Since the rise of independent cinema in the 1990’s, the art of making movies is no longer a tool to make your (day)dreams come to life. It has evolved, strongly, into a mind-shaking, eye-opening, revolution-starter machine; a call for action, a way to document the current state of society or to shed a new light on past events. Never have independent films been as important to us as they are today; we are no longer blown away with cute “rom-coms” and other “Hollywood-esque” attempts of entertainment. Everything just got real, and we have been constantly searching for off mainstream works of art, the tough movies to find, the flicks that will never make it to the multiplexes. All that leaves us two choices (that don’t exactly rule out one another): online streaming and independent film festivals.
From the hundreds of independent film festivals happening every year around the world, some are more unmissable than others. They have been around for quite a while (some even before the indie film hype), they have proven themselves as strong players in the industry, and they continue to attract followers and fans year after year. Without any particular order, these are the 10 top independent film festivals not to miss in your lifetime.
What: Frequently seen as the first film festival completely dedicated to sci-fi and horror in Portugal, “Fantas” has proven it can go beyond that genre with its two other competition sections: Director’s Week and Orient Express (entirely dedicated to Asian cinema). In a country hit by austerity measures, where cultural events are struggling for funding, it is remarkable that the festival founders never stop fighting and are unwilling to let Fantasporto die. We attended the festival’s last edition and I didn’t see any signs of a dying event (unlike most media would like you to believe).
Where: Porto, Portugal
Some of last edition’s winners: Best Direction, Romain Basset, Horsehead (France); Best Actor, Rupert Evans, The Canal (Ireland); Best Actress, Georgia Bradley, (England); Best Screenplay, LEE Jong-Ho, Mourning Grave (South Korea); Best Special Effects and Best Film Award, (Hungary); Best Short Film, Habana (France/Cuba); Jury’s Special Award, Wolfcop (USA); Jury’s Special Mention, Hungerford (England).
What: Probably the most talked about independent film festival in the world, Sundance is more of a cultural institution than just another film festival. They advocate originality, authenticity, powerful storytelling, and creativity. Although the festival may be famous for its President and founder Robert Redford, there is more to Sundance than a handful of famous artists. The mission has always been to create a new generation of independent artists, who were willing to take risks in the name of art. The festival is on my list precisely because it defies all the misconceptions I had of the Americans, a people I thought to be obsessed with mainstream, supersized doses of the real world (under a very bright pink glow).
Where: Park City, Utah, USA
Some of last edition’s winners: U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon); U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle); World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic: Slow West (John Maclean); World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Gracia); U.S. Documentary Audience Award: Meru (Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi).
What: If there is a father of the fantastic film festivals in Europe, Sitges is it. Every year the festival’s official poster pays tribute to a film in the genre of horror, sci-fi or thriller. Here are the tips for you to figure out this year’s inspiration: desert. Box. Brad Pitt. Kevin Spacey. Morgan Freeman. (Got it? Cool, let me know in the comments) The festival that takes place in the small town 40 Km from Barcelona aims to touch every single nerve of the audience, through thought-provoking or borderline shocking independent films and art exhibitions.
Where: Sitges, Spain
Some of last edition’s winners: Best Feature Length Film Award, Mike Cahill, I Origins; Award for Best Direction, Jonas Govaerts, Cub; Best Actor Award, Nathan Phillips, These Final Hours, and Koji Yakusho, The World of Kanako; Best Actress Award, Essie Davies, The Babadook, and Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars; Best Screenplay Award, Jake Paltrow, Young Ones.
What: The first time I heard about South by Southwest was on an alternative music radio station in Lisbon, RADAR. They were broadcasting live from the festival and it was the spot where everybody who was an indie lover went for a first look at what was new or what was about to become the next big thing. Kind of like Fashion Week but for the music industry. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the festival was more than music. In reality, it’s a nine-day celebration of all that is offbeat, alternative and independent; truly the place to be at if you’re a 99% out-of-the-box seeker.
Where: Austin, USA
Some of last edition’s winners: Narrative Feature Competition – Grand Jury Winner: Trey Edward Shults; Documentary Feature Competition – Grand Jury Winner: Scott Christopherson, Brad Barber, Peace Officer; Audience Award Winners: Josh Lawson, The Little Death; Joshua Oppenheimer, The Look of Silence; Betzabé García, Sara Hirsh Bordo, A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story.
What: For directors and producers, screening their latest film in a festival is more than an honor – it’s their chance to “read” their audience before they take the next step into distribution, without the big budgets of mainstream productions. Before IFF Boston, there wasn’t such a festival in the city that allowed this fluidity between creators and spectators. I think of this festival as the new kid on the block that feeds on its passion for independent filmmaking. To not be mistaken for young and naive, this “kid” is taking some big steps by being acknowledged by the Bostonians as Best Film Festival in 2011 and 2012.
Where: Boston, USA
Some of the last edition’s winners: Narrative Feature – Grand Jury Prize: Perry Blackshear, They Look Like People; Documentary Feature – Grand Jury Prize: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker, Welcome to Leith; Audience Award – Narrative Feature: Frank Hall Green, Wildlike.
