Regina’s mighty handmade film festival goes international

FILM by Devin Pacholik

Fade To Grey by Owen Pantel

International Puppet Underground Film Festival Plus
Various Venues
May 28-31

A puppet is any animated object. It could be a salt shaker with a silly voice, a 40-string marionette or an intricate mask that took a thousand hours to craft.

“A puppet can be anything,” says festival coordinator Rowan Pantel of the second International Puppet Underground Film Festival Plus (IPUFF+). Hosted by Regina’s Prairie Puppet Underground collective, the festival runs from May 28 – 31, offering a mix of live performances, film screenings and activities at various locations around town.

There’s etiquette around handling someone else’s puppet, Pantel explains. You can’t just stick your hand in someone else’s thing (ha!) or start pulling strings. Some puppets are delicate machines, specially crafted to fit the maker.

While puppets range in complexity, Pantel says there are three rules every aspiring puppeteer should know.

“One: Your puppet will break; two: your puppet will break; three: know how to fix your puppet.”

Good to know.

Regina’s puppetry community is small, but Pantel thinks Canada is going through a kind of puppet Renaissance, with festivals appearing and growing larger every year. IPUFF began in 2013 to run alongside Calgary’s International Festival of Animated Objects, which was an inspiration for the Prairie Puppet Underground. The plus in this year’s title captures the addition of live performances.

“It feels like [puppetry is] having a comeback.” Pantel says. “It’s focusing on things that aren’t just for kids. There’s a huge push to bring it back from The Muppets.”

Originally The Muppets were not specifically intended for kids and was more like an adult variety show. Speaking of Muppets, the festival opens on Thursday with a screening of the latest collection from Handmade Puppet Dreams by Heather Henson, a daughter of Muppet creator Jim Henson. This isn’t The Muppets though: one of Heather’s short films The Narrative of Victor Karloch is a surreal horror — technically all-ages, but it may haunt your kids’ dreams, dare you let them watch.

That said, IPUFF+ will offer many children-friendly showings and workshops, including an entire kids’ day on Sunday. More Henson films will be shown, but these ones are made for little ones.

Another act called Pigs In A Canoe is a live performance in English and French that brings children into a colourful and imaginative world to discuss our relationship with water. It’s fun for kids, and adults can feel good about the educational stuff.

Festival performance director Kenn McLeod says “Puppets have an incredible ability to engage an audience. It is astounding to see a collection of inanimate bits and pieces become a living creature simply by adding a touch of humanity.”

But, maybe leave the kids home for Saturday’s late-night live performances. Or whatever —Prairie Dog won’t tell you how to raise your kids*. Live shows like Ms. Sugarcoat and Regina’s first Puppet SLAM Cabaret at the Artesian promise to get bawdy.

“In our cabaret show,” Pantel warns, “I think there are three puppet penises in it.”

Question: What do you call a well-endowed marionette?

Answer: Well strung.

That line comes courtesy of IPUFF+ technical director Berny Hi. The festival has more than light-hearted, anatomically correct puppets. Hi says the art form pushes audiences to explore deeper issues.

“Puppets have the unique ability to speak to an audience of any age, gender, or cultural background, as they have been used throughout history to convey stories of great heroes, tragic lovers, supernatural ceremonies, rituals, and stories of morality… They are one-step removed from real humans, but still require the handling of a puppeteer, and so have a life and breathe to them, which makes them have an uncanny, relatable quality.”

Chrystene Ells, IPUFF+ artistic director, says “puppets can take us farther.”

The artistic director gives the example of Drenica, being shown at Friday’s International Short Puppet Film Showcase. Drenica is based on an Albanian woman’s testimony about her life in Kosovo during wartime: she was uprooted and alone, surrounded by soldiers, death and destruction.

Ells says Drenica features “bare-bones” puppets and sets made of newspaper and cardboard:

“… these simple puppets, with their subtle performances, strike a devastatingly, hauntingly beautiful chord. The sorrow of those left behind, the fear of those taken by the soldiers, and the puppet bodies lying in the dirt with missing limbs and their cardboard torsos torn open somehow evoke more of the grief and horror of war than human actors doused in fake blood.”

Prairie Puppet Underground and their bi-annual festival began in 2011 through the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative with Ells’ position as an artist in residence. For her residency, titled This Big World, she set out to teach community members how to make puppet films. Before that, Ells worked on projects like The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Puppets are a kind of “mirror” for audience members, according to Ells.

“Because puppets are disconcertingly like us, and yet not us, they allow us to step back for a better look; they provide a space that allows us to see our own stories with a different clarity.”

By the end of her residency, there were nearly 20 Saskatchewan-produced films. Along with the Filmpool’s Amber Christensen, Ells organized the first festival in 2013 with support from a City of Regina grant. Pantel got involved in puppet film making and the festival after seeing Ells give an artist talk at the University of Regina. The inaugural IPUFF (sans plus) consisted of two screening nights at the RPL Film Theatre and puppet exhibits at the Dunlop Art Gallery.

This year, IPUFF+ has about a dozen events at The Artesian and RPL Central Branch. Pantel says the decision to expand the festival has put Regina on the “international puppet map.”

She says Prairie Puppet Underground has been invited to a September festival in France —Arts de la Marionette — to scout acts for 2017. In France, puppets are serious business — there’s even an international labour union for puppeteers (Union Internationale de la Marionette).

“There’s this whole world of puppetry that most people aren’t aware of,” Pantel says.

“And now Saskatchewan is a part of it.”