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Dead North's Monstrous Success

Dead North's Monstrous Success

Now in its seventh year, the Northern horror, sci-fi and fantasy film festival continues to thrill and chill.
By Jacob Boon
Feb 26

Jay Bulckaert and Pablo Saravanja are on their second week of 10-hour days organizing the Dead North Film Festival, but they’re not complaining. 

“We still love doing it, otherwise we just wouldn’t be doing it,” says Bulckaert.

The seventh annual Dead North festival opens its doors this weekend in Yellowknife at the Capitol Theatre, once again showcasing original horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and genre shorts written, shot, and edited by Northern filmmakers.

This year’s program has 40 finished films—half of them directed by women— and for the first time, movies from all three territories. Suzanne Etheridge’s Trash is a “dark fairy tale” spin on the dumpster fires that have plagued her town of Iqaluit. 

“They thought the dump fires were behind them, but something has emerged from the flames,” reads the festival guide.

Other films in competition come from Behchokò, Hay River, Inuvik, Norman Wells, Fort Simpson—and the teachers and students at Kaw Tay Whee School in Dettah, NWT.

Last year, students in Grades 5 to 9 (with some help from their teachers) produced the puppet horror short Frostbite, which went all the way to Toronto’s Blood in the Snow film fest. This year, Kaw Tay Whee has come together for a follow-up film, Flight of the Tentacle.

“It’s like an entire school together that made this,” says Bulckaert. 

It’s a sign of how popular Dead North has become with audiences of all ages. 

“It started out as a hardcore horror festival and now we’ve got a bunch of kids involved.”

Like a horde of zombies feasting on the living, the festival has continued to expand over the past seven years. Bulckaert and Saravanja—who run the Artless Collective production company the rest of the year—have grown Dead North into a full-fledged artistic enterprise with a five-person governing board, visiting guest judges, prosthetic makeup and script pitching workshops and, new this year, a genre-themed photography exhibit.

“The first couple years, it was sort of a thing I was putting on with other friends,” says Bulckaert. “It was always meant to be a community building thing, and it’s become that.”

The films don’t live and die at Dead North, either. Bulckaert says part of the festival’s goal is to have people deliver a package that’s film fest ready. 

“As soon as Dead North is done they’ve got a poster, a trailer, a synopsis…It’s a jumping off point for a lot of people.”

Past short films from Northern filmmakers have gone on to screen at BFI’s London film fest, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, the Cannes Short Film Corner, and Fantasia.

The Dead North team is also hoping to collect some of the best films out of their nearly 200 past submissions and sell the compilation to iTunes or other streaming services. The profits would be shared amongst the filmmakers. Some of the proceeds from this weekend’s ticket and merchandise sales will also be reinvested in a travelling roadshow, to screen this year’s Dead North entries in smaller communities throughout the territories.

So, yeah, the Dead North team is plenty busy. But they’re not making any complaints or taking any of the credit for the festival’s success. That applause belongs, says Bulckaert, to the supportive community of creative talent here in the circumpolar North. 

“It makes it feel like more and more of a small family every year that goes by,” he says. “It instills faith in humanity.”

Dead North runs Thursday to Saturday with two screenings (7 p.m. and 9 p.m.) each night and marathons of all 40 films on Sunday. Tickets and program details available on the festival’s website.