Tony Sheppard founded the Anchorage International Film Festival (AIFF) in 2001 and continues to select and solicit films for the feature narrative program. During his first year of organizing the event, he jokingly said, “Our operating budget is less than the LA Fest spent on letterhead last year.”
Nearly ten years later, AIFF remains the only multi-genre international film event in the state, which encompasses a landmass of over a million square miles and a population of nearly 700,000 people. Attendance went from about 2,000 in 2001 to over 9,000 in 2009. Hundreds of volunteers and dozens of sponsors join forces in making the event more successful every year.
AIFF grew quickly in 2008 when its premier venue, the Bear Tooth Theatrepub, expanded festival programming from four days to ten days. A year later, it added four more days and AIFF extended the festival to a full two weeks.
Highlights over the years include 2009’s world premiere of the Australian film, Birthday, which went on to the Cannes Independent Film Festival where its lead actor, Natalie Eleftheriadis, won the Best Actor award. Both she and the film’s writer/director James Harkness attended their film’s world debut at AIFF.
The same year, AIFF screened the Russian musical, Hipsters, on opening night. The film drew a sold-out audience through several screenings at the 400-seat theater. Shortly after it showed in Anchorage, it became the Russian nominee for a Golden Globe Award.
These successes came after support from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science allowed AIFF to bring five filmmakers to the festival in 2008, including Jan Louter of the Netherlands, whose film, The Last Days of Shismaref, chronicles the lives and views of Alaskans in a community impacted by erosion caused by rising sea levels. The film packed the house several times over and drew a broad audience, from elders born in coastal villages to urban Alaskans and visiting filmmakers.
That same year, a narrative feature set in Fairbanks called “Chronic Town” told the story of a messed up cab driver with a drug problem.
Those two films, along with several others, marked the emergence of the truly Alaska-centric Snowdance program, which bloomed in 2009 when 27 films were screened in all genres, from the humorous documentary, Paddle to Seattle, and the Alaska-produced narrative feature, Godspeed, to the animated Frozen Shorts and the true story of a child in search of answers in About Face. Snowdance also gained a committed sponsor that year — a trifecta of Anchorage restaurants with some of the same owners: The Spenard Roadhouse, Sacks Cafe and Restaurant, and Snow City Cafe.
Though previously merged with the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association from 2004 through 2008, AIFF established itself as a 501(c) 3 organization in April 2009.