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Best of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival

Chris Campbell

In anticipation of a film festival you create impressions of films based on the past work of the directors and actors and don't know what to expect. When the films are first announced there are things that you have heard of and things you haven't and as you dig in to the details things emerge and the excitement builds. It's a challenge for a festival to secure a range of films that appeal to all audiences and this year at the 35th Atlantic Film Festival they did a great job. Now with a few days to reflect on a busy week here are the films that are sticking with me.

There were some great looking films. The development of digital imaging technology and the experience and development of techniques to use it is bearing some gorgeous fruit. When you combine better cameras and sensors with colour correction you have a wider palette of possibilities for the look and approach that you take with a film and that was clearly on display this year. Viewing a film on a large screen with an audience is a privilege and joy and that's always a highlight of any festival.


The film that I anticipated the most was Jacques Audiard's Dheepan which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. As with his other films it's about outsiders and crime and trying to fit in and have some sort of family relationship. With Dheepan and a new cast (including novelist Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, and Claudine Vinasithamby) and a new cinematographer (Éponine Momenceau) he does something that is recognizably Audiard, but feels a bit different. Moving outside of his regular collection of actors and collaborators makes for a film that is more vital and unpredictable.

Cemetery of Splendour

My favourite informal slot at the festival is the weekday afternoon slot with more esoteric foreign films. Last year it was the mesmerizing 3 hour plus Winter Sleep and this year it was Cemetery of Splendour. Apichatpong Weerasethakul crafts meditative and beautiful films combining Thai legends, geography, and people with his own cinematic techniques to create truly unique films. His Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is one of my favourite films and in his latest film he makes something similar, but with a distinctive internal logic. The best approach to take with his films is to be present and let the film wash over you. With minimal exposition and repetition the story and themes emerge over time as the film confidently moves forward. It encourages you to look and listen to follow details and see things. It's a transcendent cinematic experience.

The Lobster

I wasn't so sure if Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster would be part of the lineup for 2015 at the festival and was happy to see that it was. Lanthimos is an acquired taste with a deliberately alienating approach and use of violence to show the strange nature of relationships. In Dogtooth and Alps with a small cast and crew he crafted challenging and memorable films that I appreciated more after thinking about them and discussing them. With a bigger budget and bigger stars, The Lobster retains the power and challenge of his earlier films along with a higher profile. Tweaking and adjusting his approach (and improving it in many ways) makes for a film that is simultaneously more accessible and still deeply strange in terms of the mainstream.


Anti-comedy is a challenging thing as there is a meta level to what is going on. The jokes are not funny and that is why they are funny. It's elaborate and easy to misinterpret and shares a common thread with surrealism and the work of Luis Buñuel. I'm a big fan of that type of comedy from the surrealists to Andy Kaufman to Kids in the Hall to Alan Partridge to Garth Merenghi's Dark Place to name a few examples. Entertainment is almost the 2001: A Space Odyssey of anti-comedy with Gregg Turkington as Neil Hamburger, a bad stand-up comic on a tour across the American desert. It's definitely not for everyone as it blends pain and bad jokes with some stunningly beautiful photography to create a cool and depressing portrait of a man who is not happy in his life.

Early Winter

Speaking of unhappy people, one of the films that I didn't know much about at all was a pleasant surprise with Early Winter. With sparse frames, practical lighting, and unbroken takes, it's a story told through the things not said and things not seen. Michael Rowe's film is anchored by an understated performance from Paul Doucet with yet another complex acting turn from Suzanne Clément. It's a story about a marriage that isn't working. It's a voyeuristic film with key information missing and sparse exposition from dialogue. We start to piece things together in increments as time goes by and the spaces in the story start to fill in. It's bold and confident storytelling built around characters.

One Floor Below

Understated style and elliptical storytelling are the key features of the Romanian New Wave films and One Floor Below is a film about a murder that occurs off screen with two of the main characters knowing this from early in the film. We see the man who knows what happened and withholds what he heard from the police and how it eats at him. It's a slow-burn of a film that paints a portrait through the frame of everyday life and complex and idiosyncratic Romanian bureaucratic systems. Building in power as the film progresses, it's a delicate and powerful.

Closet Monster

A sometimes startling and beautiful feature debut from Stephen Dunn, Closet Monster has elements of magic realism in the story of a closeted young Newfoundland man who is coming to terms with who he is and what he wants. The witness to a horrific hate crime while young, this trauma makes him hide his sexuality as he grows up. It's a complicated portrait of a young man growing up shot in a beautiful way with a powerful central character created by Connor Jessup and a delightful voice performance from Isabella Rossellini as his pet hamster, Buffy. The winner of Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and Best Atlantic Director and Best Atlantic Screenwriting at the Atlantic Film Festival, Closet Monster should do well in the coming months.

