Calgary Film festival to open with Indigenous music documentary When They Awake

An uplifting film about Indigenous music that's to open the Calgary International Film Festival is "one of the best music docs I've ever seen," festival executive director Steve Schroeder said as the full list of films was unveiled.

Uplifting look at Indigenous musical artists set as opening gala for Calgary International Film Festival

When They Awake, an uplifting documentary look at the indigenous music scene, opens the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 20. (Calgary International Film Festival)

If the opening night gala of the Calgary International Film Festival feels a little like you wandered onto Prince's Island Park during the Calgary Folk Festival, don't worry. You're not at the wrong festival.

That's because parts of When They Awake — a documentary film that takes a closer look at Indigenous musicians like Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red — were shot during the Calgary Folk Festival.

The film, directed by Hermon Farahi and PJ Marcellino, kicks off the festival Sept. 20 at a gala screening at Jack Singer Hall.

"It's one of the best music docs I've ever seen. I'm extremely proud we're presenting it as our opening film," said festival executive director Steve Schroeder.

The gala will include red carpet appearances by Michelle Thrush (best known for the TV series Blackstone), Melissa O'Neil (now starring in the Syfy network's series Dark Matter) and an afterparty performance by internationally acclaimed Indigenous trip-hop artist IsKwe, one of the artists featured in the film.

The opening night gala slot was one of 65 films announced Wednesday by the festival, as programmers released the full slate of films.

Cannes sensation among films to be presented

Among them are The Square, Swedish director Ruben Ostland's art world satire that won the Palm D'Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

Other notable films include:

  • Indian Horse, from director Stephen Campanelli, which tells the story (based on a novel by the late Richard Wagamese) of a young Ojibway boy who becomes a hockey player haunted by his residential school past.
  • The Florida Project, from director Sean Baker, tells the story of a six-year-old boy and his extraordinary family who live in the shadows of Walt Disney World.
  • Mary Shelley, a biopic of the Frankenstein author starring Elle Fanning, from the first Saudi Arabian female movie director, Haifaa al-Mansour.
  • Sundance jury award winner Novitate directed by Margaret Betts, starring Oscar winner Melissa Leo.
Mary Shelley, from Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, tells the story of the creator of Frankenstein. It will be screened in Calgary as part of the 2017 Calgary International Film Festival. (Submitted by Calgary International Film Festival)

They're all part of a diverse lineup of 200 films from 54 countries that, according to festival programmer Brenda Lieberman, includes about one third first-time directors and one third women directors.

"This," said Lieberman, "is massive."

According to Schroeder, submissions to the 2017 festival have skyrocketed. They're up by 600 from last year, for a total of 2,700 submissions in 2017. And that's a massive leap from the 600 in total received by the festival in 2013.

Not only were they up in overall numbers, but overall quality as well, the festival's executive director.

Calgary International Film Festival executive director Steve Schroeder announces the full lineup for the 2017 festival, which kicks off September 20. (Monty Kruger, CBC)

"The film that begins our festival was an unsolicited submission," said Schroeder, "meaning it came to us through our open submission process, which is really what film festivals are all about: finding those previously unheralded gems, and giving talented filmmakers the chance to shine."

Passes, ticket packages and individual tickets for all films are on sale now at

With files from Monty Kruger