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How to Enjoy a Film Festival

Chris Campbell

It's fall and that's when film festival season starts up around these parts with the Atlantic Film Festival and a whole range of other festivals new and old that will be lighting up the screens in the region and around the world. How can you get the most out of a film festival by seeing great and challenging films while not getting exhausted and overwhelmed?

You need to have a plan and maybe even do some homework before it starts and with the lineups of festivals coming out every day, now is a good time to get ready.

Look at the Schedule

Aside from the films that are playing, take a look at the dates and times of the festival to see how it fits into your life. How much time can you spare to see films and other events? Some people will try to see as much as possible, while others will just have time to see one or two things. (I'm in the former category.)

By looking at the schedule you can see if those are days that you work or if you can catch something before or after work. Many festivals will have different streams and patterns with events and screenings happening simultaneously. Find out what fits with what you like and your own schedule before you realize that you won't be able to make it to the screenings.

Get a Pass

If you can afford a pass it is the best way to go. It gives freedom to change your mind with your mood or after hearing about a different film. I alternate between elaborately-planned days and spur-of-the-moment decisions to see things. Sometimes you see something heavy and want to follow it up with something a bit lighter, other times you may see something and then want to dive back in to the theatre again.

Festivals have different types of passes, so as you start to figure out what you want to see and how much time (and money) you have, you can figure out which pass or individual tickets work best for you. Depending on the screening and festival, passes and tickets will also get you in to parties, receptions, and panels. These can be great and give you a break from sitting in a theatre for hours and hours, as well as some great conversations and food and drink.

Really Look at the Schedule

As soon as possible I look through the full lineup of the festival to see which films are playing and if I recognize anything. I'm a big fan of Letterboxd and keep track of what I've seen and what I want to see through their watchlist feature. So when I read about an upcoming film that seems interesting I'll add it to my watchlist. Start to make a list of things that you want to see using a notebook or an app so you can make some decisions later.

When you look through the lineup of films, drill down to look at the names of the directors and actors. Finding familiar ones can give you an idea of the type of film it could be and whether it will be interesting to you. After the initial pass you can start to do some more research (using IMDb, Letterboxd, and Indiewire) to see what other people have written about the films or see what they've done before. If you have time you can even watch some of their earlier work to get an idea of what type of work they do. After doing some research and watching some films look through the schedule again to see if there is anything that you have missed. I always seem to miss things. There are always obscure gems or directorial debuts hiding in the films that have been carefully chosen for a festival.

Make a Plan

Start to make your own schedule with the list of films you want to see. It's important to have a list of films you want to see so you can look at it if something changes in the festival schedule or your schedule. This gives you the ability to quickly change your plan when something is cancelled or you decide to go for a drink or a meal instead of a film. This gives you options.

Map out your festival experience by starting to schedule the films that you want to see using a calendar. It can be on paper or electronic. I will usually overbook my schedule to delay making decisions. If there are two films I want to see at the same time I put both of them on my schedule and make the decision later. Make sure to check the running times of films as some choices will eliminate later choices as there may not be time to get to the second film before the first finishes. Films never start early, but with a lot of screenings delays are inevitable so always be early and never be late if there is something that you really want to see.

See shorts and documentaries and foreign films especially if you don't usually watch them. Shorts give a more condensed, intense experience in a limited time frame. You can see a range of films and see emerging talent early. With documentaries you can choose based on the topic (as well as the filmmaker) to expand your horizons in that way. With foreign films you get a glimpse into a different way of making films and telling stories. Subtitles can be challenging at times, but for me it's always worth the effort as you discover directors and actors and film movements that you never knew about. A film festival is a gift that keeps on giving in providing a guide to more films and filmmakers to explore during the rest of the year.

