Celebrating 15 Years of VISFF

Photo by Denisa Kraus
0

The Vancouver Island Short Film Festival (VISFF) is back to ring in the new decade, and it promises to be better than ever.

The festival is returning to VIU next month from February 78, but this time they’ve decided to shake things up a bit. For the first time ever, VISFF will be showing two separate programs, which means more films can be included.

Here are the showtimes and locations to reference:

  • Friday, February 7, 7 pm. Malaspina Theatre (Bldg. 310): PROGRAM 1.
  • Friday, February 7, 7 pm. Bldg. 320, rm 105: PROGRAM 2, followed by filmmakers’ Q&A.
  • Saturday, February 8, 2 pm. Malaspina Theatre (Bldg. 310): PROGRAM 1.
  • Saturday, February 8, 7 pm. Malaspina Theatre (Bldg. 310): PROGRAM 2, followed by the awards ceremony.


For fifteen years, the VISFF has been showcasing filmmakers from around the globe; but its core mission has always been to promote local talent. When Johnny Blakeborough and John Gardiner founded the festival in 2005, their dream was to build up a film community within Nanaimo. Having worked together on the Infest Festival for three years, they realized that they wanted to make the shift from feature-length to short films.

“Infest was a great festival. It had some problems, some design things that I wasn’t a fan of” said Blakeborough. “John approached me one day and asked, ‘what do you think a really good festival in Nanaimo would be?’ So we just kind of went through a list of what we thought Infest did well, and some of the things we would’ve liked to do differently. One of the things Infest had at its heart was that it was trying to promote an interest in feature films—independent feature films—so it was bringing in Canadian feature-length film directors and really celebrating them. It was cool and all, but I was more interested in building up a film community of people who could make films in our community, and feature films are so expensive and so time-consuming. The barrier for entry is so much higher; short films were way more interesting to me. It just made way more sense to celebrate short films exclusively.”

After working as technical director at Infest for three years, Blakeborough stepped away and started his own project with Gardiner—and it became the birth of what is now known as VISFF.

“The biggest thing was that story was more important than production quality,” said Blakeborough. “That was sixteen years ago when we had that conversation. The fact that the festival is still going strong is amazing.”

Gardiner ended up stepping away from the festival after the first couple of years in order to pursue more creative projects and make more films, so Blakeborough ended up taking over; but he has a full-time job and other obligations too, and projects he wanted to pursue. So in the tenth year of VISFF, in 2015, he found Karla Duarte and hired her as the new Executive Director of the festival. She officially took over in the eleventh year.

Since he stepped back, Blakeborough has had two films in the festival, and they both won People’s Choice. “A lot of the people who go to the festival already know me, and local filmmakers already have the advantage of having lots of local people vote for them,” said Blakeborough. “But I’m still proud of that; I think I did a really good job on them. I actually worked on them with John [Gardiner]. It’s been nice to step back and actually make films again.”

As the President, his job is essentially supporting Karla and the staff, running the board meetings, making sure the festival has all the resources it needs, and general governance such as signing off on cheques.

“One of the first things we talked about at the board meeting this year was ‘can we do this?’” Blakeborough said about the additional program. “We’ve had more and more submissions every year, and it’s getting more and more difficult for the submissions committee to pair down the films to just an hour and forty minutes. So we decided this was the year that we’re going to try.” 

There were a few more things that they were going to change at the festival, but ultimately they decided that this was such a big one that weren’t going to implement anything else this year. But I can’t wait to see what they have in store for 2021.

I ask Blakeborough how they managed to gain recognition from so many filmmakers across the world. “In the first couple years we did a lot of outreach to film communities. We actually contacted filmmakers that we liked their shorts and here’s a cool festival for them. Or film groups, like CineVic in Victoria, or the Winnipeg Film Group in Winnipeg. We did this project where we contacted every high school and elementary school in BC, and sent them this package in an effort to get more schools and students to submit. But we used to have all of our submissions mailed in, so people would send us VHS’s and DVDs, and they wouldn’t work. So the digital age has helped our submission process a great deal. The tools online for submitting means people can see them way quicker, but also have a great networking effect, and makes us more accessible.” He acknowledges that positive reviews online from people who have had their film shown in the festival has also had a dramatic effect on submission numbers. He cites <FilmFreeway.com> as a great platform.

Karla Duarte is happy to be on the team and take part in what is such a pivotal community event. “It is important for me to contribute to community and art is a great way to do it! VISFF is one of Nanaimo’s unique premiere events and I am honoured to be able to put on this festival!” said Duarte. When asked if any particular film stands out to her, she couldn’t decide. “Tough question! VISFF accepts films in any genre and the programs definitely showcase the variety. You can truly say VISFF is like a box of chocolates…this year we have films that really touched on some current social issues and they really stood out to me,” she said.

Local filmmaker Raymond Knight, whose film “River Therapy” is in the festival this year, is no stranger to the event. This will be his fourth film selected into the Vancouver Island Short Film Festival. He has had his documentary “Living With” in the festival, as well as two music videos: “KRUPA” by Bananafish Dance Orchestra  (the video was nominated for Best Original Music at the 2014 VISFF) and “Small World” by Milad Kassiri.

“My career has been built on the back of this wonderful community, so it’s been great to see it grow and be a part of this opportunity that supports local artists,” says Knight. He just wrapped filming on a project that he considers to be his most narrative yet, and hopes to start submitting it to festivals in February.

As for advice to anyone looking to submit to the festival next year—he says just do it. “Enjoy the creative process while you’re shooting. Take your time and do lots of sketches, because once you’re editing you’re just managing all the mistakes you made during production.” But you can also pick his brain at the filmmakers’ Q&A on February 7, as he’s planning on attending the event and being on the panel.

Duarte says there will be 25 films that span from Canada to Mexico, the UK, France, Iran, and the United States.

 “Audiences can expect to see films that touch on relevant issues and films that tell amazing stories in 15 minutes or less,” she said. Film descriptions and programs can be found at <visff.com>. This year the selection committee is comprised of local filmmaker Todd Jones, Mallory Gibson, writer and VIU instructor Frank Moher, and videographer Jocelyn Matwe, so it is sure to be good entertainment. But please be advised that the films are not rated, and some contain sexual content and violence. 

Tickets are available through the Port Theatre via phone at 250 754 0550, in person, or online at <www.porttheatre.com>.

Cheers to 15 years, VISFF!