Small Films and Spanish Stars Highlight Calgary International Film Festival

For 10 straight days from September 23 through October 3, Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) brought some serious talent to YYC’s downtown doorstep. Over 160 screenings lit up screens at Eau Claire Cinemas, Globe Theatre and Contemporary Calgary — with stories from Argentina to Alberta about everything from late-bloomer love to a supernatural environmental activist — by first-time and veteran directors.

With everything from Inception to Ghostbusters: Afterlife filmed in and around the city and a world-class production studio built this year, Calgary is a film and TV production hub on the rise. The wealth of titles offered at the 22nd annual CIFF helped cement this status. Here are our top picks from this year’s festival.


Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz dancing outside, in a scene from the movie Official Competition.

Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in Official Competition.

1. Official Competition
Dirs. Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat
Argentina, Spain
Spanish w/ English subtitles
114 mins.

A movie about making a movie, Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s Official Competition is a riot for film critics and those just dipping their toes into the festival pool alike. Clever and complex without being pompous and esoteric, the comedy, led by Penelope Cruz, Oscar Martínez and Antonio Banderas, follows the farcical absurdities that arise when eccentric avant-garde filmmaker Lola LaCuevas (Cruz) casts two vastly different actors — one a stage artist (Martínez), one a self-obsessed action hero (Banderas) — in a film adaptation of a Nobel Prize-winning novel.


Film posters for "Beyond Curls & Kinks", "Long Distance" and "Undetectable".

Shorts: Alberta Spirit Documentaries

2. Beyond Curls & Kinks
Dirs. Osas Eweka-Smith, Kelsey Van Moorsel
30 mins.

Filmed between Alberta and Nova Scotia, this mini-doc by Eweka-Smith is an educational, empowering ode to embracing Afro-textured hair. In conversation with women from all over the country, Eweka-Smith gets to the root of self-esteem, identity and confidence issues while provoking audiences to see women and girls beyond their hair.

3. Long Distance
Dir. Kiana Rawji
30 mins.

This poignant short zeroes in on the love story between Roderick and Norie, a Filipino couple living in Calgary. After several years apart, they were reunited in Canada — now, a COVID-induced stroke has placed Roderick, a Cargill meat-packing plant worker, recovering in hospital. This true story examines the power of love and perseverance while questioning Canada’s temporary foreign worker laws in light of the Cargill COVID-19 outbreak — one of the largest single outbreaks in North America.

4. Undetectable
Dir. Laura O’Grady
40 mins.

Educational, historical and compelling, this short by Calgarian filmmaker Laura O’Grady lays it bare: those who take medication for their HIV cannot transmit the disease. It’s an assertion that modern society has been grappling with for years despite the science that backs it up. Through beautiful visuals courtesy of artist and long-term HIV survivor Tiko Kerr, interviews with survivors, activists and pioneering doctors and researchers, Undetectable smashes HIV stigmas for the future.

A man and woman standing out in the snow with shotguns, from the film Don't Say Its Name.

5. Don’t Say Its Name
Dir. Rueben Martell
84 mins.

A supernatural thriller about the stakes of land disputes between Indigenous nations and destructive energy companies, the horror in this edge-of-your-seat flick is rooted in very real problems Indigenous communities face when companies, like the fictional mining outfit WEC, set up shop on tribal lands. Filmed just outside of Bragg Creek, AB, Don’t Say Its Name serves buddy-cop storylines between two badass women, Cloverfield-like camerawork and some seriously gory shock value.


Stills from the film Islands (left) and We Are The Thousand.

Islands (left), We Are The Thousand (right).

6. Islands
Dir. Martin Edralin
Filipino w/ English subtitles
94 mins.

Once a dentist living in the Philippines, Joshua became a janitor upon moving to Canada. Now a painfully shy 50-year-old still living with his parents, Joshua cares for his elderly parents and tries to fall in love. This beautifully shot drama that makes the most mundane activities entertaining, the film involves Elvis impersonators, pocket pussies and a reality check about the treatment of immigrant workers. This multifaceted masterpiece won Special Jury Recognition for lead actor Rogelio Balagtas the Breakthrough Performance at Austin’s SXSW this year.

7. We Are the Thousand
Dir. Anita Rivaroli
Italian w/ English subtitles
79 mins.

In a testament to the power of music, Foo Fighters super-fan Fabio Zaffagnini pulled off the impossible: corral 1,000 musicians from across Italy to come together and play one Foo Fighters song in sync. Why? To convince the band to come play a concert in his small hometown of Cesena. In a series of gripping interviews with the musicians, this thrilling doc tells the story of how it all went down.


A woman and her daughter sitting at a hair washing station in a salon, gripping their purses against their chests.

8. El Planeta
Dir. Amalia Ulman
Spain, United States
Spanish w/ English subtitles
79 mins.

There’s a feeling of negative space throughout visual artist-turned filmmaker Amalia Ulman’s directorial debut: empty cobblestone streets, endless “for rent” signs, the high-profile fashion styling career Leo (Ulman) could have had in London. Instead, she’s in post-financial crisis Gijón, Spain, with her mother (portrayed by Ulman’s real-life mom) as they hustle to maintain their lavish lifestyle while secretly descending into poverty in this quirky arthouse comedy.


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