FESTIVALS: Vancouver Takes "rollercoaster," Dogme 95, and Kid-Themed Pics
by Jason Margolis and Maureen Prentice
The 18th edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival found the event at a crossroads, attempting to serve the needs of local cinephiles eager for their yearly dose of world cinema, while also placating the city's growing motion picture production community. It succeeded, as always, screening well over three hundred features and shorts from seventy-five countries during its seventeen day run from September 24 to October 10. This year the event headquarters were moved to the Crown Plaza Hotel Georgia and new screening venues were added which included The Blinding Light!! Cinema and Cafe ("North America's only full-time devoted underground cinema") and the Van East Cinema on funky Commercial Drive.
Festival winners were presented on October 9th prior to the Festival's Closing Night Gala screening of Cuba's "Life is To Whistle." Winner of the Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography awards as well as the International Critics prize at the 1998 International Festival of New Latin American Cinema (Havana), renowned director Fernando Pérez ("Madagascar") offers a vibrant, surreal look at millennial Havana.
The Federal Express Award for Most Popular Canadian Film went to Vancouver filmmakers Scott Smith and Connie Dolphin for their feature "rollercoaster" while the Air Canada Award for Most Popular Film went to American documentary film "Genghis Blues." Written and directed by Roko Belic, who produced it with his brother Adrian, the film is a compelling tale of the power of music to unite people across cultural and geographical boundaries. "Genghis Blues" also won the Chief Dan George Humanitarian Award. The Telefilm Canada Award for Best Emerging Director of a Feature or Mid-length Film from Western Canada was awarded to Terrance Odette for the film "Heater," while filmmakers Michelle Ryan and Jessica Salo won the Telefilm Canada Award for Best Emerging Director of a Short from Western Canada for their film "Pride." Odette will receive a $5,000 prize while Ryan and Salo receive $4,000.
"Heater," filmed in desolate Winnipeg, tells the story of two homeless Winnipeg men trying to raise money for the rent by exchanging a baseboard heater. The jury praised Odette "for capturing the chill and desolation of the urban landscape, and for portraying with honesty and heart the journey of these two men, who in the midst of a desperate situation are resourceful and determined to survive." The jury also gave a special citation to the two leads of "Heater," Gary Farmer and Stephen Ouimette, "for their powerful and nuanced performances worthy of winning an Academy Award." Odette also won the Rogers Award for the Best Screenplay of a Western Canadian Film, consisting of a computer and software.
The National Film Board of Canada awarded "Megacities," Michael Glowegger's visually arresting tour of the underbellies of some of the world's teeming metropolises, with its Best Documentary Feature Award. "Village of Idiots," a short animation of a Jewish folktale by Vancouver playwright John Lazarus, won the NFB Best Animated Film prize. The Alcan Dragon and Tiger's Award for Young Cinema went to a playful and inventive debut feature by Japan's Hayakawa Wataru entitled "7/25".
Vancouver is a cinema city, and sell-out crowds could be assured for the most obscure foreign films. However, riots nearly broke out at the screenings for former Vancouverite Gough Lewis' documentary "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story" which detailed (thankfully, none too graphically) the inner workings of the porno star who broke the record for "The World's Biggest Gang Bang" by having sex with 251 men in ten hours.
At the other end of the spectrum, local filmmaker Mark Achbar had men squirming in their seats during the footage of a sex change operation featured in his documentary "Two Brides And A Scalpel," a video diary on Canada's first legally married lesbian couple. According to Achbar "It is the true story of boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy becomes girl." Although, "Two Brides..." could easily be ghettoized for its gay theme, it actually deals with a universal issue in relationships: how much does a person have to change before you stop loving them?
In addition to "Two Brides...", the festival hosted a number of world premieres, including Manop Udomdej's "Beyond Forgivin'" (Thailand), Craig Baldwin's "Spectres of the Spectrum," Lisa F. Jackson's "Life Afterlife" (USA), and Miike Takashi's grisly "Audition" (Japan), one of many horrors in the Dragons and Tigers component of Asian cinema.
