Arts

This year's Fantasia Festival illuminates the anxieties of our new digital reality

These films are unafraid to go to places other wouldn't dare, and sometimes that place is only made clear in the pitch-black of a downtown Montreal cinema.

In the pitch-black of a downtown Montreal cinema, these films are unafraid to go to places other wouldn't dare

Madeline Brewer in Daniel Goldhaber's CAM. (Divide/Conquer)

In the wild world of indie film fests, industry players sometimes speak of movies seeking a "second life" — that is, getting picked up by a distributor for the chance to reach audiences beyond the typical festival circuit. Every year, without enough fuel to kindle the right visibility, scores of films get their single shot, blaze bright for an instant, then flicker and disappear.

But Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival, now in its 22nd year, aims to bring visibility and entertainment to its audience. The fest showcases a multifaceted lineup of the world's best Asian cinema, sci-fi and horror. Although its lineup may be marked by jump scares and B-movie garishness, Fantasia has garnered a reputation for resuscitating fading films and thrusting them into a spotlight that burns even after the festival dies down.

Take, as a case study, Unfriended, the inventive horror flick that unfolds entirely through a group Skype conversation. Before it premiered at Fantasia in 2014 (under its original title Cybernatural), industry gatekeepers told its producer — Russian-Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov — filmgoers would never pay to see a movie set completely on a computer desktop. But the commotion sparked by the movie's premiere caught the attention of Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions, the studio behind Paranormal Activity and Get Out, who bought the rights to the Skype-ghost tale that would go on to be heralded as one of the most profitable films ever. Four years later, and Bekmambetov has returned to Fantasia to unveil the stand-alone sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, alongside two other films and a masterclass, all centred on the distinctly 21st-century storytelling formula Bekmambetov has dubbed "Screenlife."

The Screenlife format serves as a ready-made canvas for not only teen horror, but romantic comedy, detective stories, documentary — all genres which Bekmambetov's team have forayed into in the few years since Unfriended blew up, proving they have an audience. It's no gimmick, Bekmambetov assures: he foresees it permeating the mainstream movie industry the same way screens have taken over our everyday lives. A-list actors have already begun to dip their toes in the uncharted territory of Screenlife: John Cho and Debra Messing headline Searching, directed by a former Google employee, about a man scouring his daughter's computer for clues surrounding her disappearance. Profile, also helmed by Bekmambetov, is an adaptation of In the Skin of a Jihadist, the memoir of a European journalist who catfished an ISIS recruiter but became unwittingly reeled in herself.

It's logic, Bekmambetov tells me, when a society experiences roughly 50% of their lives through screens, that the screen be used as a dominant site for drama. When apocalypse strikes, we'll probably first hear word of it — and largely experience it — through the virtual windows of our computers and smartphones. Bekmambetov believes he and fellow Screenlife filmmakers are inscribing "the mythology of the new reality."

While you can regularly count on Fantasia to include the likes of flesh-eating zombies or a samurai showdown in its mix, year in and out the festival's programming also reflects timely issues facing people today. After Internet users (so, everyone reading this) were rocked by the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the fest this year saw a rise in work that tackled thematic anxieties regarding authenticity of our virtual counterparts rising to the fore. The cyber-thriller CAM stars Madeline Brewer as a camgirl who discovers a doppelgänger has hijacked her account — and also her identity. People's Republic of Desire is a Chinese documentary about the nation's growing obsession with live-stream culture.

Art has long dealt with nebulous questions about identity, but Fantasia programmers have put a special focus this year on movies grappling with it, particularly around preoccupations of authorship and appropriation. Chained for Life immerses us in the mise en abyme of a film-within-a-film, where a pretentious European auteur questionably casts disabled actors in his latest horror joint. Madeline's Madeline also probes the creative process, blurring fact and fantasy in the world of experimental theatre. Bodied, winner of TIFF's Midnight Madness Award and penned by Toronto's very own Alex Larsen (a.k.a. Kid Twist), uses the prism of a white literature student whose calling is battle rap to fuel a spitting interrogation of political correctness and cultural appropriation.

The festival isn't solely concerned with films, either. In 2012, Fantasia launched the Frontières Market, a co-production funding program in partnership with the Cannes Film Festival's distinguished Marché du Film. This year, they announced they have established initiatives to achieve full gender parity in the projects developed going forward. There's no doubt that genre work has received flack in the past for lack of diversity — in subject matter and story arc, let alone representation — but if you factor in recent marvels like Black Panther, The Shape of Water or Incredibles 2, there's a worthy case to be made for action-packed genre films functioning as the outlet for progressive politics and diverse representation. The Frontières Market builds on this mission, providing one extra reason why Fantasia is so much more than an orgiastic communion of people who live for ballsy cinema. Instead, it stands as something of a small-scale industry disrupter.

Many of the aforementioned films aren't receiving their grand debuts at Fantasia, and instead were handpicked from fests across the globe by a compact programming team. Still, the mere act of summoning such disparate titles all into one three-week schedule jam-packed with screenings, workshops and industry events is enough of a mission statement in itself. It's why the audiences filling the house at each screening don't mind going on a blind date with a festival pick — because they know what a Fantasia movie makes. These films are unafraid to go to places other wouldn't dare, and sometimes that place is only made clear in the pitch-black of a downtown Montreal cinema.

Fantasia Film Festival. July 12-August 2. Various locations. Montreal. www.fantasiafestival.com

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