Yorkton Film Festival
|Location||Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Canada|
Canada's first film festival, the YFF bills itself as the longest running film festival in North America. It was established in 1947 under the guidance of the Yorkton Film Council, with the first festival held in 1950. Initially known as the International Film Festival, it was run by the Yorkton Film Council until that body disbanded in 1971. Since then, the Yorkton International Film Festival Society has run the event, which has gone through several changes of name and mission.
The festival is open to Canadian productions, or international productions directed by a Canadian, and focuses on films that are under 60 minutes in length.
During World War II, the National Film Board of Canada instituted a program to help bolster the spirit of Canadians during the war through the projection of NFB produced films across Canada. When the war ended, the NFB faced a series of budget cuts which led to the development of film councils through Canada who would arrange for the screenings to continue, with one such council being formed in Yorkton. The NFB provided films and upkeep, while the councils were responsible for securing their own projector and venues. In 1947 James Lysyshyn, a field officer for the National Film Board developed an idea for the Yorkton International Film Festival. Lysyshyn wanted to bring back the prestige for documentary films in the face of the glamorous Hollywood productions of the time.
Hearing that the Edinburgh Festival was adding a film section to their offerings, Lysyshyn felt that the Yorkton Film Council was positioned to take on a similar venture, relying on the pioneer spirit of the Yorkton community. Many on the council worried that all the films would come from the NFB, many of which the community members had already seen, and that there would be little point in reshowing them. James took the denial in stride and returned a month later to the film council with the idea to make the festival one for international films; even then, it took the council almost a year to be convinced of the merits. The film council decided the festival would be held in 1950, giving them two years time to prepare and receive international entries. Film council members wrote letters, made phone calls to embassies, and worked tirelessly to secure films for the festival. The efforts paid off with 40 films being submitted to the festival, with films coming from the Netherlands, India, Sweden, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Norway, France, and the United States. The festival was held on 11 and 12 October, with screening of films held in City Hall. Audience members judged the films and Certificates of Merit were awarded to the winners.
The success of the first festival, bolstered by amazing reception of the Yorkton community, led to the film council deciding to continue with the film festival. The decision was made to have festival every two years, in order to give organizers time to solicit and receive submissions, with the next festival being set for 1952.
In 1952, the festival was held for a second time. 'Founding Father of the Festival' James Lysyshyn and fellow film council members noted the success of the first festival and interest received from both the community, and other places in North America looking to establish their own festivals. The second festival changed format slightly, as the film council held screenings at three separate venues as opposed to the single venue of City Hall at the 1950 festival. The festival accepted colour film for the first time. The festival also added a day to accommodate their screening schedule, making the festival a three-day event in the community.
Again, the community members of Yorkton rallied around the event and packed all three venues over three days. The festival's entries grew slightly, as 47 films were entered in the festival, but the list of countries that had submitted films read "like the roll call at the United Nations."
In 1954, the festival was held for a third time. The festival was beginning to attract a lot of recognition, with the Regina Leader-Post saying "Yorkton this week is taking an international flutter. It is holding its biennial ‘International Film Festival’, a venture the Saskatchewan city began with some courage and considerable daring in 1950.... Today, Yorkton is holding the only such festival on this continent and only now are some metropolitan American cities toying with the idea of following suit." The festival continued to thrive thanks to its supportive community members. The festival had a special visitor in the form of Maritana Heinrich from the Ottawa Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. Heinrich had come to Yorkton's festival as Germany was interested in producing documentaries on a larger scale and wanted to improve film making techniques. The festival also hosted A.L. Caldwell, a member of the NFB Board of Governors as well as a Canadian Delegate to the United Nations, as a guest speaker.
In 1956, the festival was held for a fourth time. For the first time in the festival's history, the films were adjudicated and rated by film experts and professionals, as opposed to being selected by audience choice. The change was seen as a positive one for the festival, as it was thought it would encourage more entries from filmmakers knowing that their films would be judged by professionals rather than a general audience. The first entry from the former Soviet Union was accepted this year, and two representatives from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa attended the festival. In the era of the Red Scare, the arrival of two Soviet diplomats in small town Saskatchewan caused a bit of a stir. The two men were followed by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers throughout their time in Yorkton, with the exception of an incident where the two managed to slip out of their hotel without being followed. Despite concerns from some that the Russian delegation may have been in town to spy and recruit, the hosting of Moscow's first film festival in 1958 helped show that the Russians were more interested in learning about organizing a film festival than national secrets.
