FIN AIFF 2022 preview: a chat with the festival’s executive director

Meet Martha Cooley, the mind behind the largest Canadian film festival east of Montreal

Once again, it’s that wonderful time of the year with back-to-back art festivals in Halifax. Like many others that represent the Halifax art scene from September through November, the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival (AIFF) is back. And for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be held in person.

What’s new at the FIN?

The slogan for this year’s festival is “Together Again.” That highlights how excited participants and viewers are for people to be together again in the theatre, feeling the highs and lows of films in one place. 

First held in 1980, this year’s festival marks the return of many in-person events, such as the opening and closing night galas. It’s safe to say these events are well appreciated after the last couple of years filled with cancellations and isolation. 

Same festival, new executive director

Change seems to be a reoccurring theme at this year’s festival. Wayne Carter, the executive director of FIN for the last decade, has left his position. Martha Cooley now leads the way in her first festival as executive director. 

Martha Cooley, after working with the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative over the past 15 years, will step up as the new executive director of FIN. (Contributed by Wendy Phillips)

As Cooley says, taking over from Carter is “intimidating for sure.” But she’s no stranger to film, festivals, or Halifax. Cooley has been with the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative (AFCOOP) for the last 15 years, taking on a plethora of roles. Now, she runs the show. 

“The great thing about FIN is that it’s been around for so long and the staff are very experienced, knowledgeable folks, so it’s been quite easy in that respect,” says Cooley about the process of switching over to such a role.

Flow of ideas and new perspectives 

“I certainly wasn’t looking to leave AFCOOP,” admits Cooley, “but I was thinking realistically about what my next opportunity might be, or my next challenge.” 

When speaking about how jobs cycle in industries such as film, she says “you get new voices and new perspectives and new people. 

“It’s a great opportunity for AFCOOP, too, to have a new director and a new person’s vision.”

Cooley has a long-standing history with the festival, even though she’s newly-appointed in her position.

“I’ve been attending the festival for almost 20 years now. I started when I was in film school,” she recalls. 

Cooley reminisces about her memories in film school fondly. So it’s not hard to see the love she has for film. She discusses how she wants to bring the perspective she’s gained through her years in film and background from various positions she’s held over the years to FIN. 

Attendees at a screening during a previous FIN festival. (Contributed by Wendy Phillips)

Playing favourites

As Cooley recalls from her memories in the industry, one favourite stands out: The One Minute Film Program or, as it’s known today, FILM1. 

She explains how the program brought together “people from all different ages, from all different backgrounds, different professions,” letting them be creative in a way they perhaps never had been before. 

“The energy around that program and the films that came out of it was so positive in a heartfelt way. It was a passion project for people,” she says.

While she had never participated in the program herself, Cooley says at the beginning of her career she would’ve made something “quite personal, exploring something that had happened to me, or just the way that it feels to be in my own body, in my own space.” Nowadays, her focus has shifted to “more external topics or a bit more self-referential, a bit more abstract.” 

She says her favourite thing about filmmaking now is it seems like barriers to access are reducing in a variety of different ways including technology. 

“There are so many more tools that are quite accessible to people so that anyone can kind of tell their own story,” she says. “I think we’re seeing a real widening of who has access to making a film and therefore the kinds of stories that we’re getting to see are more democratized.”

What to expect from FIN: AIFF this year

In one word, Cooley describes the vibe of this year’s festival as “celebratory.” 

“I think that’s what we’ve all been missing. The celebration, the connectedness.” 

As per their slogan this year, FIN hopes to bring everyone together until September 22. How about recommendations for festival viewings? Cooley is most excited for Queens of the Qing Dynasty, Until Branches Bend, Cette maison (This House) and Before I Change My Mind.

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