Fantasia isn’t your regular genre film festival. It’s so much more than that. And in the rarest of instances, it’s everything a lot of film festivals claim to be. Courageous, innovative, open-minded, a spotter and cultivator of talent, and a genuine tastemaker that yields a profound and reinvigorating influence on filmmakers and programmers the world over. And after 21 years, it’s still going from strength to strength, whilst managing to maintain its core ethos and identity.
When people think of “genre”, they usually think of easily classifiable, saleable films with obviously defined markets, subservient to predictable crowd-pleasing tropes. “Genre” is a popular slur amongst the supposedly high-brow, pseudo-intellectual cinemagoers, who seem to think “drama” and “arthouse” cinema are impervious to guilty clichés and such a demeaning classification. Funnily enough, it’s important to remember that they too are genres.
But let’s look at what genre appears to mean to Fantasia. From the films they select and showcase, genre is a defined tone and aesthetic, a sense of fun and a bold and exciting vision, that displays a clear understanding of the mechanics of story, structure and camera plot. With all that said, they actively encourage rule-breaking films that antagonize and subvert the very processes, beliefs and foundations of what their audiences are accustomed to.
Having started back in 1996 as a film festival geared towards solely Asian genre cinema, it has transformed over the years into North America’s version of Sitges (Europe’s leading genre film festival, about to hit 50 this year). It showcased Takashi Miike to North American audiences for the first time in 1997 and unleashed the J-Horror craze with the North American Premiere of Ringu in 1999, where Dreamworks picked up the franchise. Fantasia has justifiably earned some high-ranking fans:
“Fantasia is the most important and prestigious genre film festival on this continent.”
– Quentin Tarantino
“I promise to make many more genre films just so I can get invited back.“
– Edgar Wright
“Fantasia remains to this day one of my very favorite film festivals in the world.”
– James Gunn
Now showcasing over 150 features and 250 shorts, it attracts over 105,000 cinemagoers every year. Its raison d’être in 2017 is best described by Mitch Davis, Co-Director General and Co-Director of International Programming:
“As movie-going habits continue to evolve, with an ever-rising number of viewers content to experience films in relative isolation at home, festivals like ours have become even more vital in keeping the spirit, the passion, the sheer energy of cinema alive. Alive as a communal moment of collective discovery. Alive as a shared rush, scream, laugh or cry. Alive as a full-throttled happening that can’t be contained.”
– Mitch Davis, Co-General Director and Co-Director of International Programming at Fantasia
They’re like no other. And they’ve been hailed by some as the best in the world. They’re loud, passionate, characterful, open-minded and intelligent. As the adverts and trailers roll, a rock concert anticipation fills the air. But as soon as the film starts, they’re respectful (although there are some people who want their cinemas to be meditation rooms).
What you get with a Fantasia audience is not a rude one, but a responsive one, completely devoted to the film they’re watching. Being in the crowd is a rare and invaluable educational process for filmmakers because they react to everything a film succeeds in doing. From editing nuances and subtle jokes, to the micro-expression on an actor’s face, they simply understand cinema. Mitch Davis has likened sitting in a Fantasia screening as “jumping into a time capsule”, experiencing a film with an audience that doesn’t exist anymore, or at least elsewhere.
“You just kinda feel like Canadian audiences are much more accepting sometimes of slightly stranger fare.”
– Robert Pattinson
They have strange habits too. Whenever the screen goes black and transitions from the commercials to the film, members of the audience begin to ‘miaow’. It’s believed the tradition stemmed more than ten years ago, from a screening of a short called Simon’s Cat (now an internet sensation). The changing of a BetaCam took a little longer than expected. All the audience could see was a black screen. So they started to miaow. Fast forward to 2017, and as you can guess, the tradition has escalated with shushes, moos, baahs and all manners of animal sounds.
Here’s the very first Simon’s Cat: Cat Man Do (2008):
And then there’s the Shin Cup noodles commercial. One the audience never failed to cheer. Here’s the Korean language version.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE FILMS?