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We've come a long way, baby.
That's the message Carl Meadows, founder and highly visible lead organizer of this weekend's Snakebite Film Festival, wants to get out to the peeps of the South Okanagan.
Meadows, executive director of Clinical Operations for Interior Health when he's not running festivals, conceived the event along with a group of friends and accomplices back in 2017 with multiple purposes in mind.
The first was to get films that might not normally be found at mainstream theatres in front of local eyeballs. Flicks that challenged the viewer, that tuned people in to diversity and tough life issues.
And one more thing. If a given film didn’t have a local connection, the festival wouldn't run it.
By the third annual Snakebite in February of 2019, when PentictonNow stood with Meadows at the front of a packed theatre, then a year later when we caught a high-energy drag show at Bad Tattoo Brewing in support of Festival #4 -- a drag show that included a performance by Meadows himself -- it was clear Snakebite was well on its way.
Back then the festival slogan was, "Awakening culture, uniting communities." Today, post-pandemic, that slogan remains. But so too does the unofficial tag line: "If you don't recoil, you're probably dead."
"We want people to sit in their seat and think 'Wow, this really gives me pause,'" said Meadows. "Our films should move you in some way."
Meadows also wants to clear up a minor misconception -- that Snakebite is a "gay" or "2SLGBTQIA+" festival. He says it isn't.
"One day someone asked me if this is an LGBTQ+ festival," he said. "And I asked them what that is. I don’t know what that means.
"Here's what I say. It's a festival about stories. For example, 'Supernova' (closing out the weekend Feb 5th at 4 pm at the festival's Landmark 7 Cinema home) is a story about two lovers. One gets dementia, and they go back to England to make sure they see their friends before his memory goes away.
"It happens to be that the couple are two men, but it’s not a 'gay film.' It's a story about love and dementia."
Indeed, added Meadows, the wrongful labeling of films can be dangerous.
"Where we're evolving," he said, "is that how we label films is really important. There's a discrimination associated when something is labeled 'gay' or 'Asian' or whatever.
"For example, 'Riceboy Sleeps' (Friday at 7 pm) is a film about a Korean immigrant to Vancouver. It's filmed in Vancouver. Her husband dies, and she has a son, and they're just trying to make ends meet and live as immigrants.
"It's a beautiful film, very emotional, but it was filmed in Vancouver. It's not an Asian film. It's a Canadian film."
Today, on the eve of the fifth festival, which kicks off Thursday with a 1950s-era red carpet gala at The Black Antler restaurant directly across the street from the theatre, Meadows said the organizing team is buzzing over how far they've come.
After all, Bones of Crows (a haunting Canadian-made feature movie that looks at this country's appalling residential school legacy through the eyes of a survivor) has sold right out. As has Riceboy Sleeps, and the opening gala. And everything else is on the precipice.
"The response has been incredible," said Meadows. "We have a vision and people have bought into it. And now we're seeing so many people come to a festival that might not otherwise go to a festival.
"And the response from people who wanted us to show their films this year was amazing. The next year, 2024, we'll probably grow up even more and actually do a call-out for films.
"So it’s really exciting."
But it's the reasons behind the success that has Meadows, who spent much of his life as a self-described "persistent activist for inclusion and diversity" in the lower mainland before moving to the Okanagan with his hubby Les Dick in 2016, that has him most psyched.
In short, and as we alluded at the start, he thinks Penticton's come a long way.
"Penticton's grown up, and that's what stands out the most for me," he said. "For an example, we did drag at the theatre for the promo. We had not one bad experience. Not one homophobe. People were wonderful.
"It's really come of age. There's a hunger here for the arts. There's a hunger for the festival. It was such an easy sell this year."
In fact, added Meadows, several people he knew from Vancouver have relocated in the past three years to Penticton, primarily for the culture.
"Who would want to live here if it was just a hockey town?" he asked. "Sure, it's a hockey town, but it's now also a film festival town. We've got people coming here from Albuquerque, New Mexico for this festival."
Fortunately for those who still want to get in on the action, not everything has sold out. Tickets still remain for three of the feature films and bonus events such as a Friday morning "Snakebite Wine Tour" and a noon Saturday "Social Media Marketing Workshop for Filmmakers." Head to the Eventbrite page here to read more and buy yours.
Beyond that, anyone with a festival pass or movie ticket gets a two-for-one pizza at sponsor Pizzeria Tratto during the event. Also at Tratto, a half-hour "Drag Slam" -- featuring the pairing of local fave Rez Daddy and Meadows as "Carlotta, Duchess of Skaha Lake" -- gets underway Thursday at 5 pm. Tratto reservations are required.
And there's a first-come-first-served "faint hope" line for all sold out shows. But "faint hope" means just that, so be prepared.
"Next year it'll be even bigger," said Meadows, "so anyone who wants in should definitely do so early."