Dead North Film Festival Is Home to All Things Gruesome, Eerie, and Weird

The DIY festival has quickly become a place for talented genre filmmakers far removed from towering production cities. It creatively forces them to embrace the harsh weather and environment in which they live.
March 4, 2016, 6:15pm

In February, Yellowknife, Canada, can drop below -49 degrees. The capital of Northwest Territories is a confusing amalgamation of diamond money, young professionals, and poverty. Twenty-nine to 44-year-olds make up 30 percent of the population. Young professionals abound, but the city doesn't reflect the average family income of almost $150,000 [$111,752 USD] per family. Average rents hover around $1,700 [$1,267 USD] a month for a two-bedroom apartment, and vacancy rates are low. Downtown is virtually abandoned—a mall there has more vacant shops than leased, and as the economy continues to slow, it's unlikely that more shops will move in.

People wear Kings-era Marty McSorley jerseys with zero irony. I saw a lady carrying an open Red Bull into a coffee shop to get a latte. If you hear Nickelback in a cab (and you will), there's a strong chance that it's a CD and not the radio. It's against this backdrop and resting on the northern edge of Great Slave Lake that a film festival unlike anything has emerged.

Dead North Film Festival has quickly become a place for talented genre filmmakers far removed from the towering production cities of Vancouver and Toronto. It is a short film festival dedicated to the gruesome, the weird, the spooky, and horrific. No other horror, sci-fi, and fantasy film festival is more aptly named. It's also the only film festival where participants new to the north—one judge this year was Ant Timpson from New Zealand—regularly leave after-parties to check out the Northern Lights, previously convinced didn't exist.

This is one way to get to the movies. Photos via Bailey Staffen

Participants have two months to produce a film for Dead North. Scripts are submitted in advance and feedback is provided by festival director, Meagan Wohlberg. To minimize the chance of someone using a previously made film, there are two crucial elements that must be included in each film. This year, the two elements were a low angle camera shot from a confined space (very Breaking Bad) and the line, "I can't get it started." Films must include a poster and a trailer, and they can't be longer than ten minutes.

I met festival organizer Jay Bulckaert at the Gold Range Cafe, where a trio of gold dolphins rests above the cash register, and what appears to be a giant yellow dragon kite is draped across the entire restaurant.

Bulckaert, along with Pablo Saravanja, started Dead North Film Festival four years ago as a response to the lack of northern films at the Yellowknife Film Festival. Now in its ninth year, the Yellowknife Film Festival was set up by Western Arctic Moving Pictures, a nonprofit arts organization based in Yellowknife. It features the best of Northwest Territories filmmaking, but is not genre-specific like Dead North. Films at the Yellowknife Festival range from interactive web documentaries to films about Inuit tattoos. Early in the festival's existence, however, there was a lack of northern films, according to Bulckaert. He saw the North underrepresented and vowed, to himself mainly, to increase its presence.

It was also a way "to creatively strong-arm [myself] into making a film," Bulckaert, also a founding member of Yellowknife's Artless Collective, told VICE.

An initial call-out to friends has ballooned into a festival that has grown exponentially. The first year featured four films, the second year had eight, the third year had 17, and this year, a total of 25 films were screened.

I asked Bulckaert about the numerous items that filmmakers needed to produce for the festival, including a poster and a trailer. As Bulckaert explained, the purpose is so that after Dead North, filmmakers have a complete project to submit to other festivals. Dead North thus becomes a starting point for what could become a festival circuit.

While completing these tasks can be difficult, Bulckaert describes Dead North, which took place between February 26–28, as "giving the middle finger to winter" at its worst time. It forces filmmakers to embrace the land in which they live—and work in some seriously harsh conditions. Equipment suffers, tensions run high, and teams often cancel their shoots. Eight projects pulled out this year, for a variety of reasons. But for every difficulty, there are new connections made. People join the film community, meet other artists, borrow gear, and get and give advice. The film community grows as the temperatures continue to plummet.

On opening night, the Capitol Theater was packed by the time CBC's Loren McGinnis greeted the crowd and introduced Saravanja and Bulckaert.

The films that night ranged from ones shot on iPhones to films using drones for expansive landscape shots. Ghost in the Snow imagined Yellowknife after a zombie apocalypse, as councillors and newspaper editors sit around and think of things to pass the time. Cast Iron followed a stranded snowmobiler as he attempted to seek shelter as night crept in.

Regardless of quality, no film is turned away, as long as it meets the deadlines. "We've made a promise that if someone makes a film, it will get played at the festival," said Bulckaert.

Each one received applause, and all filmmakers were equally cheered on by the crowd.

Saturday's films were equally gruesome, eerie, and weird. Refresh followed a young man as he continually went back in time, each time speaking with the same girl and trying to ask her to prom. Killer Workout featured a woman who is consistently pushed to the back of the aerobics gym, only to return and murder everyone in the class.

At midnight on Saturday, I was in an Elks Lodge lit by long pink neon lights that run the length of the club. The stage was loaded up with 17 Zombears—the festival's awards. Awards are handed out for a variety of categories, ranging from best death to best camera shot.

The awards, however, are an awkward part of a festival that is aiming for inclusivity. The organizers encourage entrants, but they are filmmakers themselves and take home two awards. Bulckaert said that the awards help artists push their craft and get better, and that without them, the festival would not be the same.

As the festival grows, which it surely will, further issues around inclusiveness are bound to arise. With the increasing number of entries, organizers will likely soon have to decide whether they should screen every film that is submitted, if they should cut the maximum running times of the films, or if they should give out awards. These are not insurmountable issues by any means, but will ultimately shift the unique DNA of the festival. If it becomes too competitive, new filmmakers might drop out or not participate at all, convinced that their film wouldn't get selected.

By all accounts, this year's festival was a success. Both nights of screenings sold out, and filmmakers traveled from as far as Dawson City, Yukon, to attend. Workshops were full, and the presentations from the judges were well attended. Getting a hotel room was nearly impossible, and each night had plenty of spots to party. Entries to the festival are up, and international interest has developed. Dead North looks to be a mainstay in Canadian film festivals going forward, Marty McSorley jerseys and all.