I'll make my schedule on my computer and sync it to my phone and make sure I have the location, synopsis, and running time of the film in the schedule. That way I can quickly see when, where, and how long the film is. With introductions and ads, there can be 5 or 10 minutes added on to the time for a screening, so keep that in mind. By having my schedule synchronized to my phone and iPad and laptop I can check it and adjust it as things change. Some people have it all done on paper which is great when you don't have cell phone service (which happens often in theatres) and having a paper copy of the full schedule or program guide can be good for looking things up too.

Eat and Drink

While I won't schedule it as formally, it's important to eat, so figure out the spaces in the schedule where you will get something to eat. It can be expensive to eat out all the time and can also change your plan dramatically if things are busy and you need to wait for food. I'll always have some good energy bars (high in protein) and a water bottle so I stay hydrated and nourished physically (cinema nourishes your soul). Popcorn can be great at a movie, but after the second or third film in a row with popcorn your lips will be dry and that is not fun. Better food and a nice break for a meal and conversation can truly enhance your festival experience.

Sharing a meal or a drink with someone is a great way to share what you think and feel about the film. Maybe there is something that you missed or something that they missed. Reflecting and talking is a way to learn more about the films you've seen and can help you adjust your schedule or plan to see other films. A good meal also can give you a burst of energy before diving back into the theatre to see something else.

Make Notes

It's important to keep track of what you've seen and what you think of the films when you see a lot. I make sure to have a notebook with me to jot down notes (as my phone is off) during a film or right after a film. I used to keep track of all the films in a notebook, but now I use Letterboxd and Your Flowing Data to track the films. As you start to see more and more films it is easy to forget something you've seen (especially in shorts programs that could have 10 or more films). Jotting down quotes or actor names or directors is good as a reminder of things to check out later too.

Writing reviews on sites like Letterboxd or tweeting out impressions or sharing things on Facebook are good ways to share what you've seen too. This can help other people too as they can find out more about great things or films and filmmakers that they didn't know about. Find out the hashtags that a festival is using and follow it and share things there (or mute it if you don't want to know about it). As you share and see what others have shared it can help you figure out things that you have missed that you may want to check out later. Sometimes it can take months or even years before a festival film shows up in theatres or is available for rental, so this may be your chance to remember to keep an eye out for that obscure Turkish film everyone was raving about last year.

Take Chances

While it's good to have a plan and know what you are seeing and why, it's also important to leap into the unknown at times. Take some chances and see things that you know nothing about. It can be a great experience as you can find something new and different. You may also find things that you do not like and that is ok too. The key is trying to balance it all out between having a plan with no surprises and a chaotic experience. I tend to choose something more obscure instead of things that are more popular as the popular things will probably be easier to see later.

A film festival can be a wonderful experience. You see things you would never see and meet great people who share a love of films. Every festival is different with a different focus, but the common thread is a love for discovering new films and bringing that love to an appreciative audience. Have fun seeing films and sharing them!

Unmaking an Introduction

Chris Campbell

The past couple of years the Connected Learning MOOC (Massively Open Online Collaboration) has been conducted by Educator Innovator and the National Writing Project. It's a sprawling, fun collection of educators who spend six weeks connecting, making, sharing, and reflection about education and themselves in six cycles of making stuff. It's on this year and the first cycle is to "Unmake an Introduction." One of the things I want to do this year is to make more and think less, so I'm going to start right away with the first cycle.

The strange thing about this summer and the approaching Fall is that for the first time in over two decades I won't be teaching because I'm taking a Learning Leave from the Nova Scotia Community College where I teach. The plan is to research and reconnect with the filmmaking community that I'm from. The form that will take will be blog posts, a podcast, an email newsletter, and some videos that I'll be producing. It's a chance to use the skills that I teach to share what I learn. Today was the first day of my summer vacation and #clmooc is the perfect way to start this journ.

How do we portray who we are when we introduce ourselves? We construct ourselves by what we share and others construct us from those parts that we share. We find patterns and connections, similarities and differences, and have little identifiers that help us remember who they are. For many people via Twitter, I'm the person who tweets about having oatmeal every morning. For my learners, I teach them about making films. For my family I make Dad jokes and love cooking and watch a lot of films (usually at least one a day).

