IFFO Makes Its In-person Debut

After two years of cancelled events and digital adaptations, people looking for an immersive festival experience can grab their freshly-buttered popcorn. 

The International Film Festival of Ottawa (IFFO) will make its in-person debut with screenings and events from Wednesday, March 9 to Sunday, March 20. 

“We’re kind of itching to get into theatres again,” said Tom McSorley, who is the executive director of the Canadian Film Institute, which is hosting the festival. “I know people really miss being able to discuss film and talk about them after the screening, so I’m curious to see how that will pan out.” 

The lineup includes 27 feature films from more than 20 countries as well as 27 Canadian short films. Screenings will take place at the ByTowne Cinema, the Mayfair Theatre and the Ottawa Art Gallery. 

The festival will kick off with Wildhood, a coming-of-age story from Two-Spirit L’nu director Bretten Hannam. The film follows the journey of Link and his half-brother Travis as they search for Link’s mother and Link struggles with embracing his Mikm’aw heritage. Along the way, they meet Mi’kmaw Two-Spirit teenager Pasmay who offers them a ride and the creation of a new found family. 

For Canadian literature fans, there are not one but two on-screen adaptations of popular bestsellers: Michael McGowan’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows and Katie Boland’s adaptation of Amy Jones’ We’re All In This Together. Along with directing and writing, Boland stars as twin sisters Finn and Nicki. 

International film selections include Gagarine, about 16-year-old Youri as he and his friends protest the demolition of the housing project he grew up in; Souad, about an Egyptian teenager and her struggle of growing up in a conservative culture while obsessively cultivating her online persona; and Bipolar, where a musician travelling through Tibet rescues a lobster and intends to set it free. 

McSorley said it was a “struggle” to get the festival out of the online world into the real world. He said the inaugural festival was initially announced in January 2020, with filmmakers from across Canada as well as Europe and North Africa expected to attend. “Of course, we had to cancel that one outright,” he said. 

The 2021 edition was entirely online and was well-received by audiences. “At the time, it’s what people wanted and needed,” McSorley said.  

In the lead-up to the 2022 edition, he added that organizers still had concerns about hosting in-person screenings and were “really demoralized” when the Omicron variant increased case counts and brought back restrictions. Once the Ontario government announced it would start lifting restrictions in January, it provided enough certainty for IFFO to go live with COVID safety protocols in place. 

“I know it’s an in-between thing where the province has lifted a lot of stuff, but we still want to make sure that audience members feel safe,” he said.  

In accordance with the reopening guidelines, venues will be at 50 per cent capacity, vaccination passports are mandatory, masks are to be worn at all times and social distancing observed. IFFO also recommends ordering tickets in advance to guarantee a seat and ensure event entry goes smoothly. 

There will still be a small selection of films screened online for people who aren’t comfortable attending in-person. The online lineup includes Aloners, Bipolar, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar, Souad and We’re All in This Together. 


McSorley said part of the IFFO’s approach is to “kick the doors open a little wider” for movie-goers’ experience of what a film can be. For example, rather than screening all short films together as is commonly done at other film festivals, each short film will be paired with a feature-length screening. 

“Part of that is to showcase short film production, because it’s a very important aspect of film production,” McSorley said. “It’s never been industrialized and it’s always been kind of a marginal practice, so we’re just trying to slide it a bit closer to the centre and get people exposed to filmmakers who in many cases will end up becoming feature filmmakers.” 

McSorley said the festival is also trying to cover a lot of territory on the industry side. The Screen Summit conference is a free virtual event on Friday, March 18, designed for both experienced and emerging professionals in the Canadian film and TV industry. Accreditation is required to attend the event. 

There is also the SAVE AS event on Thursday, March 10, which will explore and celebrate Canadian efforts with film preservation and the importance of preserving cinematic heritage both in Canada worldwide. 

McSorley said part of IFFO’s mandate is to connect the film community with itself as well as others visiting from around the world and added that due to its relatively small size, compared to places like Toronto or New York, Ottawa is the perfect “hothouse environment” for people to make industry connections. 

He added that film festivals are great community-building events in general and IFFO is dedicated to creating a communal space where people can enjoy films from around the world and talk to each other. 

“We know this is a small step. It’s a tentative step in some ways,” McSorley said. “But I think people are getting more and more hungry for some kind of community experience as opposed to the individualized things that we’ve been doing for two years.”