When Katie Fournell was looking to join her now-husband in Okotoks eight years ago, the theatre and film artist was unsure how she would fit into a community that she saw as lacking an arts scene.
In a move to spruce up the proposition, the pair decided to create the Okotoks Film Festival as a place for Fournell to have a creative outlet and bring her love of the arts to the couple’s new hometown.
“I [didn’t] want any other artist to feel like I did when I was deciding if I should move to Okotoks or not,” Fournell recalls.
Now in its seventh year, the festival is an annual event showcasing professional and up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world. Alongside screenings, the festival sees several in-person film events, workshops with industry professionals and the 48-Hour Filmmaking Challenge.
This year’s festival is set for May 31 to June 4.
Showings can range from short films made by independent filmmakers on a $50 budget to larger productions that are lower profile, Fournell says.
The festival has allowed her to become an advocate for every type of filmmaker while helping to inspire potential directors and producers in a time when technology is so readily available.
Fournell’s love for the arts started in theatre, when she garnered her first acting credit in Grade 5.
By the time she was in junior high, she knew she wanted to attend Red Deer College’s theatre program. While there, she decided to take an additional two years to walk away with a degree in theatre and film acting.
“I was always watching all of the movies that I could, all the television that I could. I was kind of taking that all in,” says Fournell.
“I would say that really understanding and appreciating film didn't come until I was in college, and I was actually taking film studies just because [I’d] have a degree in acting.”
The actress, director and festival creator now has several more credits to her name, acting in the short films One, One Thousand, Stories of Alyx and Anton, Downcast and I Got You A Balloon, which she also wrote and directed.
Fournell was recognized with a Southern Shorts Awards for her work on One, One Thousand.
Since her arrival in the community, Fournell says she has seen the conversation around film grow, especially as larger-scale productions choose Okotoks as their backdrop.
Thus far, conversation has mostly focused on the big-budget projects, which Fournell says she understands because of their economic value. However, once a strategy has been established to draw in and retain those bigger projects, she would like to see the same attention and excitement for smaller productions.
“I would love the conversation to be about like, ‘OK, how do we get more independent film? How do we support that infrastructure for small guerrilla filmmakers?’ To support those filmmakers as well and to encourage them to be here.”
She highlighted the budding new media and film production program at Foothills Composite High School in allowing young filmmakers to build skills and break into the industry.
Fournell says her favourite part about establishing the festival and the Okotoks film community has been watching the relationships form among local creatives.
“Seeing those filmmakers start to make connections and start to create together and interestingly, support each other even if they're in competition, we help to inspire the community,” she says.
In the popular 48-hour Film Challenge, where filmmakers are put to the test to create a production in just two days, Fournell says competitors have come to expect each other’s films and support the paths they’re forging.
“That’s really an exciting thing – to watch the community grow and start to work together in a way that I want to see for the independent film scene.”
The ultimate goal for Fournell is to build the festival into an entirely professional operation, meaning all participating filmmakers would get paid a reasonable wage to have their productions screened. Currently, creators are paid a small honorarium for screening, which typically isn’t enough to cover their production costs.
Most of this is financed through grants, including those from the Alberta Film Association and Tourism Alberta, as well as sponsorship and community initiatives.
She would also love for the event to become more widely known and attended by the community.
“I would love to see the film festival be as much of a staple in the community event calendar as Light Up is for example,” says Fournell. “So, it's something that everybody's looking forward to and everybody's ready to go and get a ticket to.”
This would allow more than just film to be supported through the event, providing a space for food vendors and musicians to share their talents with the public.
In 2021, Fournell went before Okotoks council as a representative from the Okotoks Film Society to introduce the idea of creating a film policy. The policy would provide direction for Town staff and film personnel to follow when Okotoks is being considered as a filming location.
The Town doesn’t currently have any document of this type in place, which Fournell explained at the time increases the likelihood that Okotoks would be passed over for consideration.
Many other places in Southern Alberta, including High River and Drumheller, already have these policies, which makes the process smoother for location scouts and other film staff.
In recent weeks, Fournell says the society was approached by the Town to write the policy, rather than its administration.
She says this is a welcome change.
“It actually puts us in the position to make sure that the people that we feel should be part of the conversation are,” says Fournell. “We do have to be cautious to make sure that we're also listening to the not filmmaker side of it, but it does give us the opportunity to reach out to the filmmakers, the producers, their locations managers, the smaller budget stuff and say, 'What do you actually need?’”
The group is looking forward to having the ability to talk to filmmakers to ensure they are being served alongside local businesses, residents and government.
“It's really exciting that we've been kind of moved into a more vocal part of that conversation,” she adds.
For more information on the work of the Okotoks Film Society and the Okotoks Film Festival, visit okotoksfilmfestival.ca.