Film enthusiasts returned to the sandy beaches of Lake Winnipeg in Gimli, Manitoba, to sit rapt beneath a starry sky and a 35-foot screen looming out of the cool water.
The 16th Gimli Film Festival began on July 20, uniting moviegoers and nature lovers in the small community 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
Senator Janis Johnson founded the festival as a celebration of Icelandic films; she has helped shape its evolution into her province’s most successful film festival that now emphasizes Canadian films.
“We wanted to add something new to the 1,000th anniversary of the discovery of North America by the Vikings,” said Senator Johnson, a self-described film buff who is proud of her Icelandic roots.
“It was one of the things I wanted to do for my region to enhance it, because economically it brings in thousands and thousands of people every summer.”
The entire community has embraced the festival, turning it into the biggest film fest in rural Canada. Gimli locals make up about half of the board of directors and a small army of volunteers — not to mention the generosity of sponsors — is integral to the festival’s continued success.
This year’s edition includes the usual series of circumpolar films — featuring work from the planet’s northernmost countries — as well as a number of Ukrainian films in celebration of one of Manitoba’s most vibrant cultures.
Indigenous films are also featured this year. The Alda Award, which was donated by Senator Johnson and takes its name from the Icelandic word for wave, is going to celebrated indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal.
The film festival boasts a number of venues but the most remarkable is Gimli Beach where the Sunset Screenings take place.
The screen is literally set up in the water; festivalgoers bring lawn chairs or dig out seats in the sand as the sun sets over the town and stars cascade across the sky.
Mother Nature has produced some interesting effects — Senator Johnson remembers winds whipping up the lake water against the base of the screen during a showing of a nautical film.
“It’s fun, it’s unique,” she said.
The festival can also serve as a springboard for aspiring filmmakers — grants are available to young people with winning scripts who use the money to produce short films that screen at next year’s film fest.
“It’s a labour of love,” said Senator Johnson.
“What drives it is the quality of our programming. You can see the same things at (the Toronto International Film Festival) that we show at Gimli.”
The festival runs from July 20 to 24.