In these uncertain times, this Montreal festival proves why we need fantasy films more than ever

Fantasia Fest is renowned on the world scale for drawing diehard moviegoers and industry front-runners to downtown Montreal to unite under a shared fantasy.

Fantasia Festival unites diehard moviegoers and industry front-runners every summer under a shared fantasy

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. (Fantasia Film Festival)

In periods of social uncertainty, you can always be sure of one thing: the rise of ticket sales. Statisticians have observed the trend of box office growth over numerous recessions and spells of public malaise, because movies — especially fantastic, action-packed blockbusters — are an affordable way to check out of reality for an hour or two. But if the Fantasia International Film Festival — Montreal's mega-popular three-week exposition of the year's best and most bizarre in genre cinema — is any indication, then fantasy films may have something tell us about ourselves.

"Across history, genre storytelling has been used to explore contemporary ills in progressive ways," Mitch Davis, co-founder of the festival, tells CBC Arts. "Under the presumed-to-be-safe guise of 'fantasy,' the genre has been able to escape conventional censorship — be it economic, institutional or governmental — while subversively speaking truth to power. Many of the genre works that made the biggest cultural impact in their times were very much political horror films."

(Fantasia Film Festival)

Since Donald Trump's nightmarish election and the rise of populist leaders to the fore in all corners of the globe, Davis notes we're already seeing work that expresses moral outrage. "Genre cinema can only get more ferocious and inspired," he says, likening the progressive voices of our time to a movement like the Vietnam era horror works of the 70s, which "remain among the most assaulting and grief-struck films ever made."

Fantasia's extensive lineup has never shied from tackling the most urgent topics, but this year is especially charged. Campus rape culture is confronted in M.F.A., animal rights underscore the eco-thriller Spoor, the everyday horrors of life as an immigrant in the United States are addressed in Most Beautiful Island and a trio of films examine the Muslim experience in Europe through the prism of genre: France's Le Serpent Aux Mille Coupures, Germany's Cold Hell and Denmark's Darkland. Over the course of his career, Davis has noticed that the strongest genre filmmakers also usually happen to be the most empathetic.

Cold Hell. (Fantasia Film Festival)

But what remaining traits make up a filmmaker whose work might be accepted into Fantasia's programming, where everything and anything from the most outrageous or nuanced horror, fantasy and action films screen side by side with documentary, comedy, drama, musical, experimental, and — occasionally — children's movies?

"We're looking for films that are individualistic and created with a purity of vision, and that could mean anything from a 200 million EUR film like Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, or a raw, micro-budget underground film from Uganda, like Bad Black, both of which are in this year's lineup. The key is, we can be confident that if we love a film, regardless of how unclassifiable it may be within conventional genre definitions, a part of our audience will love it too — because we're the audience and the audience is us."

Spoor. (Fantasia Film Festival)

The festival is famous for its steadfast audiences, who stretch across demographics but share one thing in common: an undying love for the movies. They're cinephiles you could easily find catching up on the latest franchise at the multiplex just down the street from Fantasia's headquarters at Concordia University — although Davis has faith that original stories, the kind highlighted at Fantasia, are ones that audiences will never tire of.

Under the presumed-to-be-safe guise of 'fantasy,' the genre has been able to escape conventional censorship — be it economic, institutional or governmental — while subversively speaking truth to power.- Mitch Davis, Fantasia Film Festival co-founder

Upon launching a festival dedicated to screening genre films from Hong Kong and Japan back in 1996, Davis and co-founding partner Pierre Corbeil weren't certain they would ever attract a significant audience. "We had no way of anticipating the level of interest it would generate," Corbeil reminisces. "The success was beyond our expectations." Now, over two decades later, they plan on continuing to thrive by sticking to the same formula they initially set out with. "We're a community that appreciates being together to enjoy movies that are exciting and meaningful. It's what drives us to continue year after year," says Corbeil.

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)

Renowned on the world scale for drawing diehard moviegoers and industry front-runners to downtown Montreal to unite under a shared fantasy, each year as the month of July comes around the bend, Davis admits he most anticipates the collision, when a film comes to life before an audience for the first time.

"Particularly when the filmmaker's in the house and it's a world premiere of a first feature," the co-director adds. "You can literally watch a filmmaker's life change in real time and the audience knows that they're part of that story. It's absolutely rapturous. There's no greater reward."

Fantasia Film Festival. July 13-August 2. Various locations. Montreal.


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