The festival continued to be a success with the local community, as 4,000 people attended the 1956 festival; the population of Yorkton was only around 8,000 at the time.
Changes to the festival format
In 1969, the festival also began to offer workshops to filmmakers and interested community members. Wayne Morgan, a resident artist from Weyburn, held the festival's first workshop on film making. High school students were among those who attended the festival's first ever workshop. From there, more workshops began to grow and form at the festival, and the first panel was introduced at the 1975 festival. The offering of these panels and workshops played a major role in getting the festival back on track and did wonders in increasing attendance from filmmakers.
In 1975, the board of directors decided to remove the international films from competition Yorkton's Film Festival and instead focus on Canadian film productions. While foreign films were removed from competition, the board still allowed foreign films to be screened at the festival.
In 1977, the festival offered its first cash prize, of $2,000, from the Queen City Junior Film Festival who had created a fund to encourage films about children for children.
That same year, the festival opened its first dedicated office above the library, a cramped and rather grungy space from which the sole employee and first executive secretary, Don Humphries,could work. Two years later, the festival office would move to premises next door above the bowling alley. On a two-year moving schedule, in 1981, the festival moved – this time to the newly opened Godfrey Cultural Centre, where the festival office has remained.
In 1980 there was perhaps the most significant change the festival's format. When the festival first started it was held as a bi-annual event, due to the amount of time it took to contact and find international entries. With international entries removed from competition, and the number of films being submitted to the bi-annual event causing scheduling issues for adjudication, the board decided that the interest was clearly there to move the festival to an annual event. Since 1980, the festival has remained an annual event in Yorkton, being held on the weekend after Victoria Day.
An award for the Best Saskatchewan Entry was created for the 1980 festival. The award was not handed out in the first year, due to a lack of Saskatchewan entries, but the addition of a video category seemed to spur on change. The affordability of video technology allowed films to be created with less capital, and in 1983 the festival announced the creation of the Saskatchewan Showcase; a competition meant to spur on the film industry in the province. Showcase would include panel discussions, workshops, and a cash prize for the winning film. The organizer of the event was expecting only 25 films to enter,so it must have been surprising to see 50 entries in the competition. Charles Konowal of Regina won the first Showcase for, Grain Elevator, a film produced by the NFB.
Beginning in 1981, the festival started to be converted to the Yorkton Short Film and Video Festival. Video was a relatively new technology, and many of the board felt that it would never replace the giant film reels that the festival had dealt with for the last few decades. As such, the video category was introduced with little fanfare. But the category soon came to define the festival, as more and more filmmakers moved towards video as a cheaper means of producing and submitting their films. Despite the initial resistance, the festival embraced video and allowed films produced on video to be shown to a wider audience. It was only a matter of time until film reels were on the way out, and VHS tapes flooded the festival office after each call for submissions. Of course, video has now given way to DVD (and even to Blu-ray), and the festival continues to welcome these new ways of screening.
One of the largest changes to the festival's format revolves around film adjudication. Until 1956, winning films were selected by the audience. The festival moved to a professional adjudication system, relying on entertainment reporters, film professors, actors, and filmmakers to come to Yorkton and adjudicate the submitted films. Festival adjudication today is a Canada wide affair, as the festival boasts jury heads from eight out of ten provinces who form juries and oversee adjudication. Juries today are responsible for determining nominees in all categories, including craft & special awards, and are made up of professional filmmakers and industry experts.
A fire in 1957 led to some changes in the way the film council was run. Avalon Studios, the film depot and equipment supplier, was one of several businesses affected by the fire and film council lost almost everything. The council appealed to the local community for donations and help, which flowed quickly and helped the council recover. The Yorkton Public Library took over the responsibilities of Avalon Studios, and became the new film depot, which further allowed the film council to focus on running the festival.
