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Programmer Profile: Alex Rogalski

Programmer Profiles is a blog series that brings you into the life of our esteemed programmers. Through this series you will gain insight into the lives of the hardworking people who spend their days hunting the latest and greatest film releases. They are our tastemakers and curatorial geniuses, and they all have a story to tell. 

Our final entry in the series features Documentary Programmer Alex Rogalski, who answered our questions remotely from his home in Saskatchewan. In addition to programming for the Calgary International Film Festival and Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, Alex once had a brief stint as a stage roadie for the Backstreet Boys.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Growing up in an age of VHS in rural Saskatchewan meant my worldview was shaped by movies. I moved to Regina and received a BFA in Film and Video Production and minor in Film Studies, then travelled to actually see the world rather than just on a screen. After doing my Masters in Communication and Culture at York/Ryerson University, I started programming, as I realized I didn’t want to contribute to the pool of mediocre film that existed, but was really excited by films that it seemed no one else I knew was watching. I didn’t realize at the time that was the key to programming (and a willingness to watch countless hours of film without becoming jaded). I landed a programming position with the Toronto International Film Festival for eight years, focusing on Canadian short film. I started programming Canadian films for Hot Docs in 2009 and it continues to inspire me, being connected to that talent and passion in this country. I’ve also been fortunate to program for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Images Festival and Victoria International Film Festival among other cinematheques and organizations across the country. I joined the team as a documentary programmer with the Calgary International Film Festival in 2015.

Name a film that changed your life and why it’s important to you.  

I’ve been inspired by filmmakers who have dedicated their lives to documentary. The late Peter Wintonick said the first thing a documentary filmmaker needed to do was take a vow of poverty. He wasn’t being glib. It really illustrated his dedication to telling socially relevant stories that could take years to complete and were not made for commercial purposes. He was incredibly generous to emerging filmmakers and his films remain vital. It’s hard for me to pick a single film that transformed me, as I’ve been fortunate to see certain films at pivotal moments in my life that changed the way I saw and interacted with the world. I still watch all kinds of movies but somewhere along the way I got a bit bored of make-believe and the films I became most passionate about came from real experience and observation. I think documentary is one of the most unique cinematic art forms that can truly transform lives. Something about connecting with audiences who love documentary helps me ensure the ‘prevention of disbelief’.

Working in the arts is a labour of love. What makes it all worth it?

It’s a total privilege to make a living from what you’re passionate about. Documentary is really unique in that it’s art, science, sociology, psychology, and politics all rolled into one package. I feel very fortunate that not only do I benefit from all the films I see, but I get to play a small part in helping filmmakers get their hard work recognized by audiences. I also still get a buzz from reaching audiences who rely on festivals to get access to stories they wouldn’t have realized they were missing otherwise.

What do you do when you’re not watching movies?

I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I have two young children who are growing up too fast, and I really don’t want to miss any of it. They keep me focused on the simple pleasures. If I can spend a morning having a coffee with my wife outside, gardening in my yard and watching my kids play, it’s pretty much my definition of paradise. When I’m not programming, I am the Executive Director of PAVED Arts in Saskatoon. It’s a charitable artist-run centre that provides access to equipment and exhibition for artists in the media arts.

What’s the strangest/most interesting/funny/moving thing that’s ever happened to you on the job?

I was a stage roadie for the Backstreet Boys on their European tour at the peak of their fame in the summer of 1999. Part of my job included having AJ McLean stand on my shoulders as he rose up to the stage and had 60,000+ people scream at the sight of him. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to understanding how surreal celebrity is and it gave me a perspective on fame and the entertainment industry that may have cemented my passion for documentary.

In addition to programming at the Calgary International Film Festival, you are also the Canadian Programmer for Hot Docs, one of the world's biggest and most prestigious documentary film festivals. How do you approach programming for Calgary audiences versus Hot Docs?

