|A hush fell over the audience that October evening in 1950. The projector whirred into action, the screen lit up and the sights and sounds of life filled the stillness of city hall. So it was that the first Yorkton International Documentary Film Festival became a reality.
The festival was the brain-child of James Lysyshyn, oft-times referred to in the years to follow as the “father of the Yorkton International Documentary Film Festival”. Lysyshyn was a young National Film Board field officer at the time. He had been stationed in Saskatchewan with a mandate to set up film councils in his area of jurisdiction, which after a time came to include Yorkton. Hearing about an arts festival being held in Europe, as well as music and science festivals in other parts of Canada, he came up with the idea for a film festival. At the time Yorkton had a very active film council organized by Dave Sharples, who had been a wartime projectionist. Lysyshyn then decided to pitch his idea to them.
The first meeting with the council met with little success. The council members felt there were not enough new films being produced in Canada. Lysyshyn didn’t take no for an answer. He requested a meeting with the council the next month and touted his new idea for an international documentary film festival. The council liked the idea and the Yorkton International Documentary Film Festival was born. It was decided to hold the festival in two years due to the time involved in soliciting entries from foreign countries.
|Those first two years were busy. The rules and regulations of the festival had to be established and printed up, correspondence was entered into with embassies throughout Canada requesting that they solicit entries from their countries. All this work was accomplished by community volunteers. Key to the first festival becoming a reality was Miss Nettie Kryski, who was the secretary of the council and handled all the correspondence between the festival and the various embassies. She was a tireless supporter of the festival for its first thirty years.
By charging a small fee to each group that wanted a film shown, the Council was able to buy its own projector and screen.
Entries for the first festival, in 1950, came from India, Brazil, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, the United States, and Britain. Canada had many entries, including five from Saskatchewan.
The Royal Winter Fair by the National Film Board was selected by the audience as the winning film at that first festival. Second and third place went to entries from India and the United States.
In 1956, for the first time, the winning entries were chosen by a panel of three adjudicators. The panel members were Frank Morris, a film critic for the Winnipeg Free Press; Gordon Campbell, Adult Education Director of the Saskatchewan Education Dept.; and, Professor A. J. Warick, Adult Education Supervisor, University of Saskatchewan.
Frank Morris felt that Yorkton should have a grand prize that would become a respected symbol of the Festival. Because Yorkton was surrounded by wheat fields and wheat was a major product of the prairies, he suggested the grand prize be called “The Golden Sheaf”. This idea met with unanimous approval and the Winnipeg Brass Company was commissioned to design and cast the first Golden Sheaf.
The first Golden Sheaf was awarded in 1958 to a Czechoslovakian film called “Inspiration.”
The late-fifties were an exciting era for the festival. Delegations from West Germany and the Soviet Union visited Yorkton. The latter causing more than a few anxious moments for the local detachment of RCMP.
Tragedy struck in 1957 when a fire destroyed Stan Stakiw’s Avalon Studios, which housed the Yorkton Film Council’s headquarters. The council lost two projectors and 14 films. Seventy-one NFB films were also lost. A plea by the ever-stalwart council brought in donations from local organizations. Booking and storage of the films was taken over by the Yorkton Public Library and the NFB loaned a projector and screen to the council.
The strength and endurance of Yorkton’s Film Council was rewarded in the same year when it received a special award at the 9th Annual Canadian Film Awards, “in recognition of its outstanding International Film Festival, which demonstrates the contribution of the film council movement in Canada.”
Unfortunately, in 1969, the Yorkton Film Council ceased to exist, due in part to a lack of new members and a perceived lack of usefulness.
A few people, however, were determined that the festival would continue in Yorkton. In 1971, the Yorkton International Film Festival Society was established.
In 1977 the international competition was dropped and the entries were limited to Canadian short film and it was renamed the Yorkton Short Film Festival. The fears of the original society members, that this limited format would not be popular, were unfounded. The 15th festival in 1978 drew a record 250 entries.
Along with the new format, the council decided to make the festival a yearly event. To symbolize this decision, a new Golden Sheaf award, cast in bronze, was adopted.
In 1981 the festival added a video category and has since been known as The Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival.
Throughout it’s many years of existence, the Yorkton festival has continued to be successful, due in large part to the many faithful volunteers, who have stood by through thick and thin. It is this indomitable spirit that makes this festival and others of its kind something we can all be proud of as Canadians.
The festival now…
Today, the festival is housed in a modern building in the heart of Yorkton. The office is staffed by a full-time Executive Director and Artistic Programmer, with part-time clerical staff being hired during the months leading up to the festival each spring. Of course, as throughout it’s history, volunteers are an integral part of the Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival.
In recent times, the festival has been visited by some very interesting Canadians – Bruno Gerusi, Gordon Pinsent, Garry Morse to name a few. Awards have been garnered by the likes of Cordell Barker, who was twice nominated for Oscars, and Frederic Bach, who went on to capture two Oscars for his work.
As with most cultural events in Canada, the Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival is facing fiscal restraints. Much of the festival’s traditional funding is being cut back, forcing the Board of Directors to seek alternate sources. However, as ever, the festival’s supporters are undaunted by this hardship – we’ve been around for 60 years, we’ll be around another 60! This attitude typifies the Pioneer Spirit that is so common on the Canadian prairies.