Against the backdrop of wine country with the dull thrum of the falls imaginable at the farthest edge of earshot, members of the film and wine industry gather to make connections, share experiences and celebrate the finer things in life – film and a good vino.
And I was fortunate enough to be invited to join them. Enjoying the opportunity to get out of the city for the weekend, I clambered aboard the bus, and upon arriving in picturesque St. Catherine’s (such a wonderful small town feel to it coupled with some gorgeous historical buildings and homes), was met by a driver to deliver me unto the second annual Niagara Integrated Film Festival.
Using the luxurious White Oaks Resort and Spa as home base for the event, situated in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I settled into the stunning location for the duration of the weekend, and was delighted with the staff, the amenities, and the ease of access that the festival had in play.
Being a still growing film festival, the whole weekend came across as more relaxed and almost European in its approach and appreciation of cinematic and vineyard endeavors. The festival boasted a fantastic line-up of films including a pre-release screening of Pixar’s Inside Out. There was a healthy mix of documentary, shorts and feature films. NIFF has begun creating for themselves a refreshing and surprisingly relaxing approach to the film festival, which, as much as I love them, far too often feels too rushed to be truly enjoyed. Here there was an opportunity to not only interview directors, actors, producers, founders and creative types, there was ample time to simply just socialize with them, over a glass of wine, and there were a number of glasses and bottles on offer from the various vineyards in the area.
It was here that I found myself, away from the bustle of the city, with an opportunity to draw breath of fresh air, and savor the pleasant scent of a good wine while discussing the industry in general.
Everything about the event moves at an easy pace, encouraged by the lush surroundings of the resort. The message presented by the festival is clear, take your time, enjoy, relax and sipping a Pinot Grigio as I was, I found it difficult to argue with the thought process at work there.
St. Catherine’s and Niagara-on-the-Lake have always been an area I simply pass through, a momentary flash through the passenger side window, but spending the weekend on vineyard estates, surrounded by the beautifully quaint buildings, which still, happily outnumber the infringing box stores and unavoidable urban sprawl there is a draw to this area, a pull I wasn’t made aware of before. There could be no better place for a festival of this nature; still close to Toronto and yet, seemingly, a world away.
I arrived just as Industry Day was coming to a close, and was able to join those present for a few glasses of wine, and after simply observing for a while, was drawn into a number of enlightening and enjoyable conversations. I chatted with Toronto Sun film critic Jim Slotek, talking about fave films of the year, classics, and what had screened so far at the festival. We were joined by journalist BJ Del Conte, and it was fun to just be in the midst of film buffs who shared the same passions, even if we didn’t like all the same films…
But the highlight of my afternoon, alongside catching up with the wonderful folks at GAT PR, who went above and beyond for me and every festival goer this weekend, was chatting for over an hour with Academy Award winner (for his work on Superman: The Movie) Colin Chivers. We talked special effects and visual effects, the advent of CGI, how it impacted practical effects and some of the amazing things he’s done – as well as those accomplishments of members of his family, who even now, are working on the new Bond film and the new Star Wars film! He told great stories, seemed not to tire of me asking questions, and was a delightfully singular experience in my life.
I also got to chat with Aaron Enkelaar, who was the visual effects lead, and on set supervisor for effects on a little series called Lost Girl. Now, he has expanded his work to include developing an Augmented Reality program to work with developers, land owners, and selling real estate. Fantastic stuff!
I had a quick break between the reception and my screening that eve, so I was able to catch up with my old friends, Katie and Alex Brandeau, we easily hadn’t seen each other in 7 to 8 years, and it was so much fun to just get reacquainted. (You two are awesome and I can’t wait to see you again!).
And as the perfect weather held (actually it had done a nice job for the entire festival) I clambered onto a shuttle, which ferried me out to the gorgeous Peller EstatesWinery. I toured the main building, had a glass of their incredibly smooth and delicious 2013 Baco Noir (I was going to pick up a bottle then and there, but the shop had already closed) and then got ready for the evening’s screening on the vineyard’s property.
