25 Years at the Cutting Edge: A Chat with Fantasia Programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer

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The unique, curious and fantastic Fantasia Festival celebrates its 25th edition this year. As the beloved genre fest kicks off, Festiville correspondent Dominic Corry gets a preview of the 2021 lineup from programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer. 

Arguably the leading festival of its kind in the world, the Montréal-based Fantasia Festival represents the cutting edge of genre cinema—especially in an era when the parameters of genre cinema are much wider and more diverse than they’ve ever been. 

Programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer looks after the Camera Lucida section, which represents the cutting edge of the cutting edge. Montréal-raised but currently Hong Kong-based (for a very cool reason—more on that below), Cayer jumped on a Zoom call to give us his picks from this year’s line-up, talk about the film that inspired him to become a festival programmer, and elaborate on the role Letterboxd plays in his programming duties. 

How long have you been involved with Fantasia?

Ariel Esteban Cayer: I’ve been with the festival for seven, eight years now in various capacities, programming. I’ve been curating the Camera Lucida section for five years. It’s our section dedicated to genre films that are more on the, let’s say, arthouse spectrum of genre. So things that kind of push the boundaries a little bit. 

That description is kind of how I see Fantasia as a whole, so it’s like Camera Lucida is Fantasia within Fantasia? 

Sure, I love to hear that. For us it’s a way to highlight a certain number of films with a sort of reverse logic. Generally festivals will have their genre films in a specific section and we have the maybe more genre-less films in a specific section. But truly it is just a way to highlight some films that I think are special within the festival. And with time we’ve made it a competitive section—these films that seem to showcase maybe where genre cinema is going. 

And, as you say, the boundaries kind of blur increasingly between art house and genre and commercial and what people call elevated horror and so on and so forth. I think genre’s so diverse now as a category now that it’s almost meaningless. So I’m happy to hear you say that because it’s true, there’s films all over the festival with all kinds of makes and tones and so on. 

So, considering all that, how do you then determine which films go into that section? 

I’m looking for specific things. My old colleague, Simon [Laperrière], who used to program the section before I took it over, he conceived of a section where the films are a little self-reflexive about what genre is or what genre means. I’ve certainly kept some of that, although I’ve kind of expanded it a little bit too. It’s hard for me to talk about, it’s almost instinct at this point, but these are films that perhaps approach genre tropes a little differently or a little less rigidly, on the one hand. 

And then maybe there’s an element as well of films that, within the context of Fantasia, would be perhaps a little bit more difficult if juxtaposed next to a big blockbuster film or a big pop culture anime from Japan or Korea. Things that maybe are a bit slower, a bit more delicate. 

Although, I try to compose the section as well so that it’s not just slow burn horror films. We have a lovely Black Mirror-esque kind of comedy in there [Tiong Bahru Social Club] that plays a bit like a Singaporean take on Wes Anderson, for example. So I try to compose the section so that it’s representative of various genres and various flavors but yeah, films that I gravitate towards naturally. Like, artsy-genre, art hybrid. 

What are some of the titles that have got you really excited in the section this year?

There’s this great film out of Malaysia called The Story of Southern Islet, which came to my attention because it won the Best New Director at the Golden Horse Awards in the fall. It’s a beautiful autobiographical story about, essentially, the director, growing up in rural Malaysia and seeing his father fall ill to a curse—or at least that’s what it was perceived as. His mother, who was not a believer in folk gods, goes on a bit of a quest to save her husband’s soul. This is all a true story. This is a very good example, this is a film that’s very melancholy, very contemplative. 

To make a sort of obvious comparison, one can think of [Malaysian Taiwanese filmmaker] Tsai Ming Liang or [Thai filmmaker] Apichatpong Weerasethakul, that magical realist strain of South East Asian films. The director does not conceive of his film as particularly a horror film or anything like that. But to me, it’s very much a folk horror film. There’s these elements of folklore, of myth, that pierce through the story which could otherwise be perceived as maybe more of a supernatural-tinged drama. It’s a lovely film and exactly what the section was created for, in a way. 

Something else that we are really jazzed about is Shunji Iwai's new film, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster That Died in 8, which has had a pretty robust festival run so far. If you’re familiar with Shunji Iwai, he’s a filmmaker who has integrated technology—communication technology, especially—in his films forever: with All About Lily Chou Chou, all the message board elements that are part of that film, that made it so relevant to the early 2000s and makes it resonant today too, as a nostalgic piece; and Love Letter, which is all about these letters, a sort of epistolary logic of communication and so on. 

12 Day Tale is great because it’s a film all shot on Zoom over the course of the pandemic—and conceived as a relief film for the industry in Japan. But what’s really interesting about it in the genre context is that it begins a bit as a meta slice-of-life that’s maybe neither here nor there on paper. It’s basically actors are out of work, directors are out of work and they’re talking over Zoom. 

But as the film progresses you soon realize that this is a world in which all of the Japanese pop culture that we are familiar with—Godzilla, Ultraman, the disaster strand of Japanese culture—is actually something that has happened. It is part of the lived consciousness. So the film becomes a love letter to this pop culture, while at the same time situating Covid as a sad version of a disaster. Characters lamenting: “It used to be so exciting. My older brother, he lived through the alien invasion and now we’re just stuck at home.” It has this really fun tongue-in-cheek aspect to it. 

One of the so-called characters is Shinji Higuchi, the co-director of Shin Godzilla for example. So you get to see his house and his Godzilla action figure collections. It’s full of little surprises like that that make it really fun and really, really relevant—and of course the whole Covid aspect becomes quite interesting too. 

