The 2019 BIFFF Event Review

A Strange Man in a Film Land: 2019 Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) – Brussels, Belgium

I have covered festivals now for a better part of five
years. During that time, I have been across North America heading to cities
like Kansas City, Los Angeles, Austin, Toronto, Knoxville, Boston, New York
City, and more. Last year, I had the chance to visit several Latin American film
festivals with stops at the Brazilian film festival ‘Fantaspoa,’ but I had the
honor of covering the Mexico City based Macabro Film Festival, as part of the ‘International
Jury.’ The festival trail never gets boring as I feel lucky and blessed to
spread the fest word in the pages of HorrorHound. My first festival coverage for
the magazine this year, took me to Belgium for the Brussels International
Fantastic Film Festival or BIFFF.

Moving into 2019, I wanted to expand the festival coverage
for HorrorHound readers to some of the European film festivals. After looking
at the options for spring, we all agreed that a return to the celebrated
showcase of horror, thriller, fantasy, and science fiction would be the way to
go. Originally covered back in 2014. this annual celebration ran from April 9-21.
Catching the final five days of the festival housed at the long standing Bozar,
the 37th edition featured films, art, performance, memorabilia, community,
and more. Flying into Brussels, I knew very little about the area or the event
itself. Doing my research, I was impressed by history and reputation of BIFFF.
I could see why HorrorHound had covered it before. Hell, it has been around a
long time! If any film festival lasts more than five years, that seems like a
feat. Festival are tough to pull off and even tougher to sustain.

As I looked at the previous year’s lineups and attending
guests that have come to promote and meet the BIFFF faithful, I was blown away
by the levels of talent who have had made the trip from so many different spots
around the world. Just in the last few years, legends like FX master Steve
Johnson (Ghostbusters and Big Trouble in Little China),
Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth and The
Shape of Water
), and Filmmaker Axelle Carolyn (Tales of Halloween and Soulmate) have been staples of the ‘International
Juries’ which BIFFF has brought together to recognized some of the best of the
festival. These award winning projects have come to be some of the most
recognized modern horror that you have found in the pages of Horrorhound. In
the last few years, festival gems like Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out, Shinsuke Sato’s Inuyashiki, and Julia Ducournau’s Raw have taken home the prestigious ‘Golden
Raven’ on the closing night of the festival.

Riding the train from the airport to the ‘Brussels
Centrale’ station, I met one of the long-time hed of the BIFFF press team named
Jon Lenaerts. As we walked, Jon and I took in some of the city talking as the bustling
city unfolded before me. With bags in hand, we head to the famed center of all
art and entertainment within the city called the Bozar, A ten-minute walk from
the Bozar to my hotel, the city blended best of city and country. Going in just
about any direction from my hotel or the Bozar, you had a series of restaurants,
stores, bars, landmarks, and more to fill the hours away from the festival. Heading
over to the hotel, I unpacked and organized before journeying out to get my
first taste of the city and festival. I picked up my press credential rather
easily. One thing I would recommend to international festival travelers, is to
brush up on the language but also have printouts of any requirements, notes on
screenings, routes, tips, and such. Apps like Google Translate, are able to translate
pictures and text. This has been invaluable resource over the last couple of
years. Another app that I use and recommend is Google Maps since Mapquest and
Waze were not as reliable outside of the United States. For me, it usually
takes a couple days to get sorted and to list familiar landmarks, parks,
stores, and the festivals venues before I feel comfortable.

The park across from the hotel was a daily spot of
exploration for me. With the weather being quite pleasant during visit, I had a
chance to clear my head and also the pleasure of eating some of the best rum
raisin ice cream ever! While the festival had a large hall for those attending
to sit, talk, and eat, the food selections were limited to very tasty burgers
and sandwiches (not a bad thing at all) as well as liquor and drinks. The festival
food had its limits which was remedied by a variety of food selections within a
ten-minute walk at most in any direction. Brussels food choices were vast, I
made it a point to check out their variety of famous beers, chocolate, croissants,
waffles, and fries. All were amazing no matter where I ended up!    

Finally making it to the Bozar, I was blown away as I moved
through the venue. Anytime I have a chance to visit an old theater of any kind,
it sets off a wave of excitement with each step. The structure, design, and
sheer majesty of the interior was something special. One of the true joys of traveling,
is the ability to witness the architecture of these different festival cities
around the world. Most recently the ‘Cinemateca Capitolio Petrobras,’ which
houses Fantaspoa or the ‘Teatro de la Ciudad’ which is home for the opening
night ceremonies for Macabro in Mexico City. In this case, the castle style of
the Bozar. Built in 1929, the ‘Centre for Fine Arts’ has been the home for
BIFFF since 2013. Each year, BIFFF occupies a portion of the main level and
most of the lower level. The festival blossoms as you walked down the winding,
stone stairs.

