Denisa Kraus
The Navigator

This year marks the 9th annual Vancouver Island Short Film Festival (VISFF), which will take place on February 7 and 8 in VIU’s Malaspina Theatre. On both nights, the festival will showcase 15 films with a wide range of origin and genre.

VISFF co-founder and director Johnny Blakeborough says “it’s always going to be about short films. They come from our community and are the most interesting to me. They are super powerful as an art form to themselves, and we should celebrate that.”

VISFF director, Johnny Blakeborough works as the media technologist at VIU and is the secretary treasurer at the Student Union Faculty Association. Photo courtesy of Johnny Blakeborough

Blakeborough believes short films are the most democratic film medium and the most accessible creative outlet for beginning filmmakers.

“If you’re interested in filmmaking, the idea of shooting a feature film will be outside of most people’s normal life,” he explains, adding that even if someone is lucky enough and can afford to commit a few years to make a feature, they most probably end up with a result that is satisfying, due to lack of experience or resources.

“With short films, on the other hand, you can spend a week working on it and have something to show for it,” he says. “And if you’re not happy with the outcome, you can move on and take the experience from it.”

VISFF show co-ordinator Matthew Lettington believes a short film festival is a great event to host in Nanaimo. He explains that feature films may work well for festivals in Victoria and Vancouver––towns with a bigger audience and a variety of venues close together according to Blakeborough, whereas the “VISFF offers the audience a single venue to view a lot of different films from a variety of genres, each with their own voice.”

He also says he does not want the festival to just showcase any local work or every submission.

“Quality is the most important element of the festival,” he says. “We want to promote local filmmakers, but also make them always strive to do better. Plus we want people to have a good night out, and if you showcase everything that has been submitted, it makes for a less entertaining event. If we want the festival to succeed in the long run for the benefit of the community and audience, it needs to be appealing and therefore curated.”

Blakeborough feels the essential factors in maintaining a high standard of entertainment in good quality films are inspiring for the community while leaving space for promising local production, insightful and experienced selection committee, and a “seamless” execution of the show. “We don’t want the audience to see me flipping discs on the screen or know what’s going on in the booth,” he jokes.

Aside from professional presentation, the organizers also pay attention to their partners and sponsors. The material and technical support from the Media Studies Department, the Students’ Union, and other sponsors allows VISFF to dedicate most of the saved funds to cash awards for the winning filmmakers. Since Blakeborough believes in the importance of having a “brand” that is intentional, solid and easy to recognize, he also invests in professional, representative graphic design by Elephant Room Creative.

“I thought there couldn’t be a better way to construe the history and variety of the film festival than to depict the poster itself as a physical film canister holding an array of scenes from a variety of genres,” Elephant Room’s graphic designer Geordie MacDonald describes this year’s poster.

Blakeborough came up with the idea of a short film festival when working at INFEST’s film festival with John Gardiner. They eventually founded the VISFF, and after Gardiner quit in 2007 (“so that he could submit his own short films”), he was replaced by Lettington, Blakeborough’s long term friend and right-hand-man. Lettington took on the role of the show coordinator.

“It is a role that needed fulfilling and one that is easy to separate from many other aspects of the festival,” he says, adding that he is also responsible for reproducing the awards, working with volunteers, emceeing the show, and ensuring pizza delivery.

“The festival consumes a lot of Johnny’s free time and I wanted to spend more time with my friend and this is a way to collaborate with him,” says Lettington. “Late at night, when Johnny weeps due to the strains of the film festival and his wife has had it with his snivelling, I provide him with a shoulder to cry on,” he jokes. He assists Blakeborough in dealing with artists, media, designers, volunteers, the marketing department, the submissions coordinator and tries to attend both the selection committee and the judging panel.

For Blakeborough, the idea of a refined event came hand-in-hand with the strive for an impressive and representative award––a unique piece of art every filmmaker would really want. After a short collaboration with VIU’s Art department, and another with the designer of the INFEST’s award, Blakeborough turned to his high school friend, now internationally acclaimed and successful sculptor Brendan Tang, in 2011. Blakeborough felt the opportunity window for collaboration was closing fast due to Tang’s rising success, but managed to persuade him to produce a design of a golden VHS tape.

Last year marked the introduction of a contest called Goldie (after local film enthusiast, instructor, and Blakeborough’s lifelong mentor and role model, Shirley Goldberg). The seven Goldies will award best technical, best writing, best performance, best original music, best student film, people’s choice, and best film. This year, for the first time, the jury will also dedicate a special award to the most promising performance by a beginning actor or actress who shows an extraordinary potential for a career in acting.

The festival, started by Blakeborough and former organizer of INFEST, John Gardiner, originally took place in the Old Caprice Theatre in Downtown Nanaimo, but moved to the Malaspina Theatre on VIU’s campus in 2007. Blakeborough recalls the first year was almost sold out.

“It seemed like people were really waiting for something like that to happen,” he says.

After a little stagger in 2010 when the BC government’s cut in funding forced the organizers to run a five-year retrospective and caused the event to lose momentum, last year, the VISFF saw great attendance and positive response from the community.

But aside attendance and submissions, Blakeborough wants to generate interest in volunteering at the festival. He says that in order for the festival to grow, more people need to get involved not only in the entry level work but in the organizing and potentially running the event in the future. He says he is looking for someone young, ambitious, enthusiastic, detail oriented and responsible, who is at the same time rooted in Nanaimo .

“I can’t do this for another ten years and I don’t want the festival to go away when I go away. I want people to take over and make it their own.”

Blakeborough says his dream is for the VISFF to grow organically and offer a bigger variety of short films in the future. He’d also like to see not only a platform for viewing and showcasing people’s work, but a space where filmmakers, fans, and enthusiasts can interact, and where “people who don’t see themselves as filmmakers still can be inspired to make their own movie.”

Both Blakeborough and Lettington see the festival as a way of encouraging young and beginning filmmakers to produce and submit their work.

“Most artists have a love/hate relationship with their work and process. Although often solipsistic, the final results can be amazing to share with a broader community,” Lettington says.

Blakeborough mentions last year’s success of Media student Steff Gundling, who had originally made the film for her video class. Only after recommendation of both her instructor and Blakeborough, she agreed to submit it to the festival. After she won best technical and best student film, she told the press how it had made her seriously reconsider her career plans and become a filmmaker.

“The idea that you do an event that changes someone’s life… “ Blakeborough says. “I can quit after this, knowing I had a powerful, positive impact on one person’s life, encouraging her and making her believe that maybe there’s something for her in this field.”

The festival will be held at Malaspina Theatre on VIU Nanaimo campus. Tickets are $10 for students and $15 for general admission, available online at or at the door on the Friday and Saturday showings. Following the Friday show, there will be a filmmaker Q&A, and after the Saturday show, there will be an awards ceremony for the winning filmmakers. Both events start at 7pm.