Several Canadian features also debuted at the festival, including James Dunnison's "Stuff," Daniel Yoon's "Post Concussion," and locally produced fare: "T'lina: The Rendering of Wealth" by Barb Cranmer and "DayDrift" by Ryan Bonder. Calgary's John Hazlett attended for the world premiere of his directorial debut "Bad Money," which stars Graham Greene and Karen Sillas. Best quote of the festival goes to Hazlett overheard in a debate over digital video versus film: "When people got microwaves, they didn't stop using their ovens."
One of the major themes of this year's festival was youth, a subject duly noted in several of the Canadian features, such as Scott Smith's "rollercoaster," Lea Pool's "Set Me Free" and Reg Harkema's "A Girl Is A Girl." In a striking sub-theme, both Pool and Harkema's films wholeheartedly paid tribute to Jean-Luc Godard, either in content or form.
After picking up an award at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, director Carl Bessai brought his squeegee kid drama "Johnny" to his new home of Vancouver. "Johnny" was the first Canadian film to attempt to maintain the code of Dogme 95, but it was soon followed by Marc Retailleau's "Noroc," which also screened at the festival.
"As a Canadian filmmaker, you have limited resources, that's why Dogme has been embraced in this country," noted Bessai. "Canada has a strong documentary tradition, and documentary by definition is to arrive at the scene and do nothing to manipulate the environment, much like Dogme. By putting yourself into a reduced series of circumstances, you're forced to become extremely creative. A lot of the Vancouver films show a skill at working with their limitations. Scott Smith's 'rollercoaster' reduces everything down to one location. It's not Dogme, but it got great performances from the actors."
Another Canadian feature distinguished by its strong performances was "My Father's Angel," a family drama about the psychological scars haunting survivors of the Yugoslavian conflict. "rollercoaster" and "My Father's Angel" shared a cast member in rising Vancouver talent Brendan Fletcher, who popped into town sporting a shaved head for his latest role in a film co-starring Sarah Polley. Although still in his teens, Fletcher has already been nominated for a Gemini award (Canada's equivalent to an Emmy), and was also seen in the Anniversary Night gala film, Jeremy Podeswa's "The Five Senses" (picked up for U.S. distribution in Toronto by Fine Line Features.)
The festival's three galas, Opening Night, Anniversary Night and Closing Night, were packed full of a mix between industry and general public. This year VIFF organizers got a little creative in their venue selection, holding the galas at the Vancouver Aquarium, the Law Courts Building and the Robson Street Library Foyer, respectively. Filmmakers also had the opportunity to schmooze at the numerous get-togethers sponsored by various funders, organizations, and film companies, the most popular being the soirees hosted by Rogers Telefund and Vancouver Women In Film and Television. The festival is so low key anyone could have easily approached producer Robert Lantos and actor Deborah Kara Unger, in town promoting their three hour epic, "Sunshine," or director Bill Forsyth with his follow-up to "Gregory's Girl" aptly titled "Gregory's Two Girls."
The festival's Trade Forum, moved this year to the Robson Square Conference Centre, hosted several notable directors on its panels, including Doug Liman, Alexander Payne, Jeremy Podeswa, Monika Treut, Bennett Miller, Bruce Beresford, and the Farrelly brothers, to name but a few. Other seminar topics included: making films digitally with Peter Broderick of Next Wave Films, the mandates of acquisitions executives, and the role of the musical composer in dramatic filmmaking.
The only sour note of the festival was an extremely annoying trailer preceding screenings starring claymation icons Gumby and Pokey. While the trailer was intended to advertise mutual funds, most festival patrons assumed it was for a new Gumby and Pokey series on television, and were baffled as to its presentation at the festival. This confusion, combined with the most grating music ever to emanate from a cinema's surround sound system, left audiences eager for one of the projector accidents that plagued last year's festival to make a brief return appearance.
[Jason Margolis and Maureen Prentice are partners in Vancouver's Jump Communications Inc., a company with several music videos and short films to its credit.]