When Philippe McKie was seven years old in 1996, his cinephile father took him to a screening of the Japanese anime “The End of Evangelian” at the very first edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. “It blew my mind,” said McKie in a recent interview. “It created this love for international cinema — and this love for Japanese cinema.”
That passion continued through his teen years, as he continued watching movies at the three-week genre festival and eventually went to film school at Montreal’s Mel-Hoppenheim School of Cinema, before leaving the city to make movies in Japan. Now he’s back in an entirely new context, as a filmmaker with two short films in competition, both made abroad. “It hasn’t even fully dawned on me that I’m part of it now,” he said.
“I know the programmers by reputation but it’s my first time being a part of the fest. I’m meeting these guys for the first time as a filmmaker, so they don’t know, but to me, it’s really special.”
McKie’s experience is a variation on a familiar story in Quebec’s growing genre scene, which Fantasia has fostered for more than two decades. Supported by the province’s cultural SODEC in addition to Telefilm Canada and Creative Europe, Fantasia hosts some 150 features and 300 short films, in addition to the growing genre market Frontières, now in its fifth year.
“There’s definitely an institutional openness to genre that we’re seeing develop,” said Lindsay Peters, the festival’s market and industry director. “It’s taken a long time, but it’s looking positive now.”
McKie’s two shorts in the lineup collectively speak to the expansive nature of Fantasia’s programming strategy: “Breaker” is a cyber-punk thriller set in dystopian Japan, while “Be My First” is an erotic drama about a young woman on an enigmatic mission to lose her virginity. He was clearly enthusiastic to be back at the festival that inspired his burgeoning career. “I think this city is really funky,” he said. “You’ve got this clash of cultures, the whole French-English clash, but it’s also a very artistic city. People are very open. I’m really thankful that I can be from here. It’s always going to be a part of my identity.”
Whereas many film festivals see their local talent move on, Fantasia’s specific focus on genre films has led many filmmakers like McKie to keep coming back to the festival — and, in other cases, stay put. Each of the festival’s three weekends contains a different short film section featuring work by Quebecois directors. One of these is Ariane Louis-Seize, whose wordless 19-minute short “The Wild Skin” revolves around the peculiar experiences of a young woman who discovers a python in her apartment and undergoes a strange erotic experience as a result.
Louis-Seize grew up near Ottawa idolizing Jane Campion’s films, and has found her groove producing work in Montreal. She waits tables two nights a week, but mostly lives off grant money. “I don’t need a lot to live here and feel comfortable,” she said during a happy-hour event for Quebecois filmmakers on the festival’s first weekend. “There are great talents and technicians here. It’s just easier because you have a real industry and I was able to create my own circle. It’s really nice because it’s all so casual.”
A native French speaker for whom speaking English doesn’t come easily, she has no plans to attempt working in other parts of the world. “I really like it here, but I don’t know anything else,” she said, adding that she had no major commercial ambitions. “Honestly, I don’t really think of that. My new short is really unclassifiable. It’s slow, and dark. For now — and probably for the rest of my life — I’ll work here.”
Fantasia’s role in supporting Quebecois filmmakers shows no sign of waning, as much of the market’s activity proves. This year, Canadian producers are eligible for funding from European financing institution Eurimage, and Frontières will host a panel on the fundraising behind two recent projects, “Muse” and “Border.” Another panel finds seven Canadian projects from up-and-coming female writer-directors being pitched in front of industry experts.
One of the participants in the panel is Elza Kephart, who runs the production company Midnight Kingdom Films out of Montreal. Unlike Louis-Seize, Kephart never landed government funding for her projects and attended film school in the U.S., at Emerson. However, Fantasia has played a crucial role in the evolution of her career: When she was looking for support on her directorial debut, 2003’s “Graveyard Alive,” programming director Mitch Davis met with Kephart’s producer early in the production and promised a slot in the lineup. It played there to a sold-out crowd. A decade later, she pitched a project at the market. “I was hooked,” she said. “I feel like the film crowd is a big circus family.”
She’s firmly entrenched in Quebec’s film scene and active in several local organizations, such as the women filmmaker collective Equitable Leaders, which “strives to attain equity for women directors in Quebec’s film industry.” At this year’s market, she’s pitching the project “Slaxxx,” which features a pair of killer pants. “I like death, blood, weirdness,” she said.
For much of Fantasia’s community, the festival provides a validation of their shared sensibilities — and the prospects of finding an audience beyond the limitations of the three-week gathering.
“There’s an opportunity for the local industry to really interact with the national scene,” Peters said. “The Quebec genre community is small, but it’s very strong.”