If you’re like me, you 1) assumed the Fantasia International Film Festival just showed Disney’s Fantasia on a loop for a few days; and 2) are a moron, because how would that even work? It turns out Fantasia is a “genre” festival — horror, sci-fi, martial arts, weird comedies, anime, gross stuff, you name it — that’s been keeping Montreal weird since 1996, all without ever showing Fantasia, not even the 2000 version. Now that I’ve experienced the festival for myself, I hope to stay on friendly enough terms with the Canadian government to be permitted to return.
One thing about Fantasia that’s different from most festivals is that it’s THREE FRIGGIN’ WEEKS LONG! This year’s ran from July 12 to Aug. 2! I’m told there are people who have the time, money, and attention span to attend the whole festival, but most Fantasia-goers pick a chunk. (I was there for the first few days. I get the impression the middle weekend is the peak, but there wasn’t a consensus on when the “best” time to go is.) The downside to this is that the community vibe is different from fests where everyone’s basically there the whole time, where a spirit of “we’re all in this together” develops, and where you see the same faces year after year.
But the upside is that Fantasia isn’t hectic. There are only two venues, so your choice of what to watch is never harder than a coin toss. Screenings were well attended when I was there, but only a few were total sellouts. On weekdays, daytime screenings are minimal, catering to locals who have jobs or school but free time in the evenings. Weirdly, despite most of the roster consisting of what you’d call “midnight movies,” there were only a few screenings later than 11 p.m., even on weekends.
Most festivals are sprints; Fantasia is a marathon — and one where nobody expects you to run the whole thing (same as real marathons, as far as I’m concerned). Even if you are in Montreal for the entire three weeks, the pace is such that you can participate fully without killing yourself.
And I don’t mean to suggest there’s no sense of community, just that it’s a less intense experience than, say, Fantastic Fest (to name a similar festival I’m familiar with). Obviously, the people who go to something like Fantasia are light-hearted sorts looking to enjoy themselves. The audiences I spent time with were enthusiastic, often vocally so, and not shy about expressing themselves when the onscreen action got particularly raucous.
One amusing tradition is that when the lights go down but before the movie starts, you’ll hear scattered “meows” from the audience, accompanied by shushes from people who don’t know better. (Once the movie starts, of course, you shut up.) (Generally; see previous paragraph.) Festival co-director Mitch Davis told me the meowing began with a series of shorts called “Simon’s Cat” that played at Fantasia starting about 10 years ago. Mitch, an almost supernaturally gregarious fellow with long black hair and heavy metal T-shirts who introduces a lot of the screenings, told me an anecdote about an elderly, sober-minded director who brought his serious movie to Fantasia, introduced it, and then was mortified when the lights went down and people starting meowing. Mitch said the man’s face fell until he realized it was just a silly tradition and not a form of mockery. (Mitch told me this story in a very loud bar, and I didn’t catch the director’s name. Journalism!)
On a related note, it’s a very well-run festival. Things generally started on time, and I didn’t encounter any situations where (for example) a Q&A ran long and made the film after it start late, which happens regularly at Sundance and SXSW. Unlike many festivals, Fantasia does not seem to have the problem of trying to be bigger than it’s capable of handling. This seems like a very humble, Canadian attitude, and I like it.
Another key factor in Fantasia’s accessibility is its location. Not just Montreal (which is actually inconveniently located if you live on the West Coast), but downtown Montreal, on Boulevard de Maisonneuve, named after the founder of Montreal, as I’m sure you know. The venues and headquarters are on the campus of Concordia University, surrounded by numerous restaurants that are student-friendly (read: cheap and open late, many offering Fantasia discounts), plus hotels and public transportation. My lodgings were a pleasant five-minute walk from HQ, at a place where rooms start at $83 a night. That’s only $64 U.S. at the moment, though who knows how things will be a year from now.