The advent of television reduced the popularity of the festival in the 1960s, so much so that the film council decided to postpone 1966's festival until 1967 in order to provide more time to promote it. In 1969, the festival faced dire straits as the Yorkton Film Council disbanded and all but gave up on continuing the festival. Nettie Kryski, treasurer of the film council for over 20 years, refused to let the festival die sought out Yorkton Mayor Allan Bailey, and his wife Colleen, to aid in keeping the festival going. The festival found a new partner in the Saskatchewan Arts Board, and the festival organizers reached out to local businesses and community organizations to sponsor the event. The festival created a new board of directors who worked to ensure the festival's continued survival. This was spearheaded by a succession of volunteers and board members who oversaw and introduced changes that put the festival on secure footing, those people were: Colleen Bailey, Laurence Pearson, Elwyn Vermette, and Brian Woodward.
Always aware of the international community, and of fellow film festivals, the festival has even reached out to other festivals to offer slight corrections. Such a correction came in 1971m when the Venice Film Festival claimed to receive the first ever international film submission from the People's Republic of China. Yorkton organizers responded, with a rather tongue in cheek message, explaining that the Yorkton festival had hosted eight films from China for the 1958 festival and three other films in 1962 and 1964.
"It would be somewhat ‘grotesque’ to pick out one top film in the festival; a festival which had seen the best Canadian short films ever entered. It would be almost impossible to pick out the almighty from the almighty... the films are all terrific. This year there are no losers. Everyone who has entered or participated in this event is a winner. All have won just by being here."
This was first, and only, time in festival history in which multiple films were considered Best of Festival.
In the 1980 festival, the first Golden Sheaf Awards Gala was introduced as part of another initiative by the Board of Directors to increase community participation in the festival. The gala included a traditional Ukrainian supper, celebrating Yorkton's Ukrainian heritage, the Golden Sheaf Awards presentation, a clip from winning films, and a dance to serve as a finale to the fun filled evening. Tickets to the event sold out very quickly. The gala has become a staple of the festival, and has been hosted by personalities like Shelia Coles, Jeff Douglas, and Costa Maragos.
Golden Sheaf Awards
After the 1956 festival, adjudicator Frank Morriss suggested that the festival should have a grand prize. As part of the community's farming and prairie background, Morriss suggested the festival use a wheat motif and recommended the adoption of a Golden Sheaf, which receive unanimous approval from the film council. The Golden Sheaf was minted and designed by the Winnipeg Brass Company, with the first ever Golden Sheaf being awarded to the Czech film, Inspiration. In the 1960s, the festival moved away from the heavy and expensive brass award and moved towards an engraved metal plaque and then to an acrylic standalone trophy. In the 1970s, Saskatchewan Government Insurance provided $1,250 for a contest to have a unique award designed for the festival. The winning design, by Jerry Didur, proved to be too complex and costly to mass-produce. As a result, the board asked Yorkton artist Jim Trinder to design the award that is still used today. In 1977, the first redesigned Golden Sheaf was handed out to High Grass Circus, a NFB production.
In 2013, the Yorkton Film Festival presented Golden Sheaf Awards in 19 film categories, ranging from Animation to Student Production. It also presents three subcategory awards (Ruth Shaw Best of Saskatchewan Award, Aboriginal Filmmaker, Emerging Filmmaker), and three craft awards (Best Director [Fiction], Best Director [Non-Fiction], Best Research). The festival also presents the Founder's Award, awarded to a production depicting historical Canadian characters or events.
The festival's top award is the Best of Festival award.
List of Best of Festival winners
- 2018: Skin for Skin
- 2017: Fix and Release
- 2016: Sex Spirit Strength
- 2015: Vanishing Points
- 2014: Jingle Bell Rocks!
- 2013: Let The Daylight into the Swamp
- 2012: To Make A Farm
- 2011: Lipsett Diaries
- 2010: Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland
- 2009: Norm
- 2008: Terminus
- 2007: Mississippi Cold Case
- Gordon Tootoosis
- Bruno Gerussi
- Phyllis Grant
- Gordon Pinsent
- Sarah Polley
- Barry Morse
- Theodore Ushev
- Micheline Lanctot
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