Every year, film festivals in Sundance, Tribeca, and Toronto feature big names and splashy world premieres that set the tone for awards season. Those events are known to shine a bright spotlight on new talent, but there are others that are equally worth your time. Here’s a guide to some of the best film festivals that you’ve never heard of:
True/False is a celebration of non-fiction film with an experimental vision. Every winter, the charming college town of Columbia, MO, transforms into an artistic wonderland for four days. Local musicians play before screenings and at impromptu parties that pop up throughout the weekend, while visual artists create installations and experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. It’s an immersive, unique approach that has made the small-scale festival an increasingly popular destination for both international filmmakers and homegrown talent. Some recent documentaries to come out of True/False include Casting JonBenet, the Grateful Dead magnum opus Long Strange Trip, and Whose Streets?, a film about the Ferguson uprising.
As one of the world’s premier Oscar-qualifying short film competitions, Aspen Shortsfest attracts a diverse lineup of filmmakers that’s often a window to the future of film. Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Sarah Polley (Away from Her), and Sean Baker (Tangerine) are just a few of the big names that have made this long-running festival, nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, a stepping stone to Hollywood success. Drama, comedy, animation, and non-fiction shorts all find a receptive audience here, making Aspen Shortsfest a must-see for any cinephile.
As one of the largest genre film festivals in North America, Fantasia International Film Festival is a celebration of all films wild, weird, and wonderful. Every year, over 100,000 people travel to Montreal to see the latest in horror, anime, and other out-there genres from countries as diverse as Russia, Japan, South Africa, and Estonia, all while also enjoying free outdoor screenings, VR experiences, and other special events. The three-week festival attracts a sizeable number of industry professionals and recently celebrated ten years of the Frontieres International Co-Production Market, which connects genre filmmakers to financial sources across Europe and North America.
What began in 1982 as a way to promote LGBTQ equality has grown into an entire community dedicated to fostering LGBTQ stories. Every summer, Outfest showcases hundreds of documentary and non-fiction films that explore the LGBTQ experience. And because it’s held in Los Angeles, it’s loaded with industry panels and events designed to break down the barrier between filmmakers and executives. The non-profit undertakes other important endeavors: It runs Outfest Fusion, which showcases the diversity of the LGBTQ community by supporting queer, Latinx, and other voices from marginalized communities; it oversees the UCLA Legacy Project, the largest publicly-accessible archive of LGBTQ films in the world; and it offers education and mentoring opportunities.
Since launching in 2010, Doc NYC has become the largest documentary film festival in the U.S. and a key part of the city’s film festival landscape. Every fall, DOC NYC showcases hundreds of short and feature-length non-fiction films that cover everything from the AIDS crisis (How To Survive A Plague) and the War on Terror (Bordering on Treason) to intimate portraits of musicians and artists like Amy Winehouse (Amy) and David Bowie (David Bowie: The Last Five Years). In recent years, the festival has expanded to include DOC NYC PRO, a week-long conference of master-class panels; and 40 Under 40, which helps connect emerging filmmakers to distributors, financiers, and more.
Between supporting local talent and giving emerging voices a platform, these niche festivals and others like them are helping to create the next generation of filmmakers.