Now, perhaps you’re wondering: What about the whole French thing? I will tell you, they are VERY committed to it in Montreal. Official government things like street signs are only in French, but most other signage, ATMs, billboards, menus, graffiti, etc., are in French and English. I saw a homemade “lost cat” flier taped to a telephone pole that was in both languages. When you enter a shop or restaurant, you’re usually greeted with “Hello, bonjour!” or “Bonjour, hi!” or some equivalent indication of friendly bilingualism. Everyone seems to be bi, and I didn’t encounter anyone who was salty about having to speak English.
(That being said, knowing some French — or at least knowing how to pronounce French words when you read them off a menu — wouldn’t hurt. Also, I’m being told I didn’t use the word “bi” correctly.)
And how are the movies?
The batch I saw were pretty solid, though of course I could only see a handful of the 120 features that played this year. Like all festivals, Fantasia probably has its share of bad movies — but with such a long roster, it’s easy to pick out the things that seem up your alley and avoid the ones that probably aren’t. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure buffet of cinema, where if you don’t get enough to eat or don’t like what you do eat, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Here’s what I saw:
Bleach — I never got into the groove of this Japanese fantasy, based on a manga, about a schoolboy who becomes a “soul reaper” and helps protect humanity from evil spirits. The action is tame, very PG; the movie struck me as having a lot of energy but little personality. No U.S. release announced yet
Chained for Life — A shaggy, funny, almost Altman-esque curiosity about an indie actress (Jess Weixler) playing a blind woman in a movie opposite a man with a deformed face and a cast of “freaks.” Sometimes a low-key satire of filmmaking, sometimes a rumination on it (showing the minutiae of composing shots, setting up lights, etc.), against a backdrop of considering the role that physical beauty plays in filmmaking. There are some horror elements too, but they don’t play out as satisfyingly as the rest. No U.S. release announced yet
Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana — Entertaining documentary about a young Florida man whose underground comic book got him in trouble with the law. Review
Cam — An internet cam girl loses her identity. Review
Cold Skin — Two old salts on a deserted island go to war — and maybe fall in love — with the fish-people who live there. Review
Mega Time Squad — Small-town New Zealand crook discovers time travel, uses it to create small army of himselves. Silly, affable. Review
Mon Garçon — An ordinary man goes looking for his son, who disappeared from summer camp. Well-made by Christian Carion (who directed 2005’s Joyeux Noel), but the story is disappointingly simple, devoid of twists or surprises, like you’ve never seen a movie about a man looking for his abducted son before. No U.S. release announced yet
The Night Eats the World — One guy hunkers down for the zombie apocalypse, goes a little crazy. Review
The Ranger — Punk-rock-vibed slasher variation in which a group of rowdy youths hiding from the law in a mountain cabin are beset by a forest ranger who takes his job very, VERY seriously. The tone turns tongue-in-cheek midway through, which is also when things get gory and slashy. I believe the kids would call this movie “metal.” Opens in New York 8/17, Los Angeles 9/7, probably VOD somewhere in there
Relaxer — Challenged by his brother to beat the Pac-Man record without leaving the couch, a man with nothing better to do does just that. Amusing and bizarre. Review
The Scythian — Hyper-violent Russian saga set among warring tribes in medieval times, full of lavish costumes and insane energy. There’s a guy who hulks out and literally tears somebody apart. It’s the kind of movie where somebody will stab you and then lick the blood off the knife. Much fun. No U.S. release announced yet
Tales from the Hood 2 — Outrageous horror/comedy anthology on themes of the African-American experience. Review
Unfriended: Dark Web — This opened in theaters right after Fantasia showed it. You probably already saw it. Review
P.S. They also screened Anna and the Apocalypse, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Bodied, Mandy, Madeline’s Madeline, and Piercing, all of which I’d seen elsewhere and liked to some degree; and Arizona and Summer of ’84, which I’d seen elsewhere and did not like. As they say in Montreal, “that’s life.” (What? I said they speak English there, too.)