Name: Brenda Lieberman
Role: Festival Director & Lead Programmer at The Calgary Underground Film Festival
Notable Achievement: Awarded Avenue magazine’s Top 40 Under 40
About Branda Lieberman
Brenda is the Festival Director, Co-Founder and Programmer for the Calgary Underground Film Festival (2004), and Lead Features Programmer for the Calgary International Film Festival (2007). In addition she has film production experience, a member of IATSE 212, and has been involved with several other start-up festivals. She participates on industry juries and panels Internationally and in 2009 was awarded Avenue magazine’s Top 40 Under 40, and in 2018 was awarded Distinguished Alumni from MacEwan University’s Arts and Cultural Management program.
For 17 years, the Calgary Underground Film Festival has been dedicated to elevating Calgary’s cultural landscape with the best in international independent cinema.
Founded in 2003, CUFF is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to programming films that defy convention. Through the screening of contemporary works in various categories that include: feature, documentary, animation and shorts – we bring Calgarians a unique roster of films rarely seen in North American theatres.
CUFF elevates Calgary’s cultural landscape with the best in local and international independent cinema. They challenge and entertain audiences with boundary-breaking films, compelling artist showcases and engaging events!
The Calgary Underground Film Festival celebrated its 17th annual event this year! Can you introduce the festival to our readers? How did the festival start?
CUFF started at a time when Calgary didn’t have much in the way of film festivals, and the Calgary International Film Festival had only just begun. We attended TIFF, fell in love with a bunch of films we were dying to show to an audience here, and essentially caught the programming bug. There was a void we wanted filled locally, and decided that we wanted to stretch the boundaries of what we would screen, with very little limitations on content. Essentially anything from one end to the other – quirky independents, genre films, all the way to more mainstream genre content not available here or best experienced with an audience. We have always been creating and thinking through the lens of “by fans for fans”, and really create an elevated experience with our screenings, listening to our audiences’ ideas, and building an event for the community that would become as addictive to our audience, as we found other festivals!
Due to the pandemic the 17th Calgary Underground Film Festival was a 7-day online event, commencing in June 2020. How did you switch the entire event online and is it something you’ll look into permanently?
It was a huge undertaking making the switch, and I don’t think any of us expected or were prepared for the amount of work that it took to do. It felt like a big learning curve for all of us; mostly the added pressure of wanting to make sure all the aspects of what our audience, sponsors and filmmakers have grown to love about us, and their experience, would still be part of the new festival format. We spent a lot of time thinking over some of our favourite elements we do in-person – such as live DJs before each film, guest Q&As, and finding other ways to engage with filmmakers – and tried to make sure we could successfully execute these elements online. Some we kept, some we tweaked, and others we will have to save for future events. We definitely received some really positive feedback, with audiences loving the new elements and flexibility of both online and the drive-in events. But we still would love to see us back in cinema, as nothing fully replaces what we have grown to love and experience together in a theatre, and how audiences experience films collectively. However, we do realize a hybrid model or aspects of what we learnt and executed this past year will likely be part of future festivals, and we will embrace that.
From feature to documentary to animation, the festival presents a variety of films. How do you select the films you present? What is your selection criteria?
We have a team of staff programmers, who have some very similar as well as very different taste in films, and we definitely make sure that we all have a strong voice in the programming. We also have a team of volunteers who watch content too. We are always looking for an interesting balance, as we have such a broad audience due to our variety and style of programming. We look for content in all genres, local content, niche targeted films, and films that would relate to some of the sub-cultures locally. We spend a lot of time discussing and making sure we are covering what our audience would likely want to see, or anticipating what will do well based on how films are received on the festival circuit, and reviewed in trade publications. It’s always been a mix of discovery and festival buzz films. Our audience really counts on us for both sides of it, and we want to make sure there is something for everyone. I love a quirky rom-com as much as a great horror film. So for us, balance and variety is key!
The festival is based in Calgary, in the beautiful region of Alberta, Canada. How does your festival contribute to Canadian cinema?
We love to support and promote Canadian cinema, and each year we really look forward to discovering new emerging directors, as well as anticipate the works of more established filmmakers. We do our best to program as much Canadian contest as we can that fits with our style that has not already been released or screened in Calgary. We host a National Canadian Film Day event each year, always invite the Canadian filmmakers to the festivals and events we host, and some of our staff work in the film industry too. We also support many Canadian films with social media promotion throughout the year, even if we were unable to play them at the festival for various reasons. Canadian content is much more unique, innovative and diverse than our average movie-goer realizes, and it’s part of the responsibility of a festival to showcase these films and expose audiences to the new voices and stories they wouldn’t discover otherwise.
How many film applications do you receive each year for festival participation?
We get around 800 submissions to the festival! We also travel to many festivals looking for content, which we book from distributors or filmmakers.
The organization of a film festival must be a long process! How many people make up the festival team?
We definitely spend all year on each festival in some capacity, and often think a year or two ahead. We have a core team of five, but we have around 10 of us that are key to what we do, and have been with CUFF for a long time. We have begun to slowly expand, but the passion, dedication and continuous support of the core team is what has really helped to expand and grow the festival in every way possible. They are also so intertwined into the festival, that the audience, sponsors, and industry partners see us all as ‘CUFF’ – and a team 100%.
What’s the preparation timeline of the festival; how much in advance do you start planning for the next event?
We are really thinking of the next year during the current year’s planning. We have some programming ideas we keep track of to see what year or season will be the best fit. However, for the year’s upcoming festival, I would say we begin a year in advance, and continue to increase working hours as we get closer, with the six-month mark being the start of our heavy planning.
You also host special screening events throughout the year! How long does it take to organise these; how is preparation for these events different to planning the festival?
For these it depends on whether the idea has been lingering for a while, and we can jump into action, or whether it’s one that will take time to come together. Our team recognizes some opportunities come quick, with little time to plan and we are always ready if it feels like the perfect fit for us. We do look at the year ahead though and see what we have the internal capacity to work on and make sure we’re all on board. We really can’t go ahead if the team isn’t fully supportive, or in unity.
Is it possible to work during the festival as a volunteer?
Yes, we have a lot of volunteers who help us out immensely, especially during the festival, and have been doing it for years! Honestly, even though many of our staff are considered staff, a good majority have full-time day jobs in addition to CUFF and really are involved with CUFF for their passion. We definitely can’t afford to pay everyone a proper year-round staff salary, so we’re all volunteering our time in some capacity.