Before I arrived, BIFFF had its share of events which
are staples of the festival. A newer addition to the festival is the ‘BIFFF
Film Market’ now in its third year. The film market hosted a number of renowned
film companies including names like XYZ Films, Fantastic Fest, Yellow Veil
Pictures, Epic Pictures, Raven Banner, Arri Media, and more of the 115
representatives who listen to project pitches, networked, and formed
collaborations to create film magic. Every year around the world, these pitch
session and film markets help to establish the next step for a variety of film projects.
If you have never been to a pitch session, I highly recommend that you attend.
It is an education about the many avenues of film that go beyond the camera.
These markets are classes on public speaking, development, presentations,
networking, and more.

My press contact beyond Jon was named Tristan. Tristan
did a solid job of making sure everything and everyone was available for me to
speak with. This started almost immediately. Roaming through the Bozar, the
layout for BIFFF was vast and detailed. Speaking with Jon and Tristan, the
preparation for next year festival seemed to begin almost as soon as the
previous years festival was done. Why many things stay the same and the
festival builds a routine for those who attend each year, the themes change
each year. Each BIFFF reflects certain aspects of film and genre each year. It
leaves a fingerprint that makes BIFFF stand out. A unique aspect in the décor
of BIFFF surrounds the use of banners to decorate the walls of the Bozar. BIFFF
uses long banners as an almost yearbook of photos and signatures from their
numerous guests who have attended the festival over the years. The pillars are
plastered with photos and signatures of legendary genre talent all around the
venue to go along with the crests which symbolize the different themes since
the beginning of BIFFF.

This year’s BIFFF theme was influenced by practical FX
makeup and design. With legendary FX master artist Steve Johnson there, the
lower level of the Bozar was sectioned off as there were a variety of decorated
exhibits that represented horror, science fiction, and fantasy movie magic. During
the 13 days, a number of artistic exhibits and activities including an on-going
body painting contests with makeup artists and timeless subjects that were transformed
for the masses. There was painting exhibits, sculptures, mask displays, photography,
film show pieces, practical FX contests, cosplay, film props, and more. Moving
into the digital age, there was an entire section of virtual reality with at least
fifteen experiences that brought together more than ten countries under one
roof. The VR included such festival favorites as Meeting a Monster, Volt Chaos
Gem, Ghost in the Shell: Virtual Reality Diver, Deerbrook, Seance VR
, the Alex Aja directed Campfire
which was the focus of the interview with Aja back in issue 72.
BIFFF featured a variety of not only VR entertainment but also a lineup of
role-playing games, video, and board games for those to find alternatives. Literally, you could spend entire days walking through the
halls of the Bozar looking at everything the festival had for its patrons. The
lower level of the Bozar also featured different vendors who sold movie
posters, comic books, film books, DVDs, magazines, liquor, and more!

One of the very cool displays focused on
rows of the selected movie posters that was playing at BIFFF! Every short and
feature playing BIFFF was displayed for the people to take a look at. On the
press side,
I was fortunate enough to speak with every attending
filmmaker during my stay at BIFFF as well as the International Jury members. The
attending roster spanned several countries including Russia, Poland, Canada, U.S.,
South Korea, and more. I had the honor of speaking with filmmakers like Tony
D’Aquino (The Furies), Olga
Gorodetskaya (Stray), Enda Loughman
), Christian Alvart (Cut
), Paul Young (Ghost
), Zach Lipovsky (Freaks), Na Hong-jin (The Wailing), and Steve Johnson. Each subject brought
different elements to our conversations that took them in some surprising
directions. Overall, it built a stellar set of interviews coming soon to the
pages of Horrorhound.

One of the truly memorable aspects of my trip, was the
relationship between the festival and those who attend. Overall, there have not
been many festivals where the relationship was this powerful. The energy created
by those running the festival and those who attend was off the charts especially
with the audiences attending the films. Each year, the festival has several
events that involves the attending fans in different, interactive ways. An event which I regret missing, was the
survival romp across Brussels called the ‘ZomBIFFF Run.’ A sight to be seen,
this four-kilometer race pits the undead versus the brave through the streets
of Brussels at night. Another of the annual event, is the team competition
between the ‘Bright’ and ‘Dark’ sides within ‘The Order of Raven.’ A
competition between seven teams of cosplay/fantasy characters that included
such teams as wizards, gremlins, dragons, warriors, lady, and more, battle to
see which group will reign supreme each year. Witnessing some of the events between
the teams throughout my stay, I had the opportunity to see one event in
particular which was one of the most enjoyable and audience interactive at
BIFFF. Known as ‘crowd rafting,’ this event was held in the largest theatre within
the Bozar. A tradition at BIFFF, one member from a selected team crowd surfs in
a large raft from one side of the theater to the other and then back. The crowd
went crazy as the barker and the team members egged on the crowd getting them
up to a fever pitch!

BIFFF, also had its annual ‘Bal des Vampires’ costume
ball in the main gallery hall. Only catching glimpses of this macabre
gathering, I also regretted not being a part of the event due to scheduling
conflicts. Moving in and out of the dark hall, the room crackled with a spirit
and a magic within the darkness. The event had handmade costumes and masks. The
music ranged as those attending danced in the shadows where secrets and intimacy
lived. Over the years, the ‘Bal des Vampires’ has been a way to wind down the
last night of BIFFF running from 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM next morning. The festival
and all of its aspects serves as a release and redirection for those in
Brussels. Still recovering from the 2016 bombing that shook Brussels, the
festival represents so much to so many people in the city. For some, it is a
chance to escape through fantasy and cosplay. For some, it is putting your
heart and soul into an event. For some, it is an artistic expression. For
others, it is a chance to watch cinema from around the world and meet those who
create these stories.