Ninth Floor

Making some strong artistic choices to illustrate the story, in Mina Shum's debut feature documentary Ninth Floor, she adds visual and audio layers to a important moment in the development of Canadian society with the Sir George Williams Incident. Even if the film was average it would be worth seeing, but it's extraordinary with the approach that she takes. Shum makes the film even more moving as she connects the people and evokes the time vividly through filming locations in Montreal highlighting the distinctive architecture of the 60s as well as locations in the West Indies. Staging the interviews in abandoned rooms with occasional shots of surveillance cameras and tape machines adds a visual flair to the story. Skillfully weaving in music and a dramatic structure creates a memorable and emotional film that is immediate and inspiring.


With Frank Lenny Abrahamson made a film about creativity and depression that blended stories and history together and in adapting Room to the screen he takes a different approach in making a film that is much more subjective. With the heart of the film in the perceptions of the child Jack, born in a garden shed where he and his mother are imprisoned for half a decade, it's challenging, but works remarkably well. The film is immersive and manipulates time and space impressionistically in a way that made the nearly two hours fly by. Ultimately inspiring after a harrowing beginning, it's a film that manages to bridge the gap between the art house and mainstream cinema in a way that is refreshing.

Green Room

With Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier made a revenge drama that had a central character unsuited to the task and in Green Room, he takes a similar approach in a thriller about a punk band fighting neo-Nazis after witnessing a murder. With opening scenes that vividly and confidently establish the band and their milieu, it quickly takes a turn and increases the tension as the band is trapped and they fight for their lives. Subverting the conventions and expectations of the thriller adds a level of uncertainty and menace as things change quickly and unpredictably. Masterful genre filmmaking that pushes and changes the contours of the thriller in exciting ways.


Two strong-willed brothers who live side-by-side in Iceland without speaking to each other for 40 years face the prospect of losing their sheep herds in Rams. With a wry sense of humour and gorgeous cinematography we see the competitive brothers in their solitary environments surrounded by the spectacular Icelandic landscape. A strong character drama that carefully introduces the people before changing things, it becomes more and more engaging as it goes on and things become more complex.


A virtuoso film with no edits, Victoria shows what is possible with a strong ensemble and crew working with a great script. Shot around Berlin before dawn and into the early morning, it's a two hour plus roller coaster of a film that follows a woman (in a marathon performance from Laia Costa) as she meets a man (played by Frederick Lau) and becomes involved in a robbery. Brilliantly paced with a perfect balance between character-driven scenes and action, it's an immerse experience with the technique and cinematography perfectly suited to the story and never becoming a distraction. A singular cinematic achievement.

Day 8 - Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin in Green Room

In the midst of a cold and with the final day of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival before me, I was able to take my time, fortify myself with oatmeal and coffee and drive in to the city a little bit later for more films. With a great documentary in the morning and a thriller to finishing things off with shorts in the middle, it was a fun end to a festival that had many highlights.

Ninth Floor

When I first heard that Mina Shum was making a documentary about the Sir George Williams Event for the NFB and produced by Selwyn Jacob, I was intrigued. Shum makes great character-based dramas and moving into documentary was sure to be something interesting and Ninth Floor was. Carefully setting up the context with archival footage and staging the interviews in a visually interesting way with stylized angles and screens, the film never loses sight that every story is about people. With beautiful shots of Montreal and the subjects of the film exploring the architecture of 1960s Montreal, it's a visually lush film about racism, prejudice, and the struggle for rights. It's powerful, important, and moving and one of my favourite documentaries of the year.

With my focus on feature dramas this year it became obvious on the final day of the festival that if I was going to see more shorts I needed to dive in, so I went for it with two of the Canada and the World programs in the final evening which was a good choice.

Shorts Canada and the World 3

A more experimental and intense program at times with an understated introduction by Greg Jackson and filmmaker Darcy Van Poelgeest introducing his short The Orchard. From a noisy and ambitious Russian film called The Noise, the enigmatic The Test, the tense crime short The Orchard, the funny Open 24 Hours, the post-apocalyptic Eva, the surreal Unknown Unknown, it was a program a bit more on the edge which was just right for me.

Shorts Canada and the World 4

A program that featured stunning animation and understated drama, the fourth shorts program was introduced by Jessica Murwin who brought up filmmaker Matthew Rankin whose Mynarski Death Plummet was a highlight of the collection of shorts. The stop-motion animation Indigo was a beautiful hand-crafted animation inspired by First Nations stories with a spider constructed out of gears and metal and beautiful, flowing cloth around the heroine. 1000 Plateaus (2004 - 2014) was a stunning, colourful hand-scratched abstract animation created by Steven Woloshen in the front seat of his car over a decade. Partiu followed partying teens in Brazil on a late night filled with tragedy. Crazy House featured another strong performance from Connor Jessup in a stylized look at love and loss. The Québécois dramas Plage de Sable and Chelem featured young women and men dealing with each other in beautifully shot, impressionistic films. Mynarski Death Plummet was a full-screen historical celluloid animation with stylized colourful patterns in an intense recreation of the last minutes of the life of a World War II hero.

