Brenda Lieberman

Avenue Calgary’s 2009 Top 40 Under 40.

Job Title: Film Festival Programmer, Calgary International Film Festival and Calgary Underground Film Festival

Age: 35

When Brenda Lieberman sits in a darkened movie theatre, she isn’t watching the screen. She’s listening for every cheer, clap and snicker of the audience.

Each outburst is a tiny victory for the film festival programmer who courts filmmakers and negotiates with distributors to bring independent film to Calgary.

Lieberman loves movies. When she was 10, her parents signed the video store waiver allowing her to rent R-rated movies. She ran straight for the horror section and A Nightmare on Elm Street. And British director Danny Boyle’s dark comedy Shallow Grave was the first independent movie she watched over and over.

As a programmer, she watches hundreds of movies each year, but it’s the audience response to a perfectly chosen piece of celluloid that gets her most fired up.

“It’s the best feeling when you program a film you think is perfect for an audience and you can feel that excitement in the theatre,” says Lieberman. “There is a vibe that you can’t get by sitting at home and watching a movie.”

Lieberman has been chasing that movie-theatre buzz as a programmer for 10 years. She’s currently the lead programmer of the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF).

Her Late Show series of high-impact, fast-paced, over-the-top films is a top draw of the festival, partly because Lieberman has developed a following of film watchers interested in her particular cinematic palate.

“People follow programmers just like they buy the albums of a certain musician or the writing of a particular author,” says Lieberman. “I hope that I am starting to showcase a style of programming that is unique for Calgary and that people trust me enough to show up to a movie just because I selected it.”

This past year, Lieberman took on the World and Canadian film categories for the CIFF, which means she spent months researching, vetting and negotiating to secure screenings for her selections.

She is at the top of Calgary’s programming pyramid now, but the path to this point was not always clear. Along the way, she had to create opportunities for herself out of sheer tenacity and relentless volunteering.

Lieberman volunteered for eight years as the programmer for the Fairy Tales Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Calgary. She also helped organize the fundraiser that led to the creation of the CIFF in 1999 and continued to work for free with the festival before landing a paying gig in 2004.

But, perhaps most impressively, in 2003, she helped create the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) as another outlet for unconventional cinema. As CUFF heads into its seventh year next April, Lieberman may finally be able to hire herself as a paid employee.

“The goal is to increase the amount of independent film in Calgary,” says Lieberman. The paycheque can come later.

Why she’s the top: She invests her time making sure Calgarians have access to the best independent films through her work with the Calgary International Film Festival and by founding the Calgary Underground Film Festival.

The key to her success: Audience engagement is the barometer by which Lieberman measures her success. “You need butts in the seats to validate why you exist as a festival,” she says.

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