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October 22, 2001 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: Vancouver Overcomes Obstacles In Record 20th Year; Middle East Doc Prize Winner Delivers

FESTIVALS: Vancouver Overcomes Obstacles In Record 20th Year; Middle East Doc Prize Winner Delivers "Promises"

by Jason Margolis and Maureen Prentice



(indieWIRE/ 10.22.01) -- The Vancouver International Film Festival (September 27 - October 12) celebrated its 20th anniversary with what felt like a marathon length incarnation, spotlighting a retrospective of past audience favorites and the largest selection of Canadian independent films ever assembled anywhere. There were a total of 96 Canadian films screened, 15 of which were Canadian fiction debuts, seven of which were documentaries and 60 of which were short films. In total, 217 features and 78 shorts from around the world screened. While world events, rainy weather, and a nasty flu bug tried to dampen the spirits of participants, the festival boasted record attendance at most events, and the greatest variety of social activities of its two decade history.


According to Festival Director Alan Franey, this year's event was the most successful to date, with Festival admissions passing the 140,000 mark. "The overwhelmingly positive audience ballots and comments indicate that despite the current global climate of anxiety and trauma, local audiences were not only able, but keen, to come together and enjoy the festival experience and the pursuit of art," said Franey. "Never was the festival's chartered mandate to 'increase the understanding of other nations through the art of cinema' more relevant and well supported."


The festival kicked off with a bit of a whimper as most out of town guests canceled travel plans in the wake of September 11th. Festival honorees such as Gena Rowlands and Brenda Blethyn were no shows, along with many of the planned speakers at the Trade Forum. However, local luminaries -- including casting director Coreen Mayrs and Steve Hegyes, Executive Producer of "Last Wedding" -- and hardy visitors like screenwriter John Frizell and Peter Broderick of Next Wave Films inspired the standing room only seminars. The trade forum was held at the start of the festival this year running from September 26 to 29. An ideal combination of creative content, business trends and networking opportunities, the 16th annual event showcased the latest trends in film and television production, with a special emphasis on global market influences.


Digital filmmaking was still the buzz at the festival and forum, with many workshops devoted to the subject. A number of the festival's most popular films were presented on state of the art digital projection systems.


The local film co-op, Cineworks Independent Filmmakers Society, organized a number of free seminars throughout the festival. Some of the topics included "First Features: A Digital Vs. Film Perspective" and "Full Frame: New Political Documentaries," which included Jill Sharpe, director of "Culturejam: Hijacking of Commercial Culture" (www.culturejamthefilm.com), Micha Peled, director of "Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes To Town," and Jason Da Silva, director of "Olivia's Puzzle," a documentary which explores a routine school day of two 7-year-old girls, both of Goan heritage: Olivia is raised in Ladner, British Columbia, while Reshma lives in Goa, India.


While Vancouver is better known as a hotbed of American based production, home to series such as "Dark Angel" and "Andromeda" and recent features like "Saving Silverman," "Cats & Dogs," and "Double Jeopardy," the city also hosts one of the most vibrant independent production communities in the world. The fruits of this community's labor were on ample display throughout the festival. Strangely, a majority of the Vancouver lensed projects explore the end of relationships -- including Andrew Currie's brooding kidnap film "Mile Zero" (next stop, Sao Paulo International Film Festival in Brazil then in the American Independents Competition at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival) to Carl Bessai's "Lola" (screening soon at the 52nd Berlinale), both featuring actor Sabrina Grdevich ("A.I."). Even short films, such as Cam Labine's award-winning "Room," dealt with the subject. The theme culminated in Bruce Sweeney's closing night gala "Last Wedding," in which no less than three couples broke up.


"Last Wedding," Sweeney's most accessible film to date, plays like an edgier Woody Allen film, utilizing his home Vancouver as a character much in the way Allen uses Manhattan. The film has stand out performances from local favorites Tom Scholte, Frida Betrani, Benjamin Ratner and Molly Parker. Another film with local favorites in the cast was "Come Together." Produced by one of its leads, Laura Harris ("The Faculty"), the film allowed for a star turn by Tygh Runyan. At the film's inaugural screening, Runyan spent most of the question and answer period doing cartwheels, while director Macpherson coerced the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" to his mom. Runyan was also the festival's poster boy, with his mug on ample display on brochures and the official guide.


The festival's usually popular Dragons & Tigers series of Asian films was considered a disappointment, both in terms of the attendance and the films themselves. The dark subject matter of many of the films apparently didn't appeal to festival-goers. Documentaries, comedies, and action films on the other hand were consistently sold out, with line ups around the block for the Dogma 95 comedy "Italian For Beginners," the French kung fu werewolf period piece "The Brotherhood of the Wolf," and the Dutch documentary on legendary musician Nick Drake, "A Skin Too Few." Local reviewers lauded praise on the pretentiously boring Czech film "Parallel Worlds," yet another exploration of break ups, while deriding Richard Linklater's "Tape." However, audience word of mouth corrected this misinformation, resulting in a sell out crowd for the second screening of Linklater's one room, mini DV production.