What: Despite some opinions that the festival has sold its soul to the dark side of profit, TIFF is one of the most powerful brands when it comes to the film festival industry. Whether or not TIFF believes business comes before art, for the past forty years it has grown into one of the most influential festivals in the world alongside Cannes. If you’re looking for a film-related excuse to visit Toronto and feel the pulse of the upcoming talents in Canadian cinema, this is the one.
Where: Toronto, Canada
Some of last edition’s winners: People’s Choice Award, The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum); People’s Choice Award Documentary, Beats of Antonov (Hajooj Kuka); Best Asian Film, Margarita, with a Straw (Shonali Bose, Nilesh Maniyar); Best Canadian Feature Film, Felix and Meira (Maxime Giroux); Best Canadian First Feature Film, Bang Bang Baby (Jeffrey St. Jules).
What: When you find a gap you either complain about it or you find a way to fill it. This is the beginning of FrightFest’s History in 2000. In the last couple of years, the festival has been falling under my radar as one of the must-attend independent horror film festivals in Europe, alongside Fantasporto and Sitges. Expect a full coverage of the upcoming editions now that I’m just a few steps away. The horror genre is not second-rate, with low-budget films as the springboard for rising stars (think Johnny Depp in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, Kevin Bacon in “Friday the 13th” or Susan Sarandon in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Inducing primal emotions such as fear requires vision, skill and a decent dose of wickedness; it’s not for amateurs.
When: August Bank Holiday
Where: London, United Kingdom
Some of last edition’s winners: Best Film – Main Screen, The Babadook (Jennifer Kent); Best Film – Discovery Screen, Coherence (James Ward Byrkit); Best Actor, Laurent Lucas, (Alleluia); Best Actress, Essie Davis (The Babadook); Best Director, Jennifer Kent (The Babadook); Scariest Movie, Creep (Patrick Brice).
What: Run by the Film Festival Guild, the British Horror Film Festival has the most “grown-up” name of all the horror film festivals. That was my first impression when I bumped into them when researching for 6 Ways to Deep Dive in London’s Pop Culture. In reality, the festival is roughly five years old, but I get the message behind the somewhat pompous name: if you’re going to make a stand in the industry, you better shout it out loud and clear. The official selection for 2015 will be announced soon (save the date: September 3rd) and I look forward to it. This one has definitely made my calendar of offbeat events to attend in London.
Where: London, United Kingdom
Some of last edition’s winners: Best Feature Film, Apocalyptic (Glen Triggs); Best Director, Simon Pearce (Judas Ghost); Best Actor, Edward Franklin (The Brain Hack); Best Actress, Shelley Draper (The End).
What: The United States reacted to the 9/11 attacks in many different ways. The Tribeca Film Festival was one of them. In an attempt to let the world know that New York had bounced back and that the lower Manhattan area was rising from the flames (TriBeCa is the name of a neighborhood in that area, “Triangle Below Canal Street”), the film festival was established by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff two years after the terrorist attacks. Since then the festival has been one of the most important platforms in the United States for bringing independent creators and audience together from around the world. It all boils down to unbiased access, including the Nora Ephron Prize that is specifically awarded to a female director or screenwriter.
Where: New York, USA
Some of last edition’s winners: The Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature, Virgin Mountain (Dagur Kári – Iceland); Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film, Gunnar Jónsson (Virgin Mountain); Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film, Hannah Murray (Bridgend – Denmark); Best New Narrative Director, Zachary Treitz (Men Go to Battle, USA); The Nora Ephron Prize, Sworn Virgin (Laura Bispuri and Francesca Manieri).
What: Raindance is all about the newbies, the ones looking for their first big break. For the past three years, proving that the festival also pays attention to the new media, they have a dedicated web series festival called Web Fest. This could be considered a faux pas for the cinema lovers (and purists), but I think it’s a stroke of genius. Stepping out of seeing cinema as one of the only “serious” forms of visual art is really important for the continuity of the art form. Do you remember when television was seen as a poor career option for any actor? It was like being demoted! Well, hasn’t that changed throughout the years? Same thing here. New visual artists will always find innovative ways to make their message come across and they are free to do so here.
Where: London, United Kingdom
Some of last edition’s winners: Best International Feature, The Light Shines Only There (Mipo Oh); Best British Feature, Luna (Dave McKean); Best Debut Feature, Kebab and Horoscope (Grzegorz Jaroszuk); Best Documentary Feature, Days of Hope (Ditte Haarløv Johnsen); Best UK Short, Nosferatu in Love (Peter Straughan).
Last edition’s Web Series winners: Best British Series, S.O.S. Save Our Skins; Best International Series, Destroy the Alpha Gammas (USA); Best Lead Actor, Hannah Cheesman (Whatever, Linda – Canada); Best Ensemble Cast, Flat 3 (New Zealand); Best Achievement in Production, “Whatever, Linda” (Canada) for Production Design; Raindance Discovery Award, Hannah Cheesman and Julian De Zotti – Whatever Linda (Canada) for Writing; Web Series Pilot Contest Winner, Dance4Me (UK).
What are your favorite independent film festivals? What other options would you add to this list?