All these things are part of who we are and one of the neat things about knowing people for a longer period of time is the wonder of discovering new things about them. It's fun to share things that don't fit into the expectations that we have built up through conversations and experiences with them. So how to make an unconventional introduction?

I'm going to make a couple of lists, one for songs (that you can listen to), and one for films (that you could hopefully watch or have watched) and I'll lightly annotate them to provide some context and that will hopefully help you figure out a bit more about who I am.


(playlist on Soundcloud)

  • Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld - The Sun Roars Into View
    • One of the newest songs I've started listening to from an artist I discovered a couple of years ago when I saw Colin Stetson at Sappyfest. He plays various saxophones using a circular breathing technique to create a mesmerizing sound.
  • Basia Bulat - Wires
    • Basia Bulat has a beautiful voice and amazing songwriting skills that always connect with me. She's written some of my favourite songs and I was lucky enough to see her last year at Sappyfest.
  • Old Man Luedecke - Proof of Love
    • Another Sappyfest discovery has been Old Man Luedecke, who is not that old, but is a great singer-songwriter in the tradition of Woody Guthrie. I was lucky to meet him years ago and he's a grounded man with a gift for telling a story through song.
  • Julie Doiron - The Life of Dreams
    • One of the founders of Sappyfest and another singer-songwriter, Julie Doiron has a self-deprecating quality that is an integral part of her music and writing which is personal and beautiful.
  • Soronprfbs - I Love You All
    • The only performer on the list that I haven't seen live, but a song from a film that I deeply love, performed as part of the film Frank, by a band formed from the actors in the film with Michael Fassbender providing the vocals.


(list on Letterboxd)

  • Frank - Lenny Abrahamson
    • Forming a connection with the music list, Frank is one of my favourite films of the last few years. It's about the creative process and relationships and tensions between artists. Dark and sad and beautiful, it's a film I've watched many times and will watch many more.
  • Beauty is Embarrassing - Neil Berkeley
    • A fun documentary about artist Wayne White who defies categories and has had a unique and wonderful career as one of the co-creators of Pee Wee's Playhouse and continuing to explore things that interest him.
  • Stories We Tell - Sarah Polley
    • One of my favourite documentaries and a deeply personal film made by Sarah Polley where her siblings and family talk about their late mother who was an actress. Brilliantly constructed and powerful, it's a film that pushes the boundaries of the documentary form to make a lasting statement about family and how we build meaning through the stories that we tell about our lives and those we love.
  • 35 Shots of Rum - Claire Denis
    • Another fearless filmmaker who pushes boundaries, Claire Denis will explore almost any topic, but with 35 Shots of Rum the core story is about a father and daughter and their relationship. The performances are extraordinary and complex in a gentle film.
  • Somewhere - Sofia Coppola
    • An understated and casual film about an actor who deals with his daughter after being relatively absent from her life. A simple story with autobiographical overtones, Somewhere has improvisational elements and at times feels almost like a documentary.

Those are some fragmentary elements that hopefully give a bit of an introduction to me. The more I think about these lists the more things I want to add or change, so I will get this done so I can make more stuff and see what the other members of the #clmooc experience this year are making too.

Best of 2014

Chris Campbell

2014 was a good year for cinema with many films that were moving and challenging and solidly made. To keep track of films that stood out I started a private list on Letterboxd about halfway through the year to add films to it. By the end of the year it had around 20 films on it and that's a good number, so as the end of the year approached I tweaked and arranged it to come up with a list of 20 films in a loose ranking with a top 10 and another 10 that are good as well. My 10 earlier blog posts are reviews of those films. The full list of 20 for 2014 is on Letterboxd and my top ten in order are:

  1. Frank
  2. Two Days, One Night
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  4. Ida
  5. Winter Sleep
  6. Under the Skin
  7. Obvious Child
  8. Only Lovers Left Alive
  9. Mood Indigo
  10. Locke

The full posts give a lot more detail, so here I can give a bit more context for them. Six of the films were first viewed in a theatre and the other four were rentals or purchases via iTunes. I've seen six of the films more than once (with The Grand Budapest Hotel twice in the theatre and 3 times on video). Seven of the ten are films are in English, two are in French, one is Polish, and one is Turkish. Half of the films have female leads, and only one has a female director.