Set up in an event tent, just off the main house, which also provided dinner for those who had booked a special ticket, with grass underfoot, wine glass in hand, I settled in for the film… which is reviewed next…
Afterwards, we were driven back to the Resort, and I called it a day around 1:30am, with a comfortable wine buzz in my head.
I was up early, 7, and in the pool doing laps by 7:10, making sure I got a good hour’s exercise, and just enjoyment, before I tackled the interviews that GAT PR had been kind enough to schedule for me.
First up was Lulu Wang who was on site to promote her delightful screwball romantic comedy, Posthumous (there is a VOD and possibly Netflix deal coming, so watch for my review to coincide with that).
After chatting with Lulu, who was a joy, I got prepped for the award ceremony, and the possible line-up of interviews following it, and then was invited to sit down with some peers, and filmmakers to chat over a fantastic buffet breakfast. The conversation wandered from CRTC rulings to VPNs to young directors and artists need to create and express themselves, and not get pigeonholed into genres. It was fun, light, and in a charming environment (speaking of!! The music piped in through the resort’s speakers all weekend, was bliss, we’re talking Sinatra, Holiday, Sammy, Dino, and Connick jr., it was pretty sweet).
From there, it was time to gear up for the awards, and Bill Marshall, co-founder and CEO of the Festival opened the event with a speech detailing how sponsorship is growing, that Industry Day was a huge success, and that the entire festival is full is promise, and expanding and blooming on the vine. He was also on hand to present the first few awards.
A well deserved presentation for Rising Star Award, went to Bel Powley for her performance in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. She is definitely one to watch… and I had a brief chat about the 70s, the era her film was set in, with her during the reception afterwards…
Taking the Best Foreign Language Film at the festival was Viaje, a romantic Spanish film (just typing that line makes it sound like a perfect match for a good bottle of wine!). The Best Family Film of the festival went to Hong Kong’s Little Big Master.
They then handed out Best Actor – Patrick Stewart for Match (he wasn’t there, but I could totally see him enjoying the festival if he had!), Best Actress – Alicia Vikander for Testament of Youth, and Best Feature – The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
The awards then shifted to a section known as Niagara Rises, this focussed on the local talent with films in the festival. The 2015 Emerging Artist Award went to The Hotel Dieu director Adrian Thiessen, whom I chatted with during the reception… It’s a little noisy, but hey, the reception was in full swing…
The Short Film Award went to Made In Bali, the Jury Prize went to the highly enjoyable The Cocksure Lads Movie, and the Best Feature Film award went, deservedly, to The Hotel Dieu,
Wrapping up the awards ceremony was the World’s Smallest Film Festival Awards, and showcases films shot on smart phones! There were two, Best Director, and Audience Choice, and they both went to Andrea Conte, whom I also had an opportunity to chat with at the reception…
I then got to chat with Dirk Bansema the WSFF co-ordinator…
The Awards ceremony spilled out into the reception area, where, surprise, even more tasty wine was imbibed on, and some socializing, chatting and pics, took place. I chatted with Kevin McGuiness about his two animated features that were in the short festival…
I chatted with Sari Ruda, the co-founder and President of the Festival…
and Tony Watts the Director of Programmin (who may watch as many movies, if not more, than I do!)…
All in all, as I drained the last of my wine, and looked longingly at the empty glass and bottle that accompanied it, I loved this festival. It’s still growing, still trying things out, finding what works, but the environment, the concept, the films, and oh, the wine… is bound to make this festival a winner!
I cannot rave enough about all the people involved, and I cannot pay high enough compliments to everyone who made the weekend what it was… to the talent I met, to new friends made, old friends caught up with, all set against the gorgeous backdrop of wine country, a flickering screen and a full glass.
Do yourself a favor, when this one rolls around next year, make the effort to check it out! (I know I’ll want to!)