The Calgary Underground Film Festival has grown with Calgary’s reputation as a film and TV capital. Once best known for its cattle and oil industries — as well as its stunning location near the Canadian Rockies — it has become famous in recent years as the location for hits from Fargo to The Last of Us.

This year’s festival captures Calgary’s mix of old and new with films that feel nostalgic and modern at once, including the opening night film, Jane Schoenbrun’s reality bending I Saw the TV Glow, which is set to be released by A24 next month, and Francis Galluppi’s retro-desert noir The Last Stop in Yuma County, starring indie icon Jim Cummings.

Calgary Underground Film Festival director Brenda Lieberman started the event, abbreviated CUFF, 21 years ago, after going to the Toronto International Film Festival, where she saw great movies and knew she wanted to bring such bold and daring films to Calgary.

“So I found a couple of mentors at other film festivals and got good advice and decided to just try it,” she says. “So the first year we converted a bar and we used projectors. Everyone seems really into it and our goal from the very beginning has stayed the same — to be authentic and have no rules. We wanted to make sure that everyone involved was a fan. 

“And for the first number of years, everyone who came pitched in. They helped us set up the chairs. Then we had one theater, now we have two. We have built this community that I think is super strong with the festival, and the membership has grown to almost 2,000 people. If I look back at our original vision and mandate, and today, I feel like it’s really the same.” 

We talked with her about the festival — which frequently turns up on our annual list of 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee — the feel of Calgary, a city of sleek skyscrapers and offbeat humor, that the Economist Intelligence Report ranks as the seventh most livable city in the world. We also discussed the joys of backscratchers.

MovieMaker: What does underground mean to you? 

Brenda Lieberman: We’ve always been almost forced to try to define what we think underground is. We just need to do what works for our audience and Calgary. And for us, if we don’t keep some of the variety, these films are just not going to get shown. There’s no real art houses in Calgary. We’re almost filling that art house void as well as being a film festival. And not everyone likes horror, right? 

So for us, I have friends who are like I want to come, but like, tell me something I might like, and I can always point to something interesting. We need to keep our audience feeling supported. At this point, we sort of know what our audience likes, what they’ll show up for.

MovieMaker: Can you tell us about being a film festival against the Western landscape of Calgary, the so-called Texas of Canada?

Brenda Lieberman: It’s hard to put your finger on what vibe Calgary is. The Western and the corporate and then the artistic… I will say, we love local and support local. There is a very community-oriented vibe, everyone is very collaborative, incredibly supportive of each other.  Every year our poster and bumper are created by local artists, the photographer is local. 

We also have a weird sense of humor. People will ask, why do you guys have toothbrushes or why do you guys have back scratchers or portable pet bowls at your merchandise table, and we say, we just think they’re funny. Like, there is no story. If somebody says you guys should do this, you should do seat cushions or hot sauce, we’ll consider it. 

It’s the same with our movies. My friend asked her husband about one of our movies, and said, ‘Is this going to be weird?’ Yeah, it’s CUFF, it’s going to have like, some sort of quirk. We’ve all worked in places where you just hear no a lot. And for me, I’d rather if our team was really excited about something like a movie or a merch item, or whatever, that we can integrate it into this so it feels like it’s everybody’s festival — like our eyes and our team and Calgary’s.

Calgary Underground Film Festival Director Brenda Lieberman on CUFF Highlights

Calgary Underground Film Festival director Brenda Lieberman in the festival’s green room.

MovieMaker: What have been some standout moments over the last 21 years of the Calgary Underground Film Festival?

Brenda Lieberman: We’ve had amazing guests, like John Waters back in 2012 and again this year. We’re all excited about Jim Cummings this year for Last Stop in Yuma. We’ve had some special times with Crispin Glover. We hosted the 25th anniversary of the BMX movie Rad, which was shot in Alberta.  And we’ve started to really just make sure that we do stuff all year round, because we want that fandom and there’s nobody else doing it here.

MovieMaker: What are some of your favorite off-the-beaten path things to do with moviemakers or movie fans when they’re here? 

Brenda Lieberman: We take a lot of people out for late-night Chinese and dim sum. We always tend to overlap with Record Store Day. We’ll take people to Banff. We try to figure out what somebody’s into… If someone is a foodie, we’ll take them outside downtown to a Japanese takeout spot or something, or bring them to a really great coffee shop.

MovieMaker: We came from Boston, Dunkin Donuts land. So needless to say, we had to go to Tim Hortons.

Brenda Lieberman: We have really good donuts, Pretty Sweet Donuts, that we sell at the concession upstairs, and our own ice cream flavor, from Made from Marcus Ice Cream.

Just a few of the films at the Calgary Underground Film Festival.

MovieMaker: What’s your relationship with your sister festival, the Boston Underground Film Festival?

Brenda Lieberman: We’ve been really close to Boston from the beginning. We’re the same age. I’ve always been somebody who communicates with film festivals worldwide, to share contacts with each other or ideas. So Nicole [McControversy, BUFF Director of Programming] and I have always been a really strong support for each other and we always deep dive into each other’s programming before our lineups are locked to just, you know, talk. And we have similar tastes.  

MovieMaker: What do you want to tell moviemakers or movie fans about the Calgary Underground Film Festival?

Brenda Lieberman: I like to encourage people to come even if they don’t have a film in the festival. We’re really welcoming. We still have $8 tickets for students and seniors and $10 for everyone else.You can come and enjoy the vibe and just sort of see what’s getting in, what other filmmakers are doing, and just be part of the community. Go to the cities that you’re curious about at the same time as a film festival. Mix your vacation with your festival experience. Don’t wait for your film to get in. 

The 2024 Calgary Underground Film Festival is running through April 28 at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. Get tickets at