Q&A with Charles Laird

Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

NNSL (Oct 11/99) - Charles Laird is the president of the Far North Film Festival. In just its fourth year, the festival, which celebrates films from the circumpolar world, has become a significant event for Yellowknifers.

Movie buffs can get their film fix this year on Nov. 12 and 13. Last year, about 500 Yellowknifers attended the event.

In 1995, Laird was the first festival's programmer and took over as president in 1996. And when he's not getting ready to roll films about the North, he's running his own production company -- Big Fish Productions -- out of his Back Bay home.

As a producer, Laird is nearing completion of a series of adventure travel shows due to air on the Outdoor Life Network next year.

Yklife: What's with the sign on your gate? In there a danger of being attacked in a foreign language?

Laird: Basically, it says beware of dogs, they're trained to attack and trained to hurt, stay back, go away, that kind of thing, in Italian. There are signs that say beware of dog, but this one seemed a bit more epic.

Yklife: How long have you been involved with the Far North Film Festival?

Laird: Five years. I was in the group that was motivated to get together at the start. The first one was in 1995.

Yklife: Last year you stood up and expressed some fear that nobody would show up to see the screening of The Herd because there was another event occurring. Yet it was sold out. You must be pretty happy about how the festival's gone over in its short history.

Laird: My interest in the film festival is kind of twofold. One, it's purely selfish. It gives me a chance to order films I'd like to see. And second, there's an earnest effort on my part to feed an appetite out there for movies. There was a film society that was popular a number of years ago here. It proved there was an interest.

Yklife: When it comes to Yk, October and November can be a time when there's not a lot to do. Something as simple as going to the movies often is a big deal. And when the film festival brought in the film Cold Fever, that was great.

Laird: If we could repeat that over and over ... That is a real gem of a movie. Very few people had ever heard of it. I was apprehensive about staging this event because it was outside the normal schedule of the festival.

Yklife: The Northern climate gave it instant recognition locally, but the story behind was just incredible. (The main character who is torn between a golf vacation and going to the site of his parents' death in Iceland).

Laird: It tapped into many Northern characteristics. The cold, the crazy characters with crazy and unusual habits. Isolation. The harsh environment.

Yklife: So how did you find out about that movie?

Laird: I went to see it in Toronto. It was playing at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I knew it would go over well. The crowd loved it. It had the humour as well.

Yklife: What particularly did you draw from the film?

Laird: The idea of the main character going to a strange land. If there's anything to identify with, it might be that. I'm still a bit of a stranger here. I came here six years ago from Windsor. Part of that idea interests me about the film festival. I like to see perceptions of the North from people who aren't from here. And their reaction to the North. This film definitely was an outsider's perspective. I think Northerners love to see people's reaction to people coming from outside. There's almost a pride in the fact that the North is so isolated and the characters here are so unique. I think a lot of Northerners identify with the Icelandic characters in the film.

Yklife: What about the financial side? Bringing in Cold Fever or The Herd. Does that bring in any money?

Laird: You need to fill the theatre to break even. Freight is just one of the costs. A film weighs 75 pounds. I've spoken with Bellanca Developments and they seem very interested in being very accommodating. To go back to the logistics of bringing a movie in (the biggest challenge) is financial. When it comes to finding movies about the North or any good films from Scandinavian countries, films set above the treeline, we've been able to find a really good collection of films. Did you see Zero Kelvin when it came up?

Yklife: No.

Laird: It was brutal. Talk about bleak, bleak, bleak. Completely different from Cold Fever which presented the North on a very bright side and the mystery of the landscape. Zero Kelvin presented the darkness of the souls of the people. A dark, bleak landscape. There's three guys. One comes from outside as a writer. He wants to write the definitive Northern story a la Jack London. He's after the classic tale of Northern adventure. And he arrives and these guys live in the most bleak landscape. The two guys are driven insane by the bleak climate. The writer tries to plough through the darkness of their spirit and he just can't do it. He fails. He succumbs to the darkness.

Yklife: Getting back to Cold Fever, it not only was a great movie but also a great move by the festival.

Laird: It helped because it was a great promotion of the film festival. Every year, we've been able to increase our audience to where we can break even through ticket sales.

Yklife: What stands out in your mind as the most memorable of all the films, outside of the films brought in prior to the actual festival, the ones that are part of the two-day festival?

Laird: We receive documentary, experimental, animation, feature, dramatic, music. It's hard to pin down a favourite. I really enjoyed The Herd. I think it took the festival up a notch to have a feature film submitted and to be able to screen in 35- millimetre. I also liked Salmonberries.

Yklife: Well, what about this year?

Laird: We're just closing up our submission deadline. We haven't received a lot of films. They're all very strong. I probably shouldn't say just yet. We usually set out seven to 10 hours of film. We will be showing, with the writer and producers in attendance, Uvajuq, based on Inuit legend. David Pelly will be here to make presentations as part of the program. We probably show all the films (Uvajuq and two others written by Pelly) in a row.

Yklife: So do you sit at home and watch movies all night?

Laird: I have a ravenous appetite for anything visual. I love television. You cannot pin me down at all as to the kind of television I watch. I will sit and watch four or five hours of science fiction movies. I love documentaries. I'll sit and watch the History Channel. There's a huge spectrum of content and quality on television right now. We've got the Space Channel. They show all the science fiction movies. If there's one thing I want to do in my life, it's make a B science fiction movie.

Yklife: Do you know who played the Thing in the original movie?

Laird: Who?

Yklife: James Arness.

Laird: Another thing I'd like to say is I do go to other film festivals to find out what other people are doing in terms of design and promotion. One thing I have recognized is to keep it simple. Even the bigger festivals, they put out a lot of glitz but when you look at the basics, they are just showing films. That's what people want to do, come and watch movies.

Yklife: What else do you do, besides the film festival?

Laird: You mean in terms of my life? As a profession, I'm an independent producer. I make stuff for television. This summer, I went into production on an outdoor series, a 13-part series probably starting (to air) in January, for Outdoor Life. I was a producer with another company in Ottawa.

Yklife: Where?

Laird: The Yukon, the NWT. The season's not finished. We'll be going to Baffin Island and there will be some production in Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec. It's a wide range of subject matter. Heli-hiking, white-water canoeing, sport kayaking. This is the biggest project I've worked on so far as an independent producer.

Yklife: What is the appetite for films about the North?

Laird: This is where we were talking about perspective. I think Northerners sometimes lose perspective of how interesting the North is. The landscape, the culture, the fact that it is so far away. Few people have had very little access to it. There is a level of discovery for people watching. And an interest in something most people probably won't have any contact with. There's a real appetite for the romance of the North. The stories of Peary and Franklin -- they are all in our immediate history. It's about adventure of going into an unknown. I think crossing the boundary into the unknown is what people are allowed to do in programs or movies about the North.

Yklife: What about the future of the film festival?

Laird: There are plans to try and develop the showing of films on a more regular basis here.