Guillermo del Toro receiving the Cheval Noir Award. Courtesy of King-Wei Chu/Fantasia Film Festival.

Culture  For the love of monsters

Fantasia International Film Festival with Guillermo del Toro

“[Fantasia] is a shrine. This is where the faithful will come to pray,” said visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) in a press conference during the opening weekend of the Fantasia International Film Festival, which ran from July 14 to August 3. Del Toro is this year’s recipient of Fantasia’s prestigious Cheval Noir Award for his prolific contributions to genre film – an umbrella term encompassing fantasy, horror, thriller, science fiction, western, and gangster films.

Twenty years after its inception as a showcase for Asian action films, Fantasia is now renowned as the largest and most influential genre film festival in North America. Over 130 feature films and hundreds of short films were screened at Concordia’s J.A. de Sève Cinema and Hall Theatre this year as part of the festival. Although the selections exhibit an extraordinarily wide range of production and budget scales, artistic visions, and cultural influences, each screening is bound together by the audience’s unparalleled passion and enthusiasm for the stories that unfold before them, and for the monsters that inhabit the screen.

Twenty years after its inception […], Fantasia is now renowned as the largest and most influential genre film festival in North America.

The films screened at Fantasia are marked by their monstrosities, from uproarious comedies such as Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to bone-chilling thrillers like As the Gods Will directed by Fantasia’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner Takashi Miike. These monsters are not only human villains or fantastical creatures with fangs, fur, and scales, but also monsters of fear, anger, anxiety, mortality – the intangible monsters of the human condition. Although Fantasia is saturated with monsters of all forms, nothing is scaring away faithful festival-goers, most of whom arrive two hours early to screenings, waiting in lines that wrap around the block just to get good seats.

“We live in a very brutal world and you deal with it by creating creatures which serve a symbolic function, which illuminate the human condition. To me, reality can only be reached through these tales,” del Toro elaborated. He spoke passionately of his relationship to monsters, identifying himself as part of the “monster-geek” generation (those who grew up watching classic monster films) and likening their effect on him to spiritual salvation. “Monsters will save my soul,” he said earnestly, stressing that since his childhood, the existence of monsters has felt truly real to him.

“[Fantasia] is a rarity in the world of festivals; its core is fuelled with love.”

Born and raised in Guadalajara, del Toro learned English with only a dictionary and Mad Magazine, and worshiped Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a sacred text. From these humble roots, del Toro has not only become a legendary director and producer, but one of the world’s premier monster creators – preferring the use of miniatures, makeup, and animatronic puppetry to the computer-generated imagery (CGI) genre film so heavily relies on. “People now use CGI because they’re lazy,” he declared, “they deal with it in post production. They just throw money at it.”

Animated monsters

The Outer Limits of Animation program was a refreshing break from the techniques and attitudes of the CGI-rich franchise films which del Toro deems indolent and impersonal. The event showcased a selection of some of this year’s most poignant and beautifully crafted animated shorts from around the world. Each was an allegorical tale of fantasy, created with a variety of animation techniques to take spectators on an emotional whirlwind of personal revelations. While these tales lack the presence of a del Toro-type monster, each short was an artistic manifestation of a human flaw, weakness, or fear, which in conventional genre film, monsters typically serve to communicate.

Each [animated film] was an allegorical tale of fantasy, created […] to take spectators on an emotional whirlwind of personal revelations.

James Cunningham’s Accidents, Blunders and Calamities and Cho Hyun-a and Kim Su-jeong’s The Animal Book bookended the program, providing comical yet sobering illustrations of one of the most frightful monsters plaguing the world today: ecological destruction through human negligence. In Accidents, Cunningham presents a barrage of hyperrealistic insects and small animals who meet their demise at the hands of careless humans, narrated by a father possum as a bedtime tale (and warning) to his children. His story begins with “now remember, it’s a scary world out there, and the most dangerous thing of all is humans,” followed by a montage of violent murders as disembodied human hands, feet, or man-made machines squash unsuspecting creatures. The Animal Book chronicles a similar story, in which an exhausted man drives down a long road that passes through several ecosystems. While falling asleep at the wheel he embarks on a roadkill rampage of endangered species, leaving a trail of corpses behind him as blood splatters coat his windshield.

Although these tales take place in fantastical animated worlds where possums tell poems and dolphins jump out of pavement into moving traffic, they convey a truly serious and cautionary message about humanity’s role in the destruction of the natural world and its inhabitants. The humans are portrayed as silent monsters whose heartless actions result in the destruction of the innocent and endangered – a typical conflict of genre film presented in reverse – which not only serves to increase awareness of ecological destruction, but to illustrate the hands in which this monstrosity lies.

“We live in a very brutal world and you deal with it by creating creatures which serve a symbolic function, which illuminate the human condition.”

At Fantasia, humankind is not only painted as the monster and nature as its victim. Often in genre film, and throughout Outer Limits of Animation, humankind becomes victim to its own weaknesses and fears. In Junction, Nathan Jurevicius urges us not to fear change and growth, but to invite them, embodied by the shapeshifting inhabitants of his plastic-toy world. Sacha Feiner manifests childhood isolation within the black and white halls of a labyrinthine mansion in her stop-motion film Dernière Porte au Sud (Last Door South) before building an escape route to a more colourful world. In the real world, fighting the monsters of fear and anxiety can be an daunting and abstract task, while in these fantastical tales, animation allows for conflicts to be represented concretely, and for solutions to be made palpable.

When asked why Fantasia stood out for him and his peers, del Toro replied, “We truly love it. […] We are diverse and we disagree, but not on the fact that this genre has produced some of the most enduring images ever created… [Fantasia] is a rarity in the world of festivals; its core is fuelled with love.” This is why genre film and Fantasia are such culturally and artistically important endeavours. They use modes of fantasy to construct distant worlds of past, future, or never-lands into which anyone can enter, onto which anyone can project personal or societal conflicts, and where refuge and solace in common strife can be found.