Green Room

The final film of the festival and my final film seen was Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room which rescheduled from earlier in the week. The only other film by Saulnier that I'd seen was Blue Ruin which is a mournful and intense revenge drama that constantly subverted expectations. With Green Room he boldly establishes the world of the characters with gorgeous overhead landscape shots and intimate close-up. Shot by Sean Porter (who also was cinematographer of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) and edited with a bold and precise style by Julia Bloch (who cut Blue Ruin as well), it shows the characters before becoming more and more intense. With horrific violence and constantly shifting situations that subvert the expectations of a thriller, it's gripping entertainment done with precision and dark sense of humour.

Feeling good about the films, but in the midst of a cold and sleep deprivation, I skipped the final party to head home. What a great day and a great festival it was, thanks again to the wonderful folks at the Atlantic Film Festival who once again brought the world of cinema to Halifax for us to enjoy.

Day 3 - Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Patricia Rozema introducing Into the Forest

Patricia Rozema introducing Into the Forest

Day 3 of the Atlantic Film Festival was another big day filled with screenings and conversations about films. After you get a few films under your belt the great conversations start happening in the hallways and cafes as you remember what you've seen, hear about what you missed, and anticipate what is still to come. I managed to see four films that were all features with two world premieres and three of the films having the filmmakers present, so it was full of the key elements of a film festival.

Fire Song

The opening shots quietly and confidently establish the setting of the film which is a First Nations community in Ontario. The characters then appear and they are in mourning for a sister, daughter, and friend lost to suicide. A confident debut feature from Adam Garnet Smith, Fire Song tells the story of a closeted Anishnabe teenager who wants to get out of Northern Ontario to move to the city. But he has to support his family all while struggling with who he is in the community. Shot on location with a naturalistic style and some great low-light photography, it's a powerful story from a new voice in Canadian cinema.

How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town

A comedy with a provocative name and great cast, How to Plan an Orgy in A Small Town has some jokes that work and some that don't in the broad comedy. It screened to a world premiere to an appreciative crowd at the 35th Atlantic Film Festival yesterday. Festival Program Director Jason Beaudry brought up writer / director Jeremy LaLonde to introduce the Indiegogo-funded film and Executive Producer Ryan Goldhar and charismatic and funny actor Mark O'Brien were on hand for a spirited Q&A after the film.

Into the Forest

A post-apocalyptic dramatic adaptation about two sisters who survive in the forest with only each other to rely on, Patricia Rozema's feature tries to strike a balance between the bleakness of the collapsing world outside and the world that the sisters create for each other. With some gorgeous cinematography and solid performances combined with darker subject matter in a film that I appreciated, but wasn't fully immersed in. It was only the second screening of the film after TIFF and festival Executive Director Wayne Carter provided a warm and heartfelt introduction to Patricia Rozema who introduced the film and brought greetings from Ellen Page to her home town.


A feature film from P.E.I. from Harmony Wagner that had the Premier of Prince Edward Island on hand as well, Kooperman played to a crowd that laughed and enjoyed the story of the misfit comic shop owner who fights to save his comic shop.

The conversations and discussions started in earnest today and it's so great to talk with fellow cinephiles about what works and what doesn't in films. It's a diverse world filled with different tastes and being part of the community that shows and makes and celebrates films is wonderful outside of the actual films that are being shown on the screen. As we get saturated with cinema the films and discussions start seeping into our dreams. I had a strange, but mundane dream about being at a party discussing the films that I had seen during the day. The line between being awake and asleep blurs after a few days of sitting in theatres. Now I have to go to dive in for another day.

Guide to the 35th Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Today, Thursday, September 17, 2015 is the first day of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It's an exciting day as 100 films will be shown over the next week. There is a lot to see and do and I hope to squeeze in as many films as possible and share things here and in various ways over the next week. It's a concentrated and exciting time and can be overwhelming, so I am here to help you with some of the blog posts from the past week.

How to Enjoy a Film Festival

If you haven't obsessively been planning out your days, putting them into your calendar, and figuring out which chargers and bags and snacks to bring, you can start with How to Enjoy a Film Festival. There are tips for planning things out and keeping track of what you've done. If you have the time and money, getting a pass is the best way to go as it gives you flexibility in being able to change your schedule as well as letting you in to parties and events and the Reel East Coast Lounge in the Lord Nelson Hotel. The pass also gets you into the Festival Music House Atlantic on Saturday night which includes Rose Cousins and Sloan playing at the Marquee Ballroom.