I mentioned Tiong Bahru Social Club, a film out of Singapore that actually did great. It was a surprise hit during Covid. Speaking with the director, I think the audience took it as a nice relief. It’s essentially a very Black Mirror-style cautionary tale about the increased algorithm-ization of our lives and things like that. But it’s set against the backdrop of Singapore’s particular housing situation. Singapore has these towering social housing estates and these private housing estates as well. 

It follows this thirty year old who decides to finally move away from his mom’s to this upscale, upstart housing estate called Tiong Bahru, which is said to be the happiest neighborhood in Singapore because it runs on this happiness algorithm. Essentially every resident is surveilled. He’s a ‘happiness agent’ so he has to make sure everybody’s at their peak happiness all the time. Of course as the film progresses, this turns a little bit more sinister. The veneer starts cracking. It’s a lovely little film that I’m really happy to have. 

Are there any films outside of the Camera Lucida section that you’re particularly excited for audiences to see?

In our main competition, Cheval Noir, there’s a Japanese film called Wonderful Paradise, from Masashi Yamamoto, who is actually a fairly cult filmmaker in Japan, maybe not internationally. But he has a long career, starting in the late ‘80s, making quite idiosyncratic, punk-leaning comedies, I would say, especially early on in the vein of early Jim Jarmusch. In fact he worked with Jim Jarmusch's DP for Robinson’s Garden, which is an early film of his. It has this sort of laissez-faire kind of feel, countercultural feel, and he's had a varied career. 

Wonderful Paradise for me is a return to this very punk spirit, where the premise is essentially the increasing absurdity of a moving-away party. This rich family lives in the suburbs of Tokyo, they sell their big home and, and the family’s daughter, out of a sort of dejection, she tweets out “We’re an open house, we are moving, please come.” But then the film is built on this logic where at first it’s like, immediate family that show up, but soon it’s, like, drug dealers. Yakuzas, monsters, ghosts. It just builds and builds and builds into this frenzy where the house becomes completely unrecognizable. 

It becomes this completely absurdist comedy about good manners and this maybe stifling kind of Japanese life in the suburbs. It’s a great film. A very unexpected film. Very Fantasia in that way. Not quite a comedy, not quite a horror film, not anything, but a lot of fun.

Was there one film that really sparked you to want to work around movies?  

Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express. I remember early on, not knowing much about film, being at the video store. The extent of my film language was, like, Spielberg and Tarantino and maybe Wes Craven or something like that. Maybe a bit more. I was in the “Directors” section and I see Quentin Tarantino’s face on a DVD of a film, Chungking Express. It was so ridiculous. He literally had his face in the upper left corner, and it's like: Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures Presents: Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express

Ridiculous as that sounds, I’m grateful to this day because I was like: Oh Tarantino, I'm gonna get this. And it’s the first film that I watched —I was fourteen years old or something—that I put on [again] right away, the second it was over. Because I couldn’t really grasp it at that moment and it’s remained the one example that I tend to give of being completely fascinated. And in some, like, subterranean subconscious way it’s probably the reason I live in Hong Kong now. So there’s that one. 

And then I remember as a teenager too falling hard for Akira Kurosawa via the Criterion Collection. Kurosawa was one of the first filmmakers where I binged the entire filmography and it felt like it was opening everything. The whole of the ‘40s and ‘50s Japanese cinema was for me the big eye opener and from there you do Mizoguchi, you do Kobayashi, you do Ozu, you do all the greats. This very clear trajectory is how I ended up at Fantasia as an avid spectator [which also generated] this interest in East Asian and Southeast Asian film.

It’s good to see that you are a Letterboxd member!

Very much so yeah absolutely. Compulsively, obsessively, Letterboxd-using every day for everything. [Laughs]

Do you use it to help program the festival? 

Absolutely. It’s become my go-to app and my go-to website. I have like, I don’t know, maybe 150 lists going on right now, both public and private, that just help me work and help my film watching too. For the past maybe four or five years, whenever I start a festival year, I start a private list. I mean of course we have our work tools and our Excel sheets and so on but I personally keep track of all my programming through Letterboxd. 

It’s a bit of a project that I’ve started doing too, which is to go back and compile the older lineups of the festival throughout the years as well. I use it for that and of course the day to day logging and it’s become an extension of my memory—as I think it is for a lot of people. So, yeah, thank you for that.

You’re welcome! We'll share your profile

One thing to note, maybe, is that I Letterboxd in French. So that’s the quirk. I Letterboxd in French because the bulk of my friend group and my film community is still in Montréal and French-speaking. 

Are you ever looking up what Letterboxd members think of certain films and factoring that into your programming?

To an extent. I would say that, because we are in the late summer—and we are a genre festival, sandwiched between Cannes and TIFF and so on—the pipeline of films that we consider are both submissions and festival films. So I would say to the extent where, for example, if I’m going through the South by Southwest line-up or something like that, then I’ll be very happy if someone has compiled the whole line up on Letterboxd. 

Then as I’m requesting screeners or if I’m attending the festival virtually, it’s in the back of my mind that I can reference [Letterboxd]. Increasingly, with online festivals and Covid and so on, it’s been this interesting thing where you can see people’s reactions in real time. And truthfully, it does orient you, in a way where it might forefront some films that have had a huge success in the festivals and so on. 

One very concrete example this year was We’re All Going to the World's Fair out of Sundance. I feel like that film, it’s a very online film, very resonant to these isolated times. This is one that, out of the virtual Sundance edition, got so much buzz in a way that it immediately rose to the top of our attention. And deservedly; it’s a wonderful film. 

Fantasia Festival runs from August 5—25, 2021. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.