As I approached the city of Edmonton, an image flashed in my mind of the day I landed in Havana, packing little more than a camera, an audio recorder, and a burning desire to tell a story.

The film that grew as I connected with Cuban musicians and talented artists became the documentary short, “Obini Batá: Women of the Drums.” Now, to the north in Canada, I looked forward to sharing my film at the 2019 Edmonton International Film Festival. Little did I know that my experience would far exceed my expectations.

I vividly remember first meeting festival co-producer Sydney Moule among the tents and colorful posters at the entrance of the Landmark Theatre. She seemed to be everywhere at once and pulled off unseen magic, making those in her midst feel instantly welcome and at ease. One moment she was inviting me to do an interview with Todd James, an incomparable voice of the Canadian airwaves, the next she was introducing me to a group of moviemakers who were also at Edmonton to screen their short films. Equally as important was the way producer Kerrie Long introduced me to a packed audience to speak about my film. It was invaluable to have the experience of engaging with a large audience and other moviemakers, not to mention the press.

But it wasn’t just the festival producers that made Edmonton special. Everyone from staff, crew, volunteers, and the audience itself was deeply engaged in cinema and culture. Within the environment they created, hierarchies and pretenses disappeared in favor of the enjoyment of each other’s company. We stayed up way too late and forged friendships that continue to grow today. It felt good to be part of this community whose family-like atmosphere was not just an ideal, but an ever-present reality.

As “Obini” was projected onto the same screen intended for large Hollywood productions, I quickly realized something that was very humbling: I was in the best possible company. I enjoyed watching my film as part of the short documentary program, but just as important was the feeling of being surrounded by other movie-lovers. Together, throughout the festival, we crossed the globe capturing a full spectrum of voices from feature films with A-list actors to movies like mine made on dreams and shoe strings. We were guided by a consistent vision that ran throughout. The focus was on the mind-opening experience of a compelling story regardless of its means or location. It allowed things that usually wouldn’t go together to coexist and elevate one another. EIFF’s mix of excellent films and welcoming, gifted people had a profound impact on me.

It’s changed the way that I look at festivals and the collective experience of watching films.

During the closing-night gala of the festival, I was energized by the hum and excitement of celebrating with new friends. I would miss Edmonton, and was consoling myself by eating too many brick oven pizzas.

I reflected on the sentiment Kerrie expressed in her closing-night words of how hard it is to thank so many people. I thought about all those who had an impact on me—watching their beautiful “cinematic babies,” as Kerrie called them, exchanging ideas and stories, or just having fun. Sending your movie to EIFF is a matter of second nature, and not just because it’s an Oscar qualifier at the top of the list on all submission platforms. You submit because the hard work you invested in your film deserves it. You go for the warm reception, and to get beyond the repetition and grind of the festival circuit. And you stay to watch the films, to be a student of cinema again, and to be inspired. MM

Edmonton International Film Festival runs September 26 – October 5, 2019. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue. Featured image: Edmonton Internation Film Festival 2019 staffers are all smiles with no pressure left at their closing night party. Photograph by Emily Welz.