Defying Convention: 15 Years of CUFF

Story by Christina Wong
Photos provided by CUFF

There are few festivals as highly anticipated in Calgary as the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF). What began as a short program screened over three days has grown into an internationally recognized, seven-day event filled with the best in local and international films, diverse events, and unexpected surprises. Since its inception, CUFF’s mandate has been to bring provocative films, innovative experiences, and the best in locally-made entertainment to Calgary. As we look back on the last 14 years and CUFF’s many milestones, it is fair to say that the festival has done just that.

While CUFF may have begun in 2003, the idea of a film festival dedicated to screening unconventional and quirky films began even earlier. Inspired by the screening of THE ACID HOUSE in 1998 at the Toronto International Film festival, Festival Director and co-founder Brenda Lieberman wanted to create a Calgary experience that would bring provocative film to audiences out West. Further influenced by Fantasia de Montreal, Lieberman and fellow film-loving co-founders created an experience for fans of genre films and people who were genuinely interested in watching something different.

Experiencing film in a different way doesn’t mean just showcasing films from the festival circuit to audiences who had never seen them before. Crafting an experience can be as simple as changing who we watch old favourites with, and so, in 2010, CUFF added the Saturday Morning All You Can Eat Cereal Cartoon Party to the program. A time for kids and kids at heart, the three-hour Cartoon Party was and continues to be a way for attendees to enjoy nostalgic shows with other fans over sugary cereal in their pyjamas. It is one of CUFF’s only family friendly events, and one that many festival attendees look forward to every year.

Part of screening films that defy convention means being open to all genres of film, including non-fiction films. The number of quality international documentaries and films submitted to CUFF were so great that in 2013, CUFF.DOCS was born. A stand-alone festival taking place in November, CUFF.DOCS is dedicated to showing “real life worth watching,” and once again is a way for the CUFF team to bring thought provoking film to Calgary.

Getting audiences excited with programming is the goal of any festival, but truly engaging them is another matter all together. In 2013, CUFF’s lineup included A Band Called Death, a documentary about the 1970s rock band Death, and the event is one of Lieberman’s most memorable moments. CUFF’s organizers arranged for the band to be there at the screening and perform for the audience afterwards – an experience that Lieberman calls an emotional moment for attendees.

Taking audience engagement one step further, CUFF launched CUFFcade in 2015. A curated arcade featuring five, custom-built arcade cabinets where festival attendees are able to play independent video games for free, CUFFcade is the only curated arcade of its kind in Canada. Originally featuring Canadian-made, independent games, CUFFcade is yet another way that CUFF is helping Calgarians experience the best in locally made entertainment.

This year, CUFF is celebrating its 15th anniversary, and this milestone is both proof of CUFF’s success in giving audiences something more than what they’d see at a mainstream theatre, as well as a testament to the ability of a small group of fans to make something extraordinary happen. At its core, CUFF remains a festival created by fans for fans and it shows in the dedication that goes into CUFF’s programming. From featuring the most Canadian-made films to showing the highest number of projects directed by women in its history, CUFF continues to defy convention, provoking thought, inspiring other festivals, and delighting fans all over the city.

The 15th Annual Calgary Underground Film Festival will take place from April 16 to 22 at the Globe Cinema. Tickets are available online at calgaryundergroundfilm.org or at the Globe Cinema box office.