The mission to create ’the people’s film festival’
How a newcomer to Chilliwack created the film festival he would want to attend, and made a ton of friends along the way.
This fall will mark the fifth edition of the Chilliwack Independent Film Festival. Which is impressive because it’s only been five years since Taras Groves moved to Canada. Groves moved from London to Chilliwack in 2016 after an initial visit, awed by the region’s beauty and knowing only a couple relatives.
From there Groves, a young filmmaker, got a job working at local music video service Drumeo and then almost immediately started spending his free time creating something the valley did not have: a film festival, aimed at providing a “platform for a diverse range of voices.” Groves didn’t know anybody here. He was, as he describes it, an introvert. But in four years, he and Charlotte Whaley, his girlfriend and the festival’s co-founder, have created one of Chilliwack’s most vibrant news cultural events—and one that expanded last year to Abbotsford.
FVC: Had you ever done anything like this before?
Groves: No! I’d never done it before! I was a festival virgin for sure—just kind of figuring it out as I went along, and just being grateful to have a lot of wonderful people want to get involved like CEPCO [Chilliwack Economic Partners Corporation]. The Chilliwack Creative Commission were the first ones to come aboard and help out with that, and support us financially too. We started off with not a penny. It was like 50% was self generated revenue. Because how it works for film festivals, is filmmakers pay to submit to festivals. I’ve spent enough of my own money going to festivals. So 50% of our revenue was self-generated from ticket sales and stuff, and 50% was just sponsorships. I think it’s pretty good for a nonprofit. When I look at the other festivals, they’re usually 70% or higher in terms of sponsorship and grants. So we’re obviously still small-time. But it’s just just figuring out, trying to learn more, and get better at kind of raising funds, because you always need more money.
FVC: How did you know what to do at the start?
Groves: I’m a filmmaker myself and I was submitting films to festivals myself and attending them. I went to a festival in Spain that wasn’t the best experience, I found it just relaxed a little bit. Like we made it a special time, and I was appreciative to be screened but… it just was kind of experience from being a filmmaker attending festivals and that was pretty much our mantra from the very start.
Before we did anything for the festival, I wanted to create a kind of a festival that was for filmmakers, and actually kind of cared about them and the audience. Because a lot of time, it just feels like a bit of a cash grab: they come, they attend, you show a film, and then everyone leaves. So it was really from my own experience, attending festivals, knowing what not to do and what I would like to have seen. And that kind of served as the basis. And then, obviously, each year you learn plenty and you try to improve and tweak it and get better.
FVC: You were new to Chilliwack. Did you ever think that people just don’t usually start new events in places that they haven’t lived in for a long time? A lot of the events that get started in the community are by people who know a ton of people already and they’ve been around [for a while]. Did you think about that?
Groves: I guess I didn’t think, I just did. That’s very much a filmmakers’ mindset in terms of, you just got to do it. That’s the difference between a film director, maybe, and an actor. An actor needs to kind of wait for the project, but the film director just has to save up their own money and do it. So I just did it. And of course it takes longer because you don’t know anybody at the start, but it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to meet so many people.
FVC: Is it a good way to meet people in a new community where you didn’t know people?
Groves: I’m more of an introvert, I would suggest. So it was definitely a bit scary, but it was a wonderful way to meet so many wonderful people from all walks of life.
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The scariest bit
FVC: How was that first year?
It was stressful. Every I think every festival edition is always stressful. During the course of the festival, I don’t eat anything. But I’m very lucky. My job is just doing all the planning behind the scenes. But when it gets to the first of all, I have Charlotte, we have a great team of volunteers who have pretty much remained pretty consistent throughout the years. And they’re the stars during the festival, they’re kind of the face of it and are nice and connect with the filmmakers and the audience members. I just kind of go upstairs and just pray the films play [laughs]. That’s the scariest bit.
FVC: Why has it worked so well?
Probably, you have to ask kind of audience members and filmmakers. But I think the biggest thing was keeping that mantra from day one of being personable, and being kind of the people’s film festival and the filmmakers’ film festival and we really focus on that. We can’t compete with the Whistlers. I think the budget for the Whistler Film Festival was like $1.1 million, pre-COVID. Whereas our budget for 2019, before COVID impacted everything, I think we had a budget of like $19,000. So it’s quite different. So we’re never going to be able to have the big glitzy party that some of these other people do. But we can make sure that filmmakers have a great time. And that’s been a recurring thing we’ve had from a lot of the filmmakers attending. The venue, they’ve all loved the Cottonwood, they’ve really appreciated how their film was screened. They’ve had people watching it, which is really cool. Because I’ve been to plenty of festivals where you don’t have anyone in the cinema and you’re watching it by yourself with other filmmakers. And they’ve all just had a really good time. It’s just kind of that kind of, you know, that British mentality. Let’s just go have a drink and have a good time.
This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity
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The first Abbotsford Film Festival took place last year and is returning in October. The festival is focused predominantly on short films and documentaries produced by local filmmakers. It will include live music and an art aspect, and is being done in conjunction with The Reach. The focus is on short films and documentaries, with live music and other entertainment.
The Chilliwack Independent Film Festival will run this year in late November. Films—both short and feature-length and submitted from filmmakers around the world— will be shown at Cottonwood Cinemas over the first three days, and then online for two weeks afterwards. Directors submit their films through the same online platform used by thousands of film festivals around the world. On that platform, the festival is one of the 100 best-reviewed by filmmakers.