How Montreal's Fantasia Festival became one of the country's greatest cinematic events

As Fantasia enters its third decade screening and celebrating genre cinema, the festival is finally all grown-up.

After 20 years, the genre festival is finally getting the respect it deserves

Fantasia's 20th anniversary poster. (Fantasia International Film Festival)

Montreal has always been proud to own up to its title as the "city of festivals." It's a year-round cultural oasis that knows how to put the 'art' in 'party,' playing host to the world's largest jazz and comedy festivals each summer, amassing turnouts few other cities could hope to aspire to. Yet when the conversation veers to cinema-centric festivals, many believe the Quebec metropolis loses steam. The Fantasia International Film Festival, which launched last week and runs straight through to August 3rd, is proving this is simply not the case. 

Half the age of the troubled Montreal World Film Festival, as Fantasia enters its third decade screening and celebrating genre cinema, the festival is finally all grown-up. Conceived in the summer of 1996 by three Hong Kong new wave fanboys who knew there must be Montrealers out there who shared their passion, the inaugural festival saw audiences flock to the Imperial Cinema for almost six months worth of screenings. Fantasia now spans a still-hefty three weeks, outliving most of its Canadian counterparts and making for less airtight programming and a longer duration for audiences to revel in the fantastic worlds cinemas will transport them to. "If you're a swinger you need to go to a swinger's party," raved filmmaker Guillermo del Toro when he accepted the Cheval Noir Award at the festival last week. "And we're here swinging."

Guillermo del Toro accepted the Cheval Noir Award before a screening of the documentary Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex. (King-Wei Chu/Fantasia International Film Festival)

Apart from the Cheval Noir, more awards to be distributed by the jury include the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, to be hauled home this year by Japanese director Takashi Miike. Additional programming includes a  paranormally-tinged  spoken-word performance by author  Grady   Hendrix, as well as 10 virtual reality films participants will be asked to vote on. The entire festival isn't solely rooted in the make-believe, though: the acclaimed Sundance documentary Tower, about the first campus shooting in the United States, will be shown alongside a panel discussion featuring speakers from the Polytechnique and Dawson College massacres. The Cinémathèque québécoise is notably presenting a screening of L'apparition, a 1972 comedy based on children who witnessed hallucinations of the Virgin Mary, starring and co-penned by the recently-deceased René Angélil.

The festival's extended runtime is just one component of Fantasia that deviates from the accepted formula which, one could argue, is rendering film festivals a little too uniform. While others build hype from the tease of celebrity apparitions and glitzy red carpet premieres, Fantasia now mostly occurs on screens throughout the Concordia University campus in downtown Montreal, where no gulf separates worshipped filmmakers — and Fantasia is heaping with them — from the festival-goers filling the seats. A lot of festivals have hiked their admission prices through the roof, becoming gradually less accessible to the public and more akin to attending a concert. Fantasia, with the help of sponsors and newfound funding from all three levels of government, keeps its ticket packages low.

Tower, about the first campus shooting in the United States, will be shown alongside a panel discussion featuring speakers from the Polytechnique and Dawson College massacres. (Fantasia International Film Festival)

Another propellant of most major fests, Canadian and otherwise, is the sense that movies screened will evolve into Oscar contenders come awards season. Genre pictures by nature mostly exclude themselves from the horse race of the Academy Awards, and Fantasia's genetic makeup is largely foreign, low-budget, with some films that might be impossible to catch anywhere else. That being said, everything from Inglourious Basterds to Ringu have held their North American unveilings there. Fantasia's fervent audiences stand by the films for their idiosyncrasies — because they are, as del Toro put it, "in love with a thing which is, for a lot of people, unlovable." 

Fantasia International Film Festival. Until August 3. Various locations. Montreal.​ www.fantasiafestival.com

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