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Film Fest Q&A with CIFF executive director Jacqueline Dupuis

By Dan Leahul

We all know the story: the young, brash underdog with something to prove endures an all-too familiar struggle, exposited over series of conflicts—some victories, some defeats—to eventually triumph the hearts and minds of all (especially the audience).

Think The Karate Kid. Think Rudy; Rocky. Heck, even Cool Runnings. It’s compelling—it’s positively addictive—to root for David as he stands in the shadow of Goliath.

As the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) enters its 11th year, after a decade of bringing city dwellers the very best in local and international cinema, the story remains the same: the chip-on-the-shoulder struggle to shake the old mantra that Calgary is “culturally challenged”.

2009 was a year of thrilling highs and lowly lows for CIFF, victories and defeats. The fest’s groundbreaking Mavericks program was received with great acclaim from the international film industry. The critically lauded documentary Tibet in Song was given a proper showcase for its Canadian premier. Art phenom and new director, Karen Hines took home the coveted Best of Alberta Award in its first season.

However, CIFF suffered a blow when one of its major partners, The Uptown Theatre, walked away from the festival altogether, weeks before the red carpet was rolled out. Funding, as always, was an issue. As was the prospect of starting another year in the red.

But to CIFF executive director Jacqueline Dupuis, it’s all about rolling with the punches. Thrust, parry and hope for the best. 2010 promises to be no different.

Jacqueline Dupuis, executive director of the Calgary International Film Festival

This year CIFF presents the usual Canadian and international cinema from more than 100 countries, covering everything from features to shorts to documentaries.

New for 2010 is the Green Screen, a brand new series to CIFF, which will highlight environmental issues and pressing global themes, and features Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Story, rumoured to be this year’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Where Calgary sat down with Dupuis for a behind the scenes look at this year’s festival, what the future holds and why everybody loves the underdog.

WC: What are some lessons you’ve personally learned over the last few years at the helm of the CIFF? Is this year’s festival toned down in some respects?

JD: Wow, where do I start? As a consummate perfectionist, I could rattle off all of the instances in which we could have planned better or executed more effectively, as is seemingly always the case with events. But the lesson I have learned “harder” than anything else is to let go of expectation.

Not unlike the film industry itself, CIFF is such a fast paced organization and things are changing daily, the ability to roll with punches is the only thing that keeps me somewhat sane.

That said, I have also learned or perhaps it is somewhat inherent in my personality, to never to give up; to fight for what you believe in. Our attitude at CIFF is ever can-do and while I can be caught lamenting about how difficult it is to build something great in our allegedly culturally challenged community, I equally as often can be found insisting passionately that, “anything is possible in Cowtown,” because I know this to be true. This city continues to pleasantly surprise me with its pioneering spirit and that is why I love it here.

WC: What makes Calgary an ideal (or challenging) setting for film fests and film buffs?

JD: Loaded question. Finding a balance between accessibility or mainstream appeal and ensuring the artistic quality of our programming is an inherent challenge for CIFF. The message from our ad campaign this year, “only the best films make it, “ was chosen to assure anyone who is considering attending the festival that they will enjoy a premium cultural experience.

Film buffs attending the festival know this to be the case and will enthusiastically binge on the worlds best cinema over the 10 days of CIFF. Cultural enthusiasts are “getting it” too. Calgary is a movie-loving city, stats support that Alberta has the highest movie-going population in Canada. We just need movie-lovers to understand they can love films too.

WC: What’s new at the 11th annual CIFF? What can newcomers expect and are there any surprises in store?

JD: The 2010 CIFF will be a line-up of the very best in filmmaking from around the world, and is set to deliver both film titles and festival genres that are certain to resonate with local and visiting audience members alike.

We have local international films from more than 100 countries with returning series such as Music on Film, Late Shows, American Indie and the cheeky Hump Night collection of risqué filmmaking, to name a few.

From a festival experience perspective, a new program called CIFF Hot Spots, a collection of local pubs, bars and restaurants that breathe the spirit, energy and enthusiasm of CIFF, will be welcoming film fest fans with great promotions and exclusive incentives.

WC: What are you most looking forward to this year?

JD: Call it a guilty pleasure, but I can’t lie … FUBAR2. Looking forward to a night of hilarity with Dave Lawrence and Paul Spence.

WC: Is the Mavericks program (CIFF’s annual proving grounds for up-and-coming, envelope-pushing directors) going ahead again this year? How was last year’s event received?

JD: Mavericks defines CIFF amongst film festivals around the globe. In 2009, Mavericks was received with enthusiasm and acclaim from the international film industry and garnered CIFF the coveted “Top 25 film festivals worth its entry fee” station by Moviemaker Magazine.

Mavericks 2010 takes on an exciting, festival-wide flair, while remaining a defining identifier for CIFF. Once again, a competitive body of ten international films and emerging directors will be pitted against each other in one of the most promising film competitions on the planet.

For Calgary, Mavericks is and will be critical now and in years to come, as CIFF position’s itself as the destination to celebrate and explore the independence of spirit, thought and execution in filmmaking.

It’s simple, without these trailblazers we would still be sitting in cinemas watching black and white silent movies. As in all industries, it is critical to explore and support the emerging voices of innovation.

WC: CIFF is supported by many dedicated individuals, in your eyes, who makes it all possible?

JD: Not to sound too trite but it truly is the volunteers – 650 volunteers working over 10,000 hours throughout the year to make it all possible. We couldn’t do it without them.

CIFF is a not-for-profit arts and cultural organization, many people are not aware of this, mistaking CIFF for a private sector entity or part of the film industry. In fact, the reality is that for every dollar of ticket revenue generated, two additional dollars of investment from cash sponsorship or public funding is required for CIFF to operate.

WC: Who is Calgary’s best talent?

JD: Can’t name just one, but the local film industry is an incredibly strong and talented one. Keeping our world-class talent in Alberta and aligning to build the industry will be the challenge of our local industry going forward.

WC: Favourite film?

JD: I am a bit of a moody film-lover. Films tend to resonate with me based on my mood and therefore I have many favourites, one for each mood, in fact.

That said, one contemporary film that I can watch over and over is Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola. While she is not my favourite director, I do think she has incredible potential and an extraordinary and original voice in filmmaking.

The Calgary International Film Festival runs from September 24 – October 3.

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