I focus on Canadian documentary for Hot Docs, and we’re really honoured to be a launching pad for those films and give them their first public audiences. I’ve been fortunate to present films from some of this country’s most accomplished filmmakers and at the same time introduce festival audiences to first-time filmmakers. There is a great community around Canadian documentary and I’m really pleased to be a part of it.

For Calgary, I’m really excited to get to share some of the world’s best documentaries on the international side, so it’s a chance to showcase great films to local audiences and at the same time bring international filmmakers to Calgary so they can see what a fantastic festival it is. I also really want to share homegrown talent and make sure audiences get to see Canadian documentaries in theatres in Calgary.

In the age of fake news, are you looking for elements of "truth" in the films you’ve chosen to program for this year’s festival? Why are documentary films important in this era?

Mockumentaries invented fake news! Audiences are really savvy and can pick up immediately when a film is hiding information. I’m not looking for ‘truth’; I’ve always just wanted films to be honest. Claiming truth means you’re claiming to be right and all other perspectives are false. Being honest allows for a variety of perspectives and allows audiences to decide how they feel. Cinema reveals everything. And unlike news clips and clickbait, feature documentaries allow for a relationship to build between a subject and an audience. That’s one reason I think these films resonate and can completely change a person’s perspective. For example, the subject matter in THE LAST ANIMALS  isn’t unfamiliar - we've been hearing about extinction of species for decades due to human behavior, yet when watching that film it’s impossible to ignore how dire the situation is and how we’re all implicated. PACMEN is another great example of observational cinema that’s political but not propaganda. Audiences have an opportunity to make up their own minds, and I think that’s incredibly powerful.

What’s your number one piece of advice for filmmakers trying to get into the festival? What makes a film stand out?

I’ve told filmmakers for many years that there is no magic formula to making a ‘festival’ film. Ultimately, they need to make something they are happy with, and be confident in sharing it. It may not be a fit for all festivals, so don’t give up if you don’t get into your first choice. Also, it’s worth looking at the lineups for festivals to see where your film might fit in (if you’ve made a short film, don’t bother submitting to festivals that only show features, or if it’s a romantic comedy maybe steer clear of a horror fest).

How many films do you watch each year (or per day) to select your lineup?

For Calgary Film, I watch over 200, but throughout the year I see about 700 films in total for all the festivals I program for. I try not to watch too many in a day. Four is comfortable (but I have have done more). Too many docs in a day can really mess with your worldview.

What’s your film-watching routine?

I watch films in the early morning and late at night. I like when there are no distractions and I can immerse myself. Starting the morning with films can really frame the way I approach the rest of my day. And at the end of the day I like watching documentaries as well. It helps put things in perspective and reminds me that I’m part of a much bigger world. As for methods, I can’t think of any way I haven’t watched a film in recent years. I have learned that if a film can really resonate with me on a small screen in busy circumstances it can be incredible on a big screen in a proper theatre. I have been amazed by how transformative some films I’ve programmed have been when I finally get to see them in the theatre. It’s part of the joy of programming - getting to see your favorite films presented in the best possible way.

What’s your advice for aspiring programmers?

It still shocks me that this is actually a profession. But I think it’s important to remember there’s a difference between a critic and programmer. It’s not our job to rip a film apart. The most interesting programmers are able to see things from a number of perspectives and shine a light on those films that need a champion. Ultimately, you’re trying to balance a few things. Giving audiences an opportunity to discover things and gain a deeper appreciation for cinematic arts. At the same time, you’re there to make sure the filmmaker gets the recognition they deserve for pouring everything they have into a film. It’s really hard to make films, and programmers who have made films realize this. Making sure filmmakers and audiences connect at the festival and have a memorable experience is the payoff a programmer hopes for. Watching hundreds and hundreds of films is just the hard work leading to that moment.

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Catch Alex's Documentary Selections for the 18th Calgary International Film Festival running September 20 - October 1. Tickets to all films are now on sale