Fantasia 2023’s Artistic Director Mitch Davis:
The Good, the Bad, and the Apocalyptic
By Maurie Alioff – Québec Correspondent
(July 24, 2023 – Montréal, QC) In its 27th year, the second post-COVID edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival opened on July 20 and started to roll the next day. I’ve been around Fantasia, as a fan and a critic/journalist, since it launched in the late 1990s. It was and still is the perfect summertime film event with its mind-travelling brew of genre pictures from around the world. In the early years, you could catch up on high flying Hong Kong action flicks with stars like 2023 Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh, kinetic crime movies by directors like John Woo, wildly visionary films from Japan and South Korea.
Over the years, more and more European and American pictures got stirred into the mix, Québécois and Canadian films were highlighted, government funding kicked in, and an industry component emerged. But the core of the festival is its imaginative, often risky programming and enthusiastic audiences that line up around the block of screening venues, ask knowing questions in Q&As, and discuss the merits and meanings of the movies they have seen. They shout, they laugh, they gesticulate, cackling about the outrageous entries, taking the serious films very seriously.
You can’t get much more serious than Stay Online, which the fest’s Artistic Director Mitch Davis pinpointed during an interview just before Fantasia started. About the monstrous invasion of Ukraine, Yeva Strelnikova’s feature debut was, says Davis, “shot against the background of the actual invasion and during the ongoing war.”
The movie zeroes in on Katya (Liza Zaitseva), who while helping to resist the invasion on a laptop, links up with its original owner’s son, who is obsessed with superheroes. Katya embarks on a quest to find the boy’s missing lost parents.Calling Putin’s “elective war evil,” Davis recalls that “in the very first year, I cancelled a Russian film, a film that I loved. It was funded by the Ministry of Culture, and we didn’t want to contribute to the government’s coffers. And it wouldn’t be fair for the film. It was a comedy, and I don’t think that any audience could have engaged with it normally in the middle of what was going on. How do you not look at the people on screen, and wonder if they were conscripted into committing war crimes? I ended up making a pledge to play the film after the war ended. Even if it’s on a screening platform by then, we will still honour the invitation.”
The exuberant and invariably passionate Davis is particularly fervid about Victor Ginzburg’s Empire V, a Russian movie that Fantasia 2023 is screening. “It’s the first Russian film that we have programmed since the war began,” he explains. Banned in Putin’s hell, “It’s an anti-oligarch film, an antiwar film. It has an urgency that makes real sense to play right now.”
But this is Fantasia, and Empire V is also a genre picture. “It’s super subversive, anti-establishment protest art, but it’s also a super imaginative, vampire spectacular that reinvents every aspect of vampire lore. It has so many ideas coming at the audience, practically a mile a minute at certain points. It’s fascinating on those grounds alone.” The director, Victor Ginzburg, says Davis, is “really one of a kind, a legendary filmmaker. His Generation P was at TIFF, and he’s a major award-winner.”
Among other “highlights among highlights” in a cornucopia of movies, Davis says that the opener, of the 27th edition, Pascal Plante’s Red Rooms is “incredible. We’re really lucky that we are able to open the festival with new work from one of the strongest talents in the country, and one of the most powerful films of the year.” The picture, about a woman (Juliette Gariépy) obsessed with a serial killer, is “a really dark note to open a film festival on, granted. But it’s a master class in storytelling control.”
Of many entries in the lengthy fest (July 20 – August 9), Davis singles out Mami Wata, the mystical Nigerian film that took an award at Sundance; Birth/Rebirth, which he calls “a feminine reworking of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ that brings the novel’s subtext and politics into a fiercely pertinent contemporary space, set against the backdrop of the US medical system”; the UK’s Femme(UK), an “incredible character-driven LGBTQ+ revenge thriller starring Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay, having its North American premiere here after flooring audiences at the Berlinale.” Not to mention Australia’s Talk to Me, “the scariest and most inventively effective horror film of the year. Smart, compassionate, terrifying and phenomenally executed and performed.”
Tracking back for the wide view of Fantasia, Davis says, “It’s a similar mindset that we’ve always had, mixing cultures and points of view, bringing a really broad range of perspectives to genre storytelling, films that cannot be classified in terms of normal genre definitions, but still speak to a mindset, to an outsider mindset that makes sense for us.”
Movies are screened in various sections like Camera Lucida, Fantasia Underground, Fantasia Retro, Fantastic Weekends of Quebec films, and this year’s Spotlight on Korean Cinema. Davis explained that this year, “We brought in more short film blocks. Each of the sections has its own short film program; for example, Camera Lucida is doing three Filipino shorts.” Of course, many screenings are followed up by Q&As with the moviemakers, there are numerous special events, book launches and so on.
The 2023 event that excites Davis most is the festival’s tribute to long-time indie writer-director Larry Kent. “We love Larry,” Davis told me, “he’s almost a secret handshake of cinephiles. I would talk to major American film critics and they’d bring Larry up; he is the godfather of Canadian independent film, certainly Canada’s first full on underground feature director.”
Davis can’t believe how “unrecognized Kent is outside of Canada and even in Canada. Young people have never heard of him.” As for Fantasia, Kent has been “a mainstay for a good 20 years or so. He’s a friend, he loves movies, he’s often at the bar at the end of the night. We world premiered his last film, 2015’s She Who Must Burn.”
An outfit called Canadian International Pictures has restored Larry Kent’s ground-breaking early films, specifically the “Vancouver Trilogy”: Bitter Ash, Sweet Substitute, and When Tomorrow Dies. Fantasia decided to premiere all the restorations, “bring Larry in and make it a career celebration,” explains Davis, “he is 90, and now is the time to do something like this. I think it will be transformative for his reputation outside of Canada.”