Galas and Events

The high-profile parts of the festival are the galas and parties and you can buy tickets for them individually (and your ticket will get you in to the party connected with the screening if there is one) or if you have a pass you are in. The first gala is tonight with Paul Gross' Hyena Road which is happening at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium with a red carpet gala followed by the opening party at the Lord Nelson. I've got my guide to the galas and events to give you an overview of what will be playing. I'm eagerly anticipating Stephen Dunn's Newfoundland coming-of-age story Closet Monster on Friday, and Jacques Audiard's French film Dheepan on Wednesday.


There are a ton of great short films playing and you could have a pretty amazing festival just seeing the shorts. With documentaries, drama, experimental, and animated films it is a concentrated blast of cinema spread out over the week. You can find out more in my guide to the shorts for 2015 which has some real gems. The shorts program also highlights established and emerging Atlantic filmmakers well, and it's always good to have some shorts in your schedule as you plan out your week.


Some of the best documentaries of the year are in the program and in my guide to the feature-length documentaries I go through the lineup of non-fiction films that screen over the next week. There is a strong Atlantic presence in the documentaries and Donna Davies documentary Fanarchy will have people in costumes from their favourite films as well as a photo booth at the screening, so that will be one not to miss.

Feature Dramas

There are feature-length dramas screening every day in the festival which make for many difficult choices as you try to figure out what to see. I broke down the schedule day by day and you can check out the individual days for my thoughts on the films that will be playing.

The feature dramas on Friday have the weird Entertainment and the harrowing The Keeping Room as highlights. On Saturday, there is the world premiere of the P.E.I. feature Kooperman, as well as the drama Fire Song, the local feature Undone, and the tense Green Room too. Sunday begins with the German one-shot film Victoria and ends with the adaptation of Room to name two of the choices. My highlight Monday will probably be the Thai drama Cemetery of Splendour, the odd drama The Lobster, and there is the world premiere of the N.B. feature Owl River Runners too. For Tuesday the local feature Noon Gun will be great to see. The biggest day and most challenging schedule-wise seems to be Wednesday with strange and wonderful films to pick from including Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room. The final day of the festival, Thursday, September 24 has great non-gala features playing throughout the day including the Holocaust drama Son of Saul as one of the films on a relatively full day of screenings.

Have a great festival and make sure that you share what you loved with the world. See you in the theatre!

35th Atlantic Film Festival - Feature Dramas - Thursday, September 24

Chris Campbell

James White

James White

The final day of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival has humour and intense drama from Canada and the world to suit various moods. It's your last chance to squeeze some films in before the closing night party after a week of cinematic immersion.

Thursday, September 24

The last day of the festival gets underway with a mockumentary from Mark Sawers called No Men Beyond This Point. Set in a world where women started procreating asexually in 1953, it's about the last male born who is now 37 and is working for two women in Vancouver. Sawyers directed some episodes and film segments of Kids in the Hall as well as the 2012 comedy Camera Shy, so a satirical start to the final day of the festival could be fun.

The Québecois drama Paul à Québec is the final entry in the Cinéma en français s.v.p. series for this year. A drama about the everyday life of the Beaulieu family as they face the happy and sad moments in life. Director Franćois Bouvier has a strong background in directing acting ensembles in television so this should be a solid family melodrama.

If you want to see a darker Holocaust drama, Son of Saul (Saul fia) from Hungarian director László Nemes. His debut feature, it's a story set in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 and it follows Saul, forced to assist the Nazis in the operation of the extermination camp. Discovering the body of a boy he takes to be his son, he resolves to give him a proper burial. Constructed out of longer takes in an intimate, immediate style, it promises to be an intense and powerful drama that has already won awards at Cannes and other film festivals.

David Bezmozgis adapts his short story Natasha into a feature film set in Toronto. The story of Russian-Jewish immigrants in the suburbs north of Toronto, it follows the summer romance between Mark and Natasha, the daughter of Mark's uncle through an arranged marriage. Starring Alex Ozerov (who was great in the Atlantic Film Festival favourite Blackbird) and Sasha K. Gordon, it should be a compelling drama with great performances.

The indie drama James White is the final fictional feature screening at the festival this year and Josh Mond's feature debut won the Audience Award at Sundance this year. Mond is an experienced indie producer who brought films such as Afterschool, Martha Macy May Marlene, and Simon Killer to the screen. This coming-of-age drama has received strong reviews for the performances and direction and with cinematography by Mátyás Erdély who also shot Son of Saul which is screening at the festival earlier in the day.


In the fast-moving world of a film festival things can change and since I wrote this there have been two additions to the schedule with Green Room moving to 10:30pm from earlier in the week and the Indian female buddy movie Angry Indian Goddesses at 7:15pm. This doesn't make choosing what to see any easier!