In picking out the films for a list one of the things that is important is the emotional impact and resonance of a film. The blockbuster films of the past year didn't have much resonance or memorability for me, but these films did. I thought about them for days or weeks afterwards and will probably watch all those films again. They all show different aspects of humanity and generally positive in tone. They all look distinctive and have great performances.

For acting the standout is Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night with her intimate and moving performance layered with complexity and subtlety. Her role is perfectly matched by the structure of the Dardenne Brothers give the film. Michael Fassbender transcends the mask he is within in Frank, and Tom Hardy sits in a car and carries the entire film of Locke as well. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska is mesmerizing in Ida with a vulnerability conveyed brilliantly by the black and white cinematography. The ensemble of Winter Sleep manages to create complex situations and tension out of their interactions all within visually stunning settings. The smaller casts of Only Lovers Left Alive and Obvious Child bring an easy comfortability to their characters and stories. The controlled visual constructions of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Under the Skin fit with ranges of the actors well, with the former having a huge cast, and the latter mainly focussed on Scarlett Johansson.

The ten runner up films are solid and interesting in different ways with seven in English, two in Swedish, and one in French. One is a musical and one is a blockbuster and the rest are indies.

Listen Up Philip originated on 16mm film and feels like it's from 70s. With an unsympathetic main character played by Jason Swartzman, balanced off by Elisabeth Moss it's a complex and challenging film that played against my expectations. Moss is also great with Mark Duplass in the strange indie The One I Love which has a different take on a romantic comedy with a Twilight Zone twist that exemplifies what is great about independent filmmaking.

Three of the films are coming of age stories with the Quebecois film Tu Dors Nicole, the Swedish We Are the Best!, and the Scottish musical God Help the Girl. Tu Dors Nicole follows the end of summer as a young woman tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life. We Are the Best! happens in suburban Sweden in the 80s as three young women form a punk band to make a statement and combat boredom. God Help the Girl is a Glaswegian musical about young woman during a summer with love and music with an unexpected darkness and drama balanced off by the songs.

Two of the films examine family relationships and how they change when they are under stress. Love is Strange is a beautiful look at a couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina and how their marriage destabilizes their lives and the lives of their families. Force Majure is a darkly humorous look at how an incident causes everyone in a family on vacation in the Alps changes based on their reactions to an avalanche. The indie revenge drama Blue Ruin has a murky incident in the past that sets things in motion in a quiet, but inevitably bleak series of events that also has a dark and recessed humour to it.

The outlier and oddly ignored blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow was a lot of fun and the type of film that should be a success. Thoughtful science fiction with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt perfectly paired together it has great action, interesting ideas, and was just long enough to be interesting and strangely didn't do that well at the box office.

It was a good film year and a year where I easily watched the most films in a year. The routine of a film a day is good and it is comforting to have a steady stream of images and sound from around the world in my life.

How I Watched

As technologies and viewing methods change it's good to track how things are seen. The preferred way to see films is on a big screen with an audience, but most of the films that we watch are on smaller screens. This is how my viewing looked on the screens that I chose.

The most popular device was my Apple TV with 143 films watched on it followed by the TV with 119 films (that includes cable and DVDs). I saw 64 films in theatres, watched 96 films on my iPad, and 18 films on my MacBook Pro.

I only watched 48 DVDs and most of my rental and purchased films were from iTunes with 70 films and for streaming Netflix gave me 131 films and MUBI 45. The other major source of films was Turner Classic Movies with 65 films from that TV channel. Comparing the numbers with last year I'm watching almost three times as many films on Netflix as the year before and half the number of films on MUBI.


