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Stratford Winter Film Festival founders, Leslie Marsh, Craig Sangster and Bruce MacInnis.Handout

Canada is home to one of the biggest film festivals in the world – the Toronto International Film Festival, obviously – but also to some of the smallest. The newest is the Stratford Winter Film Festival, in Stratford, Ont., heretofore known as the birthplace of pop superstar Justin Bieber and host to the world-renowned Stratford Festival dedicated to the works of Shakespeare.

The not-for-profit SWFF, which takes place Feb. 9-11, is the brainchild of Leslie Marsh, Craig Sangster and Bruce MacInnis, who have precious little experience in the film business. What they’ve come up with is an eclectic weekend program of nine documentaries and feature films including Have You Got it Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd, The Truffle Hunters, the Oscar-nominated 32 Sounds, and, for the Shakespeare set, Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True.

The hope is that the multivenue SWFF will become an annual event that evolves as it goes, in a picturesque town of some 33,000 people. “This is like a Christmas tree,” says Sangster, an investment and pension consultant during the day. “There’s a lot of ornaments we can hang on this project.”

Why Stratford? And why February?

Craig Sangster: It was born out of the COVID debacle and what it did to local businesses. We’re all recent transplants to Stratford and we wanted to do something for our newly adopted town. Talking to the people here, we were told winter was the fateful season for businesses. So we did a little research on the worst weekend in Stratford for business. It’s the second week in February, and businesses were very interested in something going on. The Stratford Festival already owns the summer. The whole town revolves around it and we’d just be lost in the noise. We didn’t want to compete with that.

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Christopher Walken in Percy.Mongrel Media

Stratford is brimming with theatres. Why isn’t the film festival using any of them for its five venues?

Bruce MacInnis: We’ve chosen what we consider to be artistically interesting spaces, both inside and out, starting with the Revival House restaurant. It’s been there since the 1970s, in an old church. The festival is not specifically for cinephiles, but to highlight the community and to bring people into spaces that perhaps they might not otherwise see. We want people to see their neighbours. This isn’t about sitting eyes-forward, looking up at a screen.

Are the venues well-suited for screenings?

Sangster: We’ve hired technicians to spec out places and recommend the appropriate equipment. We’ve used professionals from Stratford Festival to tell us exactly what we need and then we implemented it. This has been one of our largest budget items, and a great amount of care has gone into it.

MacInnis: We’re using almost cinema-quality projectors, and fast fold screens will be deployed. The audio is not full surround, but we’ll have some good sound pushing out. It’s not going to be a traditional movie theatre, but it’s not your uncle’s basement either.

What went into the programming?

Leslie Marsh: The themes are music, history and food. Food is a no-brainer for Stratford. It’s known for pushing way above its weight in that regard. History was a bit trickier because it covers so much. But we wanted something with broad appeal. As for music, the first film we chose was Mr. Jimmy [a 2019 documentary about a Japanese superfan of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page]. I came across it because I’m one of those people who have fallen down the Led Zeppelin rabbit hole. I approached the distributor, who said it wouldn’t be a problem and to go for it. The feedback on the programming has been great so far. It’s an improbable mix, but it’s something people have told me they’re willing to check out.

Are tourists expected?

Sangster: We’re trying to provide an experience. We want people to come and stay in the hotels. We have partners with special offers for patrons of SWFF. We also have restaurant-owner friends who are doing special things. There’s even a cocktail, the Mary Pickford. We wanted something other than the Cineplex experience. God bless Cineplex, but we’re doing something different.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Aurelio Conterno and Birba the dog in The Truffle Hunters.Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

Five top-notch Canadian small-town film festivals

Available Light Film Festival: Lights, camera, action – could we get some more light? Canada’s largest film festival north of 60° takes place in Whitehorse, which receives about four daily hours of sunshine in the heart of winter. (Feb. 8-18)

Kingston Canadian Film Festival: Thought to be the largest festival dedicated exclusively to Canadian film. John A. Macdonald would drink to that. (Feb. 28 to March 3)

Hudson Film Festival: Otherwise known as the Big Little Canadian Film Festival, with its main screen at an old train station in Hudson, Que., an off-island Montreal suburb with a population of 5,411. (April 16-21)

Lunenburg Doc Fest: Held in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lunenburg, N.S. (population 2,396). Last’s year’s lineup included Mstyslav Chernov’s 20 Days In Mariupol and Lagueria Davis’s Black Barbie. (Sept. 18-22)

Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival: Since 1976, Alberta’s Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity has elevated the reputation of mountain films. (Oct. 26 to Nov. 3)

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