Celluloid Atrocities | 06.06

The films are almost a side note compared to the overall experience of the festival, and this is perhaps because the majority of the films weren’t actually very good.



dawson.jpgThere is an almost palpable feeling to being in a college town—lots of youthful enthusiasm, interest in the arts and support for local artists, a feeling of camaraderie even with strangers. The capital of the college-town feeling is Austin, Texas, which is not exactly a college town in the strictest sense, but is regardless unsurpassed in its abilities to have cool, interesting things to do on any given night, and absolutely unbridled support for its local artists, no matter their medium.

A characteristic intrinsic to the college-town feeling is one that is also associated with small towns in rural America, which is the aforementioned sense of connection with everyone in the town. So, it shouldn’t have come as so much a surprise when I stumbled across that familiar feeling in a small town up in the Yukon Territories. Over Easter weekend, I traveled up to Dawson City, an old gold rush town in northern Canada, for the weekend-long Seventh Annual Dawson City International Short Film Festival, and found it to be the smallest-known home of the college-town feeling. During the gold rush, Dawson City had a population in the neighborhood of 30,000, but now it is more like 1,800. Due to a layer of permafrost, none of the roads in town are paved, and there are boardwalks instead of sidewalks. Muddy feet are such an epidemic that practically none of the businesses in town let you wear shoes farther than the front door. As far as I could tell, the town only had one gas station. It gets so cold during the winter that only a fraction of the town’s residents actually stay in town for the duration, and almost all of the businesses close (I’m not sure that the temperature went above freezing the entire time I was there, and this was mid-April).

And yet, this is a town that won’t let the lack of movie theaters (or lack of population, for that matter) keep them from holding an annual film festival. There is an art institute in Dawson, the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC for short, pronounced “kayak”), where they stick glorified folding chairs into a gallery room and set up a screen, and that’s where almost all of the films are shown. The “short” in the festival’s title is in reference to the films shown therein, not the festival itself, although it could feasibly go either way. DCISFF hosts movies primarily made by Yukoners or people with some kind of connection to Dawson (KIAC has a very good artist-in-residency program, and previous and current artists in residence had many films in the festival), with the others coming primarily from other circumpolar countries (Scandinavian countries made a strong showing) or other Canadian territories.

The films are almost a side note compared to the overall experience of the festival, and this is perhaps because the majority of the films weren’t actually very good. Short films by nature are a strange beast—filmmakers almost always use them as stepping stones to realizing their goal of making feature-length films, and very few filmmakers actually seem to want to make short films, despite the fact that they have all of the potential as an art form as feature films do. As a result of this mentality, about the best you can hope for from most short films is to see something from a director who is not yet great, but will be one day.dawson2.jpg

This isn’t to imply that there weren’t any salvageable films in the festival. I quite liked “Big Girl,” about a nine-year-old who doesn’t like her mother’s new boyfriend and has a contest with him where the loser will quit interfering with the winner’s will towards the mom’s well being. Also good was “Homage to a Catalonian Christmas,” a documentary about Catalonian Christmas traditions, which apparently involve firewood that poops out presents when hit with sticks. (Incidentally, the Film and Sound Commissioner for the Yukon is a Catalan woman, and the film offended her, so perhaps it is not nearly as factual as it would have you believe.) Regardless, I’m endlessly entertained by little kids screaming at a log with a face on it to shit them out a present. Also, the current artist-in-residence, Sarah Abbott, had a program of her finished short films. Veering toward the heavily experimental, they were entirely off-putting to most of the audience, and Abbott’s introductions to them seemed unsurprisingly pretentious. Still, she holds great potential as an experimental filmmaker with a knack for Begotten-style black and white.

The programmer of the festival, a lady by the name of Lulu Keating, picked me up at the airport, and while there she warned me that Dawson was a dry town. She was kidding, of course, and quickly clarified that pretty much everyone involved with the festival would be drunk the whole time. As it turns out, there is a rather endearing bar in town called The Pit, one building with two bars: The Snake Pit and The Armpit. The Snake Pit is open 24 hours a day, and when Lulu brought me there at 11:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, it was as busy as I would expect a St. Louis bar to be on a Friday night. There, the locals mentioned longingly that the Snake Pit was much cooler before they redid the floor (which had shifted due to the permafrost), because it was much stickier then. How am I supposed to concentrate on films when I’m in a town like that?

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