There's no film festival in Canada like this one

General wisdom says that you shouldn't plan anything during the summer in Manitoba — but the folks at the Gimli Film Festival have solved that problem.

The Gimli Film Festival is as unique as the beach town that hosts it

Preparing the screen for the festival. (Gimli Film Festival)

General wisdom says that you shouldn't plan anything during the summer in Manitoba. With nice weather hard to come by, anyone who is able will be at the cottage. But the folks at the Gimli Film Festival have solved this problem by sticking an 11-metre screen in a lake and bringing their festival to the cottagers.

Situated on the west side of Lake Winnipeg, Gimli is a pretty unique town. In 1875, Canada — then only officially seven years old — gave land to a group of Icelandic settlers. Initially called New Iceland, the area had its own laws and system of governance and existed as "almost sovereign nation until 1887." Today, Gimli is a cozy beach town with a beautiful boardwalk, fantastic fish and chips and an annual film festival, which will celebrate its 16th year from July 20-24, 2016.

With more and more options for watching movies at home, the Gimli Film Festival makes a strong case for enjoying the medium as it was originally intended — communally. This idea is perhaps most prominently promoted with the nightly RBC Sunset Beach Screenings. An outdoor screen is erected just off the shore of Gimli Beach. At sundown, people set up lawn chairs, dig their feet into the sand and watch a movie under the stars. This year, the highlight is a double bill of the 1981 Steven Spielberg classic Raiders of the Lost Ark followed by the documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, which follows a group of childhood friends as they attempt to recreate the original film shot for shot in their backyard. Other events in the program include Manitoba-made film Borealis, contemporary classics like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Goonies, and a David Bowie/Prince sing-a-long.

A still from Boris sans Beatrice (Gimli Film Festival)

As emblematic as they've become, there is much more to the Gimli Film Festival than the beach screenings. The festival originated as a showcase of Icelandic films during the town's Icelandic festival, and still has a commitment to screen films from the country. There is also a series of French-language films and a program held in conjunction with Reel Pride, Winnipeg's LGBT film festival.

"I really like films that challenge an audience," Gimli artistic director Aaron Zeghers tells CBC Arts. "There's enough mainstream stuff at Polo Park [a mall with a cinema in Winnipeg] and on television. I try to look for stuff that will represent Canadians, show Canadian culture and different areas of Canada."

Zeghers highlighted some films he's excited about at this years festival. The documentary How to Build a Time Machine​, directed by Jay Theel (who will be at the festival), explores the idea of time through a variety of avenues. Boris sans Beatrice, by Zeghers' current favourite Canadian director Denis Cote, is a relatively traditional narrative about an egotistical, wealthy person living on the outskirts of Montreal who has a surreal visit from a stranger who causes him to question his life.

RBC Sunset Beach Screenings at the Gimli Film Festival. (Gimli Film Festival)

Notably, Gimli does not have many traditional venues for screening movies. The festival spreads out over most of the town, with many screenings held in churches, hotels and restaurants. The atmosphere is warm, and there is a palpable feeling of excitement from the locals. This is a homegrown festival and the town takes pride in it. And with good reason, as the festival packs in as much as it can. There's a "wine and a movie" event on Friday evening at local restaurant Kris' Fish 'n' Chips. For the kids, there are free cartoons Saturday and Sunday mornings. And if after the theatres close and one is still looking for a good time, they can check out "Gimli Film Festival After Hours," which features a number of performances from Manitoba bands.

Basically, this is a festival where you can start your day watching a documentary in a church, move on to a crowd pleaser in a fish and chips restaurant and then end it taking in a childhood favourite on the beach. You can't really ask for more than that.

Gimli Film Festival. July 20-24. Various locations. Gimli, Man.​


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