Back in 1963, Bitter Ash triggered a widely reported scandal. A Vancouver Sun reporter bitched about dirty words and nudity. When B.C. censors barred the picture from theatres, Kent showed it at UBC and other Canadian universities where police intervened and people threw punches at each other. The big deal? Actress Lynn Stewart bared a breast. Davis rocks one of his incredulous guffaws: “Even by world Cinema standards in 1963, it’s bizarre to imagine that Canada was so uptight about these issues”
Summing up, Davis points out that Kent was the “first truly independent feature filmmaker with no outside support like the NFB. It’s a totally different thing when it’s just a guy with a Bolex going out with a group of friends. David Cronenberg has cited him as a heroic figure for Canadian independent film, and he certainly is. Larry showed a whole generation of young people that you could just go out with a camera and not wait for people to approve anything. It was only then that we began to see unconventional points of view coming out in Canadian narrative features.”
And at 90, Kent is “not giving up, he’s still moving on” with projects that promise to be irreverent and iconoclastic. Sweet Substitute, Davis argues, was made for the youth demographic, “but it didn’t pander to them in any way; it actually criticized them for being conformist,” despite their posturing. “Uncompromising, Kent worked with a “purity of vision for decades and decades.”
Fantasia’s other major event, actor Nicolas Cage appearing to pick up an award and let loose for Fantasiacs, was cancelled when Cage withdrew because the ongoing writer/actor strike. Too bad. The comic-book loving and impudent Cage is a perfect match for the festival.
Davis says festival organizers saw Cage’s decision as “inevitable.” It was more than upsetting, but “we fully support the strike. It’s something that should’ve happened years ago. When streaming platforms began messing with residuals, and all the bad intentions related to AI, and the horrible trend of titles disappearing within months of them launching on a platform to get out of paying even the reduced residuals, it’s a level of greed that we’ve never seen before. It’s an existential urgency for a hard line in terms negotiated with ironclad guarantees, not just for actors, but below the line workers, everyone.”
One show, Davis angrily points out, “was removed four months after it premiered, not sold to another outlet where there would still be residuals, just erased as a tax write off, and they get away with not having to pay anybody.” How does anybody even negotiate when “nobody gets to see the actual streaming numbers. I don’t know how that’s allowed.” While there are still modes of distribution like DV, Blue-Ray and airplane sales, streaming is the main game in town, and talent is chained to it.
Culturally, streaming kills shared audience experience. While there are exceptions like The Last of Us and Squid Games, Davis deplores that “fewer things have moments where they really become part of the cultural zeitgeist. There’s so much, and everybody’s in their own bubble. Theatrical, on the other hand, “still gives films a chance to have visibility, focused attention. The movies travel, and they get talked about.”
“Streamers premiere only on a platform,” Davis continues, “often with a meagre 40 word synopsis and representation that doesn’t seem much in any way of what the film is, and why it’s interesting. They are given the tiniest of blurbs, one square out of 40 on a screen, and five days later they are six screens deep on the new release page because they’ve already been buried alive under so many more recent things. It’s almost as if they’ve been buried alive when they’re only half born.” It’s like “a list of the fallen war dead, and all new titles no one’s heard about. Known actors, known directors, known writers, a temporary blip on the radar. One Little square on the screen with 40 of them.”
Davis was just warming up: Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav “would be just as happy selling fridges.” His assault on Turner Classic Movies “…embodies the whole thing. They fired people with decades of history there for no fucking reason. It was making money, it just wasn’t making enough. What is that?” They retained a few people, but they fired a ton of lifers.”
Finally, another monster haunting the Hollywood strikers looms on the media landscape like The Terminator. In fact, its creator, Canadian born James Cameron just announced that he warned the world about Artificial Intelligence back in the 1980s. Davis imagines a world where machines write scripts derived from the narrowest of formulas – like a porn script “that hits all the key marks in which you have to have five fuck scenes over a 108 minute running time, and humans are shipped in for a few days to tweak and embed some human feeling. What would have been a five month contract shrinks to a point where it’s hard to buy food or medical insurance. For Davis, “It seems like the way AI is going right now, it seems like the upper transfer of wealth to a smaller and smaller nucleus. Meanwhile, the majority of workers are going to be out of work with no new anything.”
Journalism will be flushed down the drain and in film production. Davis recalls how “we’ve already seen in one of the Star Wars films the use of a digitally re-created Peter Cushing in a new performance. That was not done with AI; it was conventional CG, to my knowledge with the consent of the family. Even then that’s a creepy thing to do. An actor’s voice, an actor’s approach to performance, to have a machine re-create, even if it’s based on algorithms that were learned from the way that the actor would hold props, the way of the actor’s inflections in line readings.”
“It seems like a betrayal, truly gross, really unethical, something the actor had no control over. In a terrible time like now,” Davis worries, “there are people afraid that the studios will be able to digitally re-create past stars, or stars past their prime back in their glory days. There is a risk of the new star system being based on a star system of yesterday: new Brando performances, the six films James Dean didn’t get to make, but he was contracted to before his crash. Most relatives would consent because it’s free money.”
You can’t stop progress, Mitch Davis concludes “But you can put parameters in.” Think of “AI drones that can choose to take a life. That’s actually happening right now. That’s terrifying. That’s the worst extreme. They obviously can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The industry is the canary in the coal mine for all industries. It all feels dystopian, there’s no question of it. It’s a downward spiral for short term gains for the most part. Ten years into the future, where is the industry going to be? Where is all human endeavour going to be?
Click here for a link to the Fantasia Film Festival.
Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and taught screenwriting at Montreal’s Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, he is affiliated with the Quebec media industry publication, CTVM.Info. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Canadian Cinematographer, POV Magazine, and The New York Times. He is the Québec Correspondent for northernstars.ca.