One of our personal highlights was the late edition Special Presentation of David Mamet's "Heist" at the Ridge Theater. This complex, noir-ish thriller was a trip, as each layer of a major gold heist is peeled away to reveal a devious counter plan underneath. Our other favorites included "Culturejam: Hijacking Commercial Culture," "Turning Paige," "Last Wedding," "Together (Tilsammans)," "Tape," "Mulholland Drive" and "The American Astronaut."


The festival's official awards were announced at the closing gala screening of Sweeney's "Last Wedding." Air Canada's People's Choice award for the most popular film (by audience ballot) went to "Promises," a moving documentary directed by B. Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro and Carlos Bolado. A previous winner of audience awards at festivals around the world, "Promises" views the complexities of the Middle East conflict through the eyes of seven Israeli and Palestinian children. Runner up was the opening gala film "Amelie," directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, which took the audience prize at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.


"Promises" also won the Diversity in Spirit Award which was presented by Hayne Wai, Manager for Policy Development in the Ministry of Community, Aboriginal and Women's Services. This award is given by a jury to the Festival film that best promotes the values of racial harmony.


The Federal Express award for the most popular Canadian film, also determined by audience ballot, was awarded to Vancouver director Linda Ohama for "Obaachan's Garden," a National Film Board of Canada produced documentary that was the festival's first sold out screening. Runner up was the 2001 Camera d'Or winner for best first feature, "Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)" by director Zacharias Kunuk. Also among the most popular, in order of voting: Anne Wheeler's "Suddenly Naked" (British Columbia), William Phillips' "Treed Murray" (Ontario), Jill Sharpe's "Culturejam: Hijacking Commercial Culture" (British Columbia), Jeff Macpherson's "Come Together" (British Columbia), Sturla Gunnarsson's "Rare Birds" (Newfoundland), and Andrew Currie's "Mile Zero" (British Columbia).


The Rogers Video Western Canada Screenwriters Award of $3,000 went to Calgary's Robert Cuffley and Jason Long for "Turning Paige," according to the jury, "for a script about family which is intelligent, convincing and deeply moving. We admired the writer's genuine understanding of their characters, their ability to develop a unique structure, and their willingness to face the full consequences of the story they set in motion." The award is a high-end computer and software package. The Telefilm Canada Award for Best Emerging Western Canadian Feature Film Director -- a cool $5,000 -- also went to Cuffley for "Turning Paige," an Alberta/New Brunswick co-production. The film has a first-class team of actors and handles some very sensitive material: denial of death and alcoholism.


The Telefilm Award for Best Emerging Director of a Western Canadian short or mid-length film went to Jeff Cunningham and Adam Locke-Norton for "10-Speed." Emerging director is an apt title for 17-year-old Cunningham, who just graduated high school. The award is accompanied by a $4,000.00 cash prize.


Taiwanese director Hsiao Ya-Chuan's debut feature "Mirror Image" won The Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema, a $5,000.00 cash award graciously sponsored by Brad Biranda. Special mentions were also given to three films: "Glowing, Glowing," a Japanese film by Horie Kei, "The Orphan of Anyang," a Chinese film by Wang Chao, and "Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in Daehakno," a South Korean film by Nam Ki-Woong.


Local actor Frida Betrani won the Women in Film and Video Artistic Merit Award for her acting career to date, capped by her lead performance in Bruce Sweeney's "Last Wedding." "The New Country" by Swedish director Geir Hansteen Jorgensen won the Chief Dan George Humanitarian Award, and The National Film Board Award for Best Documentary Feature went to "Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin" (Italy/Afganistan) by filmmakers Alberto Vendemmiata and Fabrizio Lazzaretti.


The party scene was surprisingly strong, with several events scheduled every night, including on Canadian Thanksgiving and Yom Kippur, the latter of which raised the ire of several prominent local filmmakers. Among the social highlights was the Vancouver Women In Film And Video Martini Madness, held for the second year in a row at Au Bar, where the friendly bouncers made sure no drunken filmmakers injured themselves while dancing. Guests included Lou Diamond Phillips, in town for his CBS series "Wolf Lake," and representatives from Canada's dozens of new digital specialty channels. Other kick ass soirees were the Rogers Telefund shindig at Cincin's, the "Mile Zero"/Canadian Perspectives launch at the Alibi Room, and the "Mulholland Drive"/Anniversary Gala, the only one of the festival's three galas that didn't run out of alcohol or kick everyone out at a Cinderella hour.


For more information on the Vancouver International Film Festival, please visit the official web site: <http://www.viff.org>.


[Jason Margolis and Maureen Prentice are producers with Vancouver's Jump Communications Inc.]

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