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Whistler Film Fest Shines Light on Underdogs and Emerging Talent

The Whistler Film Festival, which returns for its 17th iteration Nov. 29-Dec. 3, has often been referred to as the “coolest” film festival, but in some ways it can also be considered an outsider’s festival.

The fest strives to provide a particularly inclusive platform with this year’s lineup including 87 films from more than 15 countries, with 30% of the feature films directed by women.

“Whistler is obviously filling a vacuum in categories under-serviced by other Canadian film festivals,” says director of programming Paul Gratton, who sifted through more than 1,000 film submissions to make his picks, in addition to scouting fests around the world.

The festival is also known for its Canada-heavy programming, accounting for about two-thirds of all features.

“No other Canadian festival seems to be doing it at quite our level of engagement,” says Gratton. “But I don’t see that growing in future years beyond its current level. The non-Canadian portion of the festival keeps getting stronger every year, and is very important for our international reputation.”
The fest also seems to showcase pics about people who live on the fringe, including “I, Tonya,” about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) and “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s take on the true-life story of Tommy Wiseau, the ultimate Hollywood outsider who refused to take ‘no’ for an answer and whose cult hit “The Room” has gone on to inspire many midnight screenings.

The WFF will open on a more somber note with Joe Wright’s drama “Darkest Hour,” starring Gary Oldman and Lily James. In some ways Winston Churchill, too, skirted the mainstream when he made the difficult choice to refuse a potential peace treaty with Nazi Germany during WWII and chose to fight the Germans in one of the most challenging wars in history.

Outsiders make for great cinema, and the festival looks to celebrate emerging talents with such films as Jared Moshe’s “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” with Bill Pullman; Carl Bessai’s “The Lears” with Bruce Dern and Anthony Michael Hall; Jordan Horowitz’s “Painless,” which centers on a man (Joey Klein) who is desperate to find a cure for a condition that renders him incapable of feeling physical pain; Kyra Sedgwick’s directorial debut, “Story of a Girl,” starring Kevin Bacon, and Ryann Shane; and “Bernard and Huey,” based on a Jules Feiffer script. Most of these, Gratton is quick to proudly note, are Canadian premieres.

“Our reputation as a cool celebration of emerging talent, Canadian or otherwise, seems to be spreading, certainly within North America,” he says. “I see Whistler as the film festival of opportunity.”

Gratton is also excited about the world premiere of the U.S. doc, “Becoming Iconic,” which revolves around the trials and travails of New York-based filmmaker Jonathan Baker working to get his first feature film made with stars Nicolas Cage, Gina Gershon and Faye Dunaway.

On the Canadian side the films include Pat Kiely’s “Someone Else’s Wedding” starring Jacob Tierney, Jessica Paré, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Kevin Zegers, Kathleen Turner and Wallace Shawn; Jackie English’s “Becoming Burlesque” about a Muslim woman turned burlesque dancer; Marshall Axani’s “The Cannon,” “Juggernaut” with Amanda Crew and Jack Kesy; and Carlos and Jason Sanchez’s debut feature “A Worthy Companion” starring Evan Rachel Wood. Other films include the dark thriller, “Trench 11,” starring Rossif Sutherland, and Ingrid Veninger’s “Porcupine Lake.”

The fest also has many development programs such as the Praxis Screenwriters Lab, Feature Project Lab, Aboriginal Filmmaker Fellowship, Digital First Lab, MPPIA Short Film Award Competition and Stars to Watch. There’s also a Music Showcase designed to connect musicians with music supervisors and industry execs.

Several programs focus specifically on women, including the Women in the Director’s Chair Industry Immersion, Women on Top Breakfast and the Women in Film & Television Vancouver Film Market Preparation mentorship initiative. The New York-based Alliance of Women Female Journalists EDA Awards will return to recognize female directors for narrative feature and short film.

Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch event also returns this year, with Variety vice president and executive editor Steven Gaydos in attendance to host a conversation and honor the following scribes: Liz Hannah, Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, Maggie Betts, Tracy Oliver, Daniel Stiepleman, Dorothy Blyskal, Sarah Ruhl, Samuel V. Franco & Evan Kilgore and John Whittington.

The fest will also honor Kyra Sedgwick with an Artist Spotlight and Luminary Award and Bill Pullman with an Artist Tribute and Achievement Award. Also feted will be Canadians Amanda Crew, Kevin Zegers, Sutherland and Shiva Negar, who will be featured in a new Canada 150 Spotlight on Talent conversation hosted by TV and radio personality, George Stroumboulopoulos.

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