Freaks, geeks, and other unique peeks

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NorthwestFest

Runs from May 3 to 13. All screenings take place at either Metro Cinema or the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Passes, 4-Packs, and single tickets are now on sale at www.northwestfest.ca, or pick up a 4-Pack or Opening Night ticket in person at TIX on the Square.

The call of NorthwestFest is almost upon film lovers across the metropolis. It is Canada’s longest-running non-fiction film festival after all, so it’s come to be a springtime staple on the festival scene.

“The best part is the sun is shining and the snow is finally gone. Everyone’s going to be in such a good mood by next week … it’s perfect timing,” enthused program and festival director Guy Lavallee.

Technically called the NorthwestFest Documentary and Media Arts Festival, it was started in 1983 as the Edmonton Learners Centre’s Third World Film Festival and then renamed as Global Visions Film Festival in the late 1990s, which most people are probably still familiar with. It’s been using its new brand since 2016, making this its 35th season.

It’s the perfect antidote to a lot of the popularly distributed movies that monopolize the multiplexes.

“Look at the timing. What opens this weekend on eight billion screens? The Avengers. I’m all for the blockbuster movie. I love them myself but honestly, back when I was kid in the era of the single screen theatre and very, very few multiplexes, a big release would play on maybe one or two screens and you’d still get independent and smaller films and dramas, all sorts of different varieties of films, not just at the arthouses.”

“There’s a lot more screens now, but a lot less variety of what those screens are showing. I think that’s also partly why you’ve seen the proliferation of film festivals in general over the least decade. You think back 20 years and you had kind of heard of the really big ones like Sundance or Cannes, even to a lesser extent TIFF,” he said, using the acronym for the Toronto International Film Festival. “When I started going to TIFF 20 years ago, it was kind of a nice little festival. It wasn’t this juggernaut that it is now.”

The festival kicks off for a 10-day whirlwind adventure on Thursday, May 3, starting with the highly-anticipated premiere of When They Awake, attended by filmmakers P.J. Marcellino and Hermon Farahi along with a group of Indigenous musicians (such as Leela Gilday and Don Amero) from throughout Alberta, the Yukon, and Nunavut for an intimate post-screening concert.

“I’m probably more excited about this year’s lineup than I have been in my seven years here with the festival,” Lavallee said. “Our opening night film is a glorious celebration of music, and I can’t wait for audiences to see some amazing musicians performing live on the stage of the Garneau after the screening. But I’m also really excited about our incredible lineup of Canadian films: some truly stellar music docs; some really high profile films in our Bell Media Hot Docs Showcase, and I’m thrilled about our new Icons programming stream, kicking off this year with films about Yayoi Kusama, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vivienne Westwood, and more.”

There are dozens upon dozens of events and films with subjects covering Canada’s burgeoning Indigenous music scene, Cherrybomb rocker Joan Jett, and American Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and many more.

The local connection

When Freaks And Geeks: The Documentary plays on Saturday, May 5, it’ll be a special kind of homecoming for St. Albert-raised and self-taught filmmaker Brent Hodge.

“I’m really glad that Edmonton is playing it. Hometown shows … it’s so cool,” he said during a phone interview only days before the film’s world premiere at the famous Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

The pop culture documentarian is probably best known for A Brony Tale (that looked at My Little Pony toys) as well as the Dan Mangan doc What Happens Next? He never went to film school but spent a lot of time in Vancouver’s busy film scene to really get his career off the ground.

After working at CBC in Vancouver and doing a few seasons of a few podcasts, he found his true calling. He’s even made a Chris Farley documentary and there is seemingly no end of fodder for his inquisitive mind.

That’s where Freaks and Geeks enters. The one-season TV show has achieved cult status thanks not only to its accessible content and hilarious, painfully real scripts but also for the involvement of those who have since become industry heavyweights: Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Linda Cardellini, and Jason Segel to name but a few.

Hodge was recently put on BC Business’s Top 30 Under 30 list for his successful Vancouver-based film and video production company called Hodgee Films. Now, he’s 32, which he’s careful to note is the same age as Apatow when he was doing Freaks and Geeks.

“I always put that in context because man, he was 32 and he was doing a show with a bunch of 16-year-olds telling NBC ‘we’re not going to take your notes’. He had a lot of guts.”

The TV show had a spotty run, bumped from slot to slot across days and times, and faced extended hiatuses. Those who knew it then didn’t know when to watch it. It was cancelled after airing only a dozen of its 18 episodes, though someone had the smarts to release the full slate of them on DVD.

That’s where Hodge and many others caught the Freaks and Geeks fever, though the questions about why it was genius yet cancelled compelled him to delve deeper.

“Isn’t it incredible that a cancelled TV show after one season got a DVD?’ That’s unheard of. That was really cool. I knew at that point, wow, this actually made an impact. It’s Time Magazine’s Top 100 TV shows of all time. How did this get cancelled? That’s where we started thinking about this movie. This is something. There were unanswered questions. How did NBC cancel this after 18 episodes? Cupcake Wars on the Food Network has nine seasons.”

He might just be capturing lightning in a bottle with this behind the scenes exploration where he talks with all of the cast and all of the creators. He said he hit “archive gold” in talking with one of the show’s writers who had a personal trove of memorabilia including scripts and old wardrobe.

But there was one more person that he needed to peg down.

“There is a guy [former NBC president]Garth Ancier … he’s been put on the pedestal as the villain who cancelled the show. It’s known around the world. He still gets trolled every day about it. I wanted to hear from him. No one has ever talked to him about it. No one has ever heard his side of the story. It was great to hear the inner workings of how a show would stay on the air and why it should or can’t last. There’s also a crapload of fun bits that no one has seen.”

Naturally, festival programmer Lavallee is also a huge fan.

“It’s a late addition to the program, one that had me bouncing off the walls. It’s probably my favourite show of all time. Knowing that the filmmaker has a connection to Alberta being originally from St. Albert, it’s just crazy. It’s awesome,” he said.

Trailers for the rest

As a coincidence, the Freaks and Geeks theme song is Bad Reputation by Joan Jett. Bad Reputation is also the name of the documentary about the singer that gets set to screen on Friday, May 11.

“From the minute I heard that there was a Joan Jett documentary, I was like, salivating with the opportunity. The fact that we were able to get it, I was so, so excited,” Lavallee continued. “And the one that’s playing the same night, the Wax Trax! records doc [Industrial Accident], because I was a record store guy back in the ’90s. It’s funny because Edmonton was actually a huge market for that label believe it or not. I’m really interested to see what the turnout’s going to be for that.”

He also stated that he was “over the moon” to get RBG, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, which he confirms is fantastic. It screens on the afternoon of Sunday, May 13. He’s also enthusiastic about Love, Gilda about the late comedian Gilda Radner. It plays the night before.

“The movie is beautiful; it’s beautifully done.”

Also playing on Saturday, May 12 is Flin Flon: A Hockey Town, a documentary about a small Canadian prairie town and the importance of the junior hockey team to the town. It’s apt timing especially in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, so the filmmakers and the festival are paying tribute the best way they can. The event is being turned into a benefit for Humboldt with all net proceeds going directly to the families of those affected by the tragedy. Filmmaker Dustin Cohen will be in attendance.

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Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.