On the film side, the BIFFF lineup did not disappoint.
There was an eclectic range of films that blew away those who attended the
festival. The lineup featured nearly 100 features, 10 shorts blocks, and six
conferences/masterclasses during the 13 days. The programming was spread out
into three theaters (or Cine), which I am not always the biggest fan of for a
number of reasons. However, it worked for BIFFF, who had incredible attendance
through all the screenings that I attended and observed. Featuring a couple of
blocks of shorts each night, the themes for each block of shorts ranged from international
to European to Courts Mais Trash to homegrown. Most of the shorts blocks were
comprised by a mix of genres. The set of masterclasses gave attendees a detailed
study in many different dynamics of film. While on site, I had a chance to not
only speak with Steve Johnson but attend his masterclass. A experience not soon
to be forgotten, Johnson was not only comedic, charismatic, and honest but
provided some unique stories about his career. Johnson discussed and featured
some truly amazing images and explanations from films like Ghostbusters, Big Trouble in
Little China, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
, and more. 

BIFFF presented a variety of releases that included
genres like action, fantasy, thrillers, comedy, children, drama, science
fiction, horror, and more from around the world! Why I missed the mainstream
releases like Pet Sematary, American Animals, and Hellboy that played during
the first week of the festival, I did catch the closing night thriller Greta. For me, I have always been a supporter
of the indie genre of cinema no matter what festival I attend. Many of the
mainstream releases end up getting some sort of theatrical release, so I love
to check out the rising genre talent even if I see some films multiple times. I
was not disappointed with the BIFFF releases.

Before I go through those films, I wanted to give
BIFFF props for having an on-site screening library so the press was able to
watch any films they may have missed or needed to watch again. Most festivals
do not offer or have that option for a variety of reasons but need to get it
because it matters greatly to different coverage that may be missed. Anyway, it
was amazing to sit in the theater and see the ceremonies performed by the
audience during each screening. The crowds were so passionate and rabid for the
films! They would cheer for the just about every opening credit. They would talk
back to the screen and gave commentary during the film. Most of the time, it
was in stride and enjoyable but there were moments I missed the Alamo
Drafthouse crowds.

My viewing experience began with the midnight films. I
had the chance to see the World Premiere of the Japanese manga influenced romp called
which blended elements of Evil Dead and The Mask. I survived
the ‘Deadliest film ever made’ in Antrum.
Both fit the midnight billing for different reasons but succeed with
excellent turnouts and buzz. Between BIFFF’s programming, screening library,
and ticket system, it worked out well for me to get into several of the films that
I wanted view. These films included the gory, action thriller Cut
. The surprising, genre
bender focusing on a family’s survival in Freaks. The dark and supernatural tale of loss in Stray. The meta styles of Blood Fest. The crime thriller Dark, Almost Night. The brilliant and darkly comedic anthology
Reasons to Run Away
(from society). The audience
favorite Extra Ordinary. The
intense, siege film Feedback and a clever,
female driven slasher in The Furies.

Visiting so many theaters each year, the projection
and sound at the Bozar stood out. You felt immersed in the viewing experience
of each film that played. I was very blessed and thankful for each film that I
watched but I was also sorry to have missed films like The Pool, Dragged Across Concrete,
Werewolf, Red Letter Day
, and
or Die
. Between press, the
city, and other festival engagements, you can only get to what you can get to
during the stay. Besides watching Greta on
the final night of the festival, the awards ceremony was buzzing with cheers,
dialogue from the crowd, and an overall happy vibe. The big winners of BIFFF 2019
included Little Monsters, Extra Ordinary, Freaks, One Cut of the Dead, I’m Back,
The Pool, Werewolf, Cities of Last Things, Brother’s Nest
, and Doorlock.

After the awards, the audience had the choice to watch
Greta or A24’s The Hole in the Ground. Both were frightening in their own
right and suitable closing night films that showed range in BIFFF programming.
After the screening, we all moved into the main hall too gather and celebrate for
one final time until next year. Laughs, beer, and chatter radiated during the
final hours. I took one last nightly walk back and made a detour back into
town. I had a chance to experience the awe inspiring glow of the town square.
The square was packed with the masses of people enjoying another night of
celebration. As I packed next morning, I realized how lucky and blessed I was to
be a strange man in a film land here at BIFFF.

In all, BIFFF is a must festival
to attend for the fans who crave film, culture, and amazing food! Thank you to
Jon and his BIFFF team as well as HorrorHound for trusting me on this journey.
Also, thanks to you for taking the time to check out my latest journey as the
fest traveler. Find out more at Head out to BIFFF during their next film festival on April 7-19, 2020.