Surfing film festival reports from destinations far and wide these days is something like watching The Weather Channel: New York is frighteningly hot, Pusan, a touch too stormy. The once neutral topic -- weather -- now fits into the "If it bleeds, it leads" category. The Vancouver International Film Festival, this time around, got its rain a few days early, a local festival shuttle driver told me with a sense of foreboding. And though it's rained on many of my previous journeys up to Vancouver for its annual film festival, this time around, feeling the rain as a symbol of planetary catastrophe fit well with a paradigm shift that's hit this particular festival and quite a few others. As it turned out, a new Global Warming-worried environmental category took pride of place in the catalogue, replacing the Dragons & Tigers features as some of the first features (after galas and special presentations) highlighted for the public.
Last year, it was difficult not to notice just how environmentally focused world cinema was becoming, and three of the high profile Asian films in VIFF '06 featured plots that turned on atmospheric catastrophes of various sorts, with toxic fumes spraying in all directions and/or water flooding land in Bong Joon-Ho's "The Host," Tsai Ming-Liang's "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," and Jia Zhangke's "Still Life.'
This year, erratic weather patterns and toxic emissions got their very own category, and are competing for The Kyoto Planet Climate for Change Award, to be announced as the festival closes, Friday, October 12. The $25,000 juried prize will go to one of 11 films. The selections opened with a special presentation of "Unforeseen," Laura Dunn's artful and surprisingly educational story, a Sundance favorite with the names Redford and Malick attached, about the fight to preserve Austin's Barton Springs from the threats of runaway development. A few of the others in the category are Jiska Rickels' gorgeous "4 Elements," which moves from Siberia to Alaska to Germany and beyond, Feng Yan's "Bing Ai," about a willful protestor on the brink of being flooded out by China's Three Gorges Dam Project, and Oliver Hodge's "Garbage Warrior," which features a disbarred architect building eco-homes from trash.
Another of the Climate category's selections, the simply titled "About Water," was exactly that, "about water," the way that noir films are "about money" or romance films "about love" -- as masterfully shot as any great fiction feature, and as subtly observed. With water as his template, documentary filmmaker Udo Maurer moves through three distinct crises and observes their effects on human behavior. The monsoons submerging Bangladesh create instability to say the least, as great mounds of earth wash into the ocean and whole families float their homes to new destinations, blindly hoping for friendly reception. The now parched Aral Sea of Kazakhstan -- just half a century away from its era of fishing productivity -- now sees its neighbors struggling to survive by hopping trains to Moscow and vending small bags of smoked fish. And the climactic story -- of how the strictly rationed water allotments in one incredibly overpopulated Nairobi slum bring out the most severe of human behaviors -- includes vividly horrifying scenes of humans consuming the slimiest of trash, as well as a religious possession where water has the ability to electrify.
Nonfiction films weren't limited to the environmental category, of course. They leaked into every corner of the Vancouver programming, from Dragons & Tigers, where "Homeless FC" found shelter. It's the story of Hong Kong's homeless soccer club, who made it all the way to an indigent teams World Cup event in South Africa. The fest's Canadian Images had Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg" holding court, and the Cinema of our Time selections housed Brian De Palma's "Redacted," among other films. Spotlight on France included Barbet Schroeder's "Terror's Advocate," on Klaus Barbie and Saddam Hussein's lawyer, Jacques Verges.
And there were plenty of films left to populate the festival's Nonfiction and Nonfiction Features: Arts programming. The latter brought from Australia a compelling, if overlong "Forbidden Lies," Anna Broinowski's search for the truth behind the lies published as truth in the bestselling "memoir," Forbidden Love. The public was taken for a ride by one Norma Khouri, a.k.a. Norma Bagain Toliopoulos, who told the story of the "honor killing" of her best Jordanian friend by her family because she was romancing a Christian. As Broinowski's tirelessly tries to get to the bottom of Khouri's cons, the film borders on tedium at moments, but it offers a lesson in integrity for documentarians working with unreliable subjects: The director is never less than straightforward with her star about the purpose of the film, which is to verify her stories. As it turns out the pit of deception is bottomless, and the star is never less than outgoing in front of the camera as she spins her endless loop of creative half-truths and outright fabrications into a web she can't exactly escape.
And maybe there is an environmental twist to this one as well: Though this particular story may be as far from the festival's marquee environmental docs as it could be, the film's look at a book slamming a Muslim country that arrived -- and was well received by the public -- shortly before the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq documents nothing if not a poisoned world atmosphere.