The Yukon may be cold in February, but that didn’t stop Whitehorse locals from turning out in droves for the Available Light Film Festival (ALFF).
Held in Whitehorse from February 9 to 19th in-person and online this year, ALFF is one of Canada’s only film festivals north of 60°. I was lucky enough to get to experience this well-programmed fest as a guest of Telefilm Canada, the Yukon Film Society, and Yukon Tourism along with That Shelf’s Jason Gorber, Pat Mullen, and Marriska Fernandes.
The 2023 ALFF Line-Up
With 101 short and feature-length films screening over 11 days, the programming includes both world premieres and Yukon premieres of festival circuit favourites, as well as Q&As with filmmakers and guests, plus a line-up of industry talks and panels. Canadian shorts and features including Bones of Crows, The Empress of Vancouver, I Like Movies, Brother, Geographies of Solitude, Scrap, Viking, Voices Across the Water, Part of the Pack, and music docs Ever Deadly and Doug and the Slugs and Me all screen as part of ALFF, among others. On the international front, The Whale, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Broker, Navalny, Aftersun, Living, and EO are on the ticked.
Canadian content is king here with Eternal Spring – Canada’s selection for the Best International Feature category at this year’s Academy Awards – kicking off the festival to an engaged audience with filmmaker Jason Loftus and executive producer Masha Loftus present.
One of the most exciting cinematic experiences was the packed premiere of Polaris. The Yukon-shot post-apocalyptic eco-sci-fi by Northwest Territories’ Kirsten Carthew is set in a frozen wasteland where roaming bands of female warriors challenge our young hero, played by Viva Lee. With local talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes, the charged atmosphere of the theatre made Polaris all the more exciting to experience. Following the screening, our Jason Gorber moderated the Q&A with local actors and crew to discuss everything from the locally-sourced costumes to filming in Yukon to green puke.
Another highlight was The Ballad of Caveman Bill, a mid-length film about Dawson City’s most well-known resident, Caveman Bill. It’s not just a clever nickname – Bill has lived in a cave across the river from downtown Dawson City for over 20 years. The true definition of “character”, Bill has showcased true resilience, adaptability and perseverance living in nature while bearing witness to climate change. A humourous portrait directed by David Curtis, The Ballad of Caveman Bill proved a hot ticket at ALFF. With an eager audience packed into an almost full house, the cinema experience was made all the better by watching with locals who laughed at Caveman Bill’s antics and quips. Following the film, That Shelf and POV’s Pat Mullen moderated a fun and insightful Q&A with Curtis and the delighted audience.
Among my favourites of the festival was the incredibly charming Alberta coming-of-age retro dramedy Before I Change My Mind. A love letter to 1980s’ Edmonton, director Trevor Anderson’s heartfelt story features everything from awkward first loves, friendship, and eighth-grade bullies to the absurd romance between adults and the dark side of drinking. A true highlight of the film is an homage to community theatre whose absurdity and comedy doesn’t fall far from Hamlet 2’s “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” tree.
Aside from film screenings, ALFF has a roster of industry events in-person and on Zoom including presentations by Telefilm, CBC Drama, Canada Media Fund, Hot Docs, the NFB and more, as well as talks and information sessions for Yukon filmmakers.
I checked out the ALFF Pitch Event, which saw six local teams pitch their short film idea to a jury of professionals for the chance to win $7500 in cash and $5000 of in-kind support. Open to the public to view, it was impressive to witness six incredibly varied film ideas put forth, covering everything from short docs about automobile racing in the snow and a web series starring puppets to personal portraits and a local Yukon-set take on the spaghetti Western. Kudos to all the pitch teams for sharing their ideas and the best of luck with their projects, especially the winning pitch, Robert Joe’s “bannock western” Fistful of Vengeance.
Located on the traditional territories of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse is the Yukon Theatre. One of two venues used for film screenings, this charming cinema brings all the nostalgic feels and is conveniently located across the street from the press delegation’s hotel, the Sternwheeler. A standalone two-screen venue operated by the Yukon Film Society, seeing movies with film lovers here was a real treat. Attending a number of screenings here over my time in Whitehorse, I was able to get my fill on the cinema’s fresh popcorn daily, occasionally slung by ALFF Festival Director and Artistic Director of the Yukon Film Society, Andrew Connors. My only regret is not buying a tote bag or t-shirt with the cinema’s iconic façade.
Large premiere screenings are held a seven-minute drive outside of central Whitehorse at the Yukon Arts Centre. This beautiful building provides ample seating and a balcony and, as an all-purpose arts centre, their screening set-up is better than many other all-encompassing arts buildings. Clear projection and a great sound system made watching films like Geographies of Solitude even better as the audience was fully immersed in Jacquelyn Mills’ oft-experimental portrait of Sable Island conservationist Zoe Lucas.
Experience Whitehorse in Winter
ALFF’s opening weekend is positioned during an exciting time in Whitehorse. Aligned with the local-favourite event, the Yukon Rendezvous Festival kickoff, and the start of the Yukon Quest dogsled race, the city was abuzz and hotels were booked well in advance. Having the chance to see dogsled racers begin their long journeys brought out visitors and residents for an exciting start.
With the Aurora Borealis at its peak during the winter months, it was an easy journey to head out into the darkness outside of the city for a truly one-of-a-kind experience with Northern Tales. Bundled up in rental winter clothing from The Base Yukon made it a cozy experience despite the winter temperatures outdoors from 10pm to 2am. Words cannot describe the vast expanse of stars visible to the naked eye here. Northern Tales’ guides have a DSLR camera and are happy to take photos of people and the Northern Lights that are tricky to capture with a camera phone. A warming hut and campfire are provided here and I highly recommend packing snacks or treats to roast around the fire as well as a few adult beverages to enjoy under the beautiful winter sky.
Other outdoor experiences worth visiting between ALFF screenings are the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. Our guide Teena Dickson of Who What Where Tours was a delight as she guided the media group through the expansive park for up-close-and-personal encounters with some of the Yukon’s wildlife including moose, thinhorn sheep, and a lynx who peered at us from his cat house.
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A fitting break from the festival experience is the Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs. Located a 30-minute drive from Whitehorse, this experience can be arranged separately or as part of a package with the Yukon Wildlife Preserve as they are in the same area. With three hot spring pools, two saunas and two steam rooms operating, the hot springs are an ideal place to unwind for two to three hours before packing in more ALFF movies.
Closer to downtown, one indoor activity that should not be missed is the Lumel Studios’ glass blowing where you can make a glass object to take home as the ultimate souvenir.
An overall fantastic experience, I would not hesitate to spend time in Whitehorse for ALFF again.
The Available Light Film Festival runs in-person and online from February 9 through 19 and is presented by the Yukon Film Society and presenting partners Telefilm Canada and Canada Goose.