding Farley, following a canoe, train, car and sailboat trip across the country tracking Farley Mowat’s ghosts with a young son and a fluffy dog in tow.

There’s also the much-hyped I killed My Mother, a Quebec film directed by 21-year-old Xavier Dolan, who wrote the script when he was just 17. That was a tough film to get, said Connors. The problem is that it’s being released in theatres at the same time as the festival, so copies were hard to come by.

The festival is running February 10 through 14 at the Yukon Arts Centre and is closing with Reel Injun.

The film follows Cree director Neil Diamond across the country as he explores the role of First Nations on the silverscreen, and interviews writers, actors, activist and directors, including Clint Eastwood.

“The First Nation audience doesn’t get a lot of films programmed for their community,” said Connors, who made a point of it this year with both Real Injun and CBQM.

In the festival, each film has a niche market, he said. “And through this niche marketing you build the main festival audience.”

For more information on the Available Light Film Festival, go to

Contact Genesee Keevil at