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Grand River Film Festival returns to the big screen next month

Three day festival running May 9, 12 and 13 is back for its 15th year in three venues across Waterloo region

The 15th edition of the Grand River Film Festival (GRFF) will hit local movie screens on May 9, presenting regional, national, and international films in theatres in Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo.

One of two free short programs will be in the Cambridge Community Players Theatre on Saturday, May 13, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. No prior ticket is needed.

The GRFF, which began in Cambridge, is mainly focused on promoting local and Canadian cinema. Its lineup includes eight feature films, two free short programs and the premieres of the winners of the Hospice of Waterloo YODO short film contest.

“This year, our first in-person after 2019, we are trying to bring something new and a balanced theme. We are presenting documentaries and dramas but also films regarding musicians and bands,” said Paul Tortolo, the programmer and former chair of the GRFF.

Organizers hope the return to in-person screenings leads to a strong comeback for the festival which was left  “badly beaten by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tortolo told Cambridge Today.

“We were about to announce our lineup,” when the hammer fell in 2020, he said. Instead, festival organizers were told they had to cancel the festival. 

The following year, when COVID vaccines were just starting up, people were happy to watch films online, he said. 

“In 2022, we tried to do both online and in person and neither one was working very well,”  the programmer said. “We also lost some sponsors. The pandemic really hurt us.”

Tortolo said the festival survived the pandemic thanks to help from Telefilm Canada, the Trillium Foundation and help from the region and three cities. 

The power of connecting people through the shared experience of cinema is one of the main reasons the festival survived.

“Beyond watching a film on a big screen, you are watching it in a community of other people,” Tortolo said, adding that the festival’s international flavour promotes the gathering of different diasporas. “If something scary or funny happens, it really brings people together.” 

The festival will open at Princess Cinemas in Waterloo with the documentary And Still I Sing, directed by Fazila Amiri, about the controversial Afghan pop star and activist Aryana Sayeed who mentors young hopefuls as they prepare to appear on their country’s hit TV show Afghan Star. The dreams of these young girls are threatened by the Taliban.

Another Canadian drama is Bones of Crows, directed by Marie Clements, which presents the story of Aline Spears, a Cree survivor of the residential schools’ system who was a victim of starvation, racism, and sexual abuse. 

Bones of Crows, the survivors of residential schools. Photo supplied

As a child, Aline was forbidden to speak her language, which she managed to preserve and for which she worked as a Cree code talker in the Canadian Air Force during World War II. The film was part of the Toronto International Film Festival last September.  

In the Cambridge Community Players Theatre on May 13, at 7 p.m. will be the screening of The Young Arsonist, directed by Sheila Pye.

“It is about four teenage girls who have had some trauma in their lives, but they get together and form this very strong bond between them,” said Tortolo. This film, he added, is about the “girls' relationship and how they manage some difficult situations between themselves so  it's really quite well done too.”

The GRFF is presenting two American films, Once Upon a Time in Uganda, directed by Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Pérez, about the no-budget action movies produced by maverick Ugandan filmmaker Isaac Nabwana and his relationship with a filmmaker from New York.

“They start making action films and the story is about their experience of making these films. It is very entertaining to watch,” said Tortolo.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda will be screened in the Princess Twin, Waterloo, on May 12, at 7 p.m. Photo supplied

The other US production is Sirens, directed by Rita Baghdadi.

“This is a very good movie. It is set in Lebanon and shows the struggle of female Lebanese metal rock band to get recognition,” explained Tortolo, who has been part of the festival programming committee for nine years.

He said the story is about music and friendships, but the background is the “political turmoil in Lebanon and the  destruction in Beirut.”  

The international program includes the Mexican film The Woman of Stars and Mountains, directed by Santiago Esteinou.

It is a documentary about a Mexican indigenous woman who spent 12 years in a Kansas psychiatric hospital. 

“Nobody knew who she was. Nobody knew her name. Eventually, she went back to Mexico and lived with her niece. They don't even know how she got there. Ii is an incredible mystery,” Tortolo said.

The screening will be on May 12, 7 p.m., at the Cambridge Community Players Theatre.

In Waterloo, the GRFF will present the Colombian film City of Wild Beasts, directed by Henry Rincon. It is about a young man hoping to escape the violence of the Colombian city he lives in. 

“He tries to do it two ways, one through becoming a hip hop star, which works to some extent, but then he gets into some trouble and he leaves the city and goes to live with his grandfather, who he's never met in the country,” Tortolo said.

An Australian film completes the international lineup. Ablaze, directed by Alec Morgan and Tiriki Onus. It is the story of Bill Onus, a truly heroic cultural and political Australian figure who revived his people’s indigenous culture in the 1940s and ignited a civil rights movement that would, against enormous odds, change the course of history.

Still from the Australian film Ablaze. Photo supplied

The Cambridge Community Players Theatre and the Kitchener Public Library will host the two free short programs on Saturday, May 13, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. 

“We will have a different program at each hour,” said Tortolo, who highlighted one short in particular. Entitled Women Captains, it tells the story of a New Brunswick woman who wants to become a fishing boat captain and travels to meet female fishing captains.

“Some shorts are international, Canadian, very local or indigenous-based,” said Tortolo. “This program is free. You don't need to even buy tickets. Just show up.”

Tortolo added that presenting international productions also allows the gathering of different diasporas.

The GRFF is offering a promotion for people in Cambridge—a special discount for people who buy tickets for Friday, May 12, and Saturday, May 13.

Film lovers can check out the festival’s full schedule here.