Our new film fest has a stick up its butt (in a good way)

by Aidan Morgan

IPUFF - photo by Darrol Hofmeister

The International Puppet Underground Film FestivalRPL Film Theatre, Dunlop Art Gallery

April 6-7

The puppets have come to Regina.

While the rest of us were marking time until the next season of Game of Thrones and watching the snow slowly bury Regina alive, the puppets were taking shape. A group of Saskatchewan artists and filmmakers (hidden under the snow) were cutting, drawing, painting and shooting, taking stories from Saskatchewan’s past and letting the puppets do the telling.

And now they’re here at the first International Puppet Underground Film Festival.

In large part, IPUFF (surely the most charming acronym ever created) exists thanks to Chrystene Ells, the festival’s Alberta-born artistic director and an artist who honed her craft as a puppet designer and performer in San Francisco throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

The initial impetus for IPUFF hit Ells in 2009 at Calgary’s International Festival of Animated Objects . The festival reacquainted Ells with her love of puppetry and planted the notion of “a small Fringe circuit of puppet acts.”

By the time she revisited the idea in 2011, the notion had grown into a vision of Regina as the site of a biannual puppet festival attracting artists from around the world.

As the artist-in-residence at the Saskatchewan Filmpool Collective, Ells created the Underground Puppet Works, a small design and fabrication workshop, complete with miniature sound stage. Working with IPUFF Technical Director Berny Hi, festival co-ordinator Amber Christensen and a group of interdisciplinary artists, Ells shepherded a series of 19 short films.

For source material, Ells and her cadre combed through the RPL’s Prairie History Room and discovered a wealth of stories hiding in diaries and volumes of local history.

“I thought it would be great if the puppet films that came out of the Puppet Works were truly Saskatchewan stories,” says Ells. “So when many of the artists came upon their first stumbling block of the project, namely, what story to tell, I sent them over to the Prairie History Room to see if they could find anything to base their film on. And they came back with all kinds of stories.”

Ells’ contributions, It Was A Circus (an elegantly told anecdote about a group of intoxicated farmers encountering a pig with a jar of syrup stuck to its head) and Kathleen’s Diary (a collection of mid-century journal entries from a woman who lived in Pangman) range in tone from comic to elegiac.

Taken together, the Puppet Underground series presents a vision of Saskatchewan as a land of hidden histories, quixotic quests and weird encounters. Noelle Duddridge’s A Gentleman’s Quarrel leads viewers down an old-timey rabbit hole with a tale of a duel between angry Regina musicians. Berny Hi explores the thorny concept of time with George Bassler’s Perpetual Motion Machine.

Some of the Saskatchewan pieces delve into memoir and family histories. Tyler Banadyga’s We Remain Long After We’ve Gone unearths a strange family story about his great-grandfather discovering a mummified body on his farm, while Kristen Smith’s My Great-Grandmother’s Flowers is a spare and haunting glimpse into the life of early Ukrainian settlers.

Along with the Saskatchewan component, IPUFF includes a free family matinée of vintage NFB animated puppet films by the Canadian animator Co Hoedeman.

The festival closes out with a double bill of international puppet films. Ells hopes that Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams Vols. IV and V will acquaint viewers with the possibilities of the form and inspire local puppet artists to push their practice further.

“Puppets can very much be a form of high art and cutting edge creative work situated in contemporary international art practice,” Ells says. “Historically, puppet shows like Punch and Judy were full of violence, sex, murder and political commentary, and were not meant for children at all.

“Somewhere along the way we’ve lost the association of puppets and the unthinkable, the unsayable, the provocative, the reactionary, the revolutionary,” says Ells. “The non­humans that can speak the forbidden words and broach the taboo topics.

“And yet that has been exactly their function in society until very recently.”


Welcome To Puppet City

Chrystene Ells sees great potential, both for IPUFF and for Regina. While some may view the city as a place on the artistic margins of Canada, Ells has ambitions to move it to the centre.

At least when it comes to puppets.

“I envision a string of puppets holding hands all across Canada like those paper cut-out dolls. I’d really like to see a national puppet circuit happen and to see Regina become a lynchpin,” she says.

The vision is already underway. A curated collection of Saskatchewan work ran at the 2013 International Festival of Animated Objects in March. Festivals for Victoria and Winnipeg are in the early planning stages.

By the time 2015 rolls around, the puppets will have probably taken over. /Aidan Morgan