Denisa Kraus
The Navigator

The 9th annual Vancouver Island Short Film Festival (VISFF) saw the highest attendance in its history, with up to 25 per cent of the attendees admitting to be new to the event, according to festival director Johnny Blakeborough.

The seven Goldie awards were handed out to only three different films. Backward Fall, a powerful drama about a husband’s lifelong devotion challenged by his wife’s dementia, uncompromisingly landed Best Performance, Best Writing, Best Student Film, Best Film, and People’s Choice; while Best Technical went to a futuristic psycho-thriller Rain; Best Original Music went to whimsical Bome Gnomski.

Next year will bring significant changes to the VISFF, as Blakeborough has announced he is preparing to step down as the director. The Navigator spoke to Blakeborough about his impression from this year’s record-breaking success and his future plans in the world of short films.

Navigator: The Vancouver Island Short Film Festival almost sold out both nights this year. Did that meet or exceed your expectations?

Johnny Blakeborough: I was really surprised by how many people showed up. I don’t have the numbers, but I can easily tell this was our best year. I got really great feedback from people about movies they liked or didn’t like. You don’t have to love everything, and that’s why we have different kinds of movies. Some people were really into the experimental stuff, some didn’t like it, and others said those were their favourite movies.

N: How do you achieve that sort of variety?

JB: A lot of people compliment me on how good the movies are, but I have almost nothing to do with that. I don’t pick them. I just tell the selection committee what we’re looking for and let them pick. What I do is encourage filmmakers to submit. I try to create an environment where more high-quality films will be submitted to the festival.

N: What do you usually want the selection committee to focus on?

JB: The first thing we tell them is that story is the most important. That’s always been our driving force. We want films to look and sound good, to be smart or scary or heart-wrenching, but the most important element is the story. The selection committee is given three criteria to scale their votes on: five points for entertainment value, five for technical qualities, and ten for story. If a submitted film has a story but the technical qualities are not as great, it still may be selected over a movie that is very well done and polished but lacks a powerful narrative. But if you look at all the films this year, they’re all pretty good-looking!

N: Would you consider setting any kind of theme or specific parametres for submissions in the future?

JB: I’m not interested in that, but maybe someone else who’ll take over after me will be. I actually like having it broad and try not to limit it too much. Someone suggested to me to do a LGBT festival, and I said,“That is an amazing idea! I think that would be great! You do it!”

The festival I’m making will take films that are themed like that, but essentially it’s open to everything. There is no theme and no rules. Right from the beginning, it was any genre and any style, 12 minutes or less. We won’t say you can’t have it shown somewhere else, or you can’t have swear words in it, it has to be a comedy or documentary or whatever. Maybe we’ll get so big that we’ll have categories, but I don’t see enough room for this festival to pick a theme. I don’t think we have enough local filmmakers to support it, so we’d have to completely rely on the people outside of Nanaimo, whereas having it completely open means a bigger possibility that the locals will get involved.

N: What will you do differently next year? Is there anything you wish you had done differently this year?

JB: I wish all the filmmakers who won awards were present at the festival, but we can’t control those things. Next year, we’re going to try for more submissions. We had just under 50 submissions this year, but we want to make it 100. As we announced, local filmmakers will be able to submit for free, and all will have the choice to submit online as well, which we didn’t offer in the past

N: The two-member selection committee is going to love you.

JB: There will be three people, or we may split it into two different committees—one that does the initial pass and makes a shortlist, and the other that makes the actual show. It means more work, but I’d like to have more people at the festival, so maybe we’ll have to move to a bigger venue. The Malaspina Theatre is so good to us—I love them. All the money we pay them goes to students. It’s close to my work, too. There are tons of benefits, but if we want an audience of more than 500 people, the only suitable venue in Nanaimo would be the Port Theatre, and that is still completely undecided on our side.

N: When we talked last time, you said your main goal in organizing the festival is to have the short films inspire potential filmmakers to make their own movie. Have any of the films shown this year inspired you to make your own?

JB: I used to make short films, but haven’t in a long time. John [Gardiner] and I made this festival because we wanted a venue to show short films and support local filmmakers, but also wanted this to exist for ourselves. Every year, I have all these ideas about films I want to make, but I have neither the time to make them nor a venue to put them in. I can’t submit films to my own festival—that would be using my power for evil! But every film I see makes me think about making my own.

I absolutely loved the animation of Seasick, and it made me want to get back to work in animation again. I loved the poignancy of Backward Fall and how they were able to capture the emotion and tragedy of that event and turn it into a true beautiful human moment. I liked the whimsiness and musicality of Bome Gnomski—it made me want to make the weird funny alternative films I used to make at the university.

There are so many wonderful films. Every single film had something I loved, and it doesn’t happen every year. I think the local films were the most inspiring to me, because none of them had any budget. All did it for very, very cheap. The amount of quality storytelling and production made them good movies.

For more information about the festival and the winning films, visit

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