Chris Campbell

It's an odd and bold gamble to take an actor and put them in a mask for the bulk of a film, but with Frank and Michael Fassbender it works surprisingly well. It's an odd concept but the mask reveals more than it hides in the characters surrounding Frank and it forms the emotional core of a film that goes from some pretty extreme tonal shifts to create one of the most memorable films of the past few years.

Aside from some rather wide shifts in tone, Frank also is bold with narrative point of view. It begins firmly in the head of aspiring musician Jon Burroughs (played by Domhnall Gleeson) and it ends with the perspective shifted and him walking out of the film at the end. Drawing on writer Jon Ronson's own experience in a band along with several other band stories mixed in, it's a complex picture of the creative process and talent and how things get created.

It's a darkly funny story that deals with mental illness and different people deal with it as well. It also deromanticizes many myths about artists and how they form. Part of the pleasure of the film the surprise at how things develop, so I'm not going to spoil that. But the heart of the film is in how the characters interact with each other and with Frank. Fassbender somehow manages to convey a surprising range of emotions all while beneath the mask and he also he has a great and distinctive singing voice.

The first member of the band we meet is the manager played by Scoot McNairy who has been turning in great character performances for years (most notably in Killing Them Softly). His portrayal of the manager as someone who is dealing with depression is one of the more unique portrayals of that in recent films. It's part of the strategy in the film of shifting tone to keep us off balance when we see something and are not sure if it is funny, sad, tragic, or all three. Most of all the characters are human and complex and they constantly resist stereotypes.

While audience surrogate Jon thinks the band (with the unpronounceable name The Soronprfbs) should be more popular, Clara (played with gusto by Maggie Gyllenhaal), wants to focus on the music and working together as a band. This conflict forms the dramatic tension and undermines the expectations we usually have for this type of musical film that traditionally ends with a big concert scene. The distance between the vision that Jon has for the band and the reality keep diverging throughout the film and that is ultimate it results in him leaving the narrative as he realizes that he doesn't belong there.

A great film can join a dramatic structure with solid acting and Lenny Abrahamson brings together a cast that have many subtle and beautiful moments as we go on a strange musical journey. Frank does have one of the most powerful and transcendent endings of any film of the past decade and it stayed with me for days.

Two Days, One Night

Chris Campbell

Two Days, One Night has a deceptively light and naturalistic shooting style. With a hand-held camera and moving around behind characters, there is an improvisational documentary feeling to it as with the Dardenne brothers other films. But like those films, there is a lot going on around that casual feeling with a world filled with interesting and complicated characters. With Marion Cotillard at the centre of the film in yet another stunning role, it becomes a deeply human and moving experience. With most scenes happening in long takes, we follow Cotillard's Sandra as she fights for her job over a weekend by talking with her coworkers to convince them to give up their bonus to allow her to stay. It's an unfair situation created by the manager of the solar panel plant where she works, but in the struggle we gradually see more of who she is and her relationships. It goes in unexpected directions and while it never feels like it is showing off, it also features some of the best cinematography in any recent film.

The technique of using the documentary style adds a layer of reality to the story which feels as if it is happening in real time. In some ways it's a distant echo of Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7 in using a tight framework to highlight character. Using portable equipment and improvisational cinematography shows us a sliver of the world that the characters are within. It's a fragile and beautiful world that is a privilege to see.

The Dardennes create deceptively simple films that illuminate the human condition. Their films centre on difficult ethical choices and how character emerges from those situations. Often there isn't a right answer and in seeing the characters struggle with their choices is where the drama comes from. In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard's costar is Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione, who supports her. The dramatic structure works surprisingly well as she tracks down and meets with coworkers over the weekend. We get glimpses of their lives and challenges along with Sandra's and there are some amazing moments that happen between them as the journey continues. It exemplifies the power of personal cinema in the hands of sensitive and gifted filmmakers.