Mountain Views and 300+ Films On Display at 22nd Vancouver Festival
by Deborah Sacharoff
A few clouds and raindrops of the otherwise sunny early-autumn weather didn't dampen the spirits of the more than 150,000 filmgoers who attended the 22nd annual Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), which ran September 25 to October 10. Vancouver, Canada's third largest city, a world-class beauty with startling mountain views peeking in between glittering skyscrapers, recently won its bid to co-host the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Hopefully smart film lovers will get to this festival far sooner than that. A dream for filmgoers with crunched schedules and limited trekking time, VIFF now features seven screening rooms conveniently located under one roof, at the renovated Granville Theatre, with two of three other theatres a few blocks away. Here those with only minutes between films can trade in their popcorn and gummy bears for quick international treats such as gyros, crepes, or kebabs, while watching the world parade outside on Granville Street.
More than 2,000 filmgoers celebrated among the fish and otters at the October 10th closing gala screening of Charles Martin Smith's "The Snow Walker," followed by the awards ceremony held at the Vancouver Public Aquarium, where many agreed that the 2003 edition, themed "Same Planet, Different Worlds" went "swimmingly." "The Snow Walker" centers around the story of a pilot and an Inuit woman in their struggle to survive in the cold 1953 Arctic. At the closing party, eyes were drawn to the closing film's stars, Annabella Piugattuk, and Vancouver's Barry Pepper. In sharp contrast to the traditional Inuit parka she wore in the film, 20-year-old Piugattuk, a native of Igloolik, Nunavut, (a village of 1,170 people) wore a black Yumi Eto creation, a silk organza mosaic halter-top with an embroidered skirt and silk shawl. VIFF, not known as one of the top five world film fests, is excellent for the many things it does best. Known as "the biggest showcase of Canadian film in the world," the festival featured a Canadian Images series including 97 Canadian films, among them 32 features, four mid-length, and 54 shorts with three Special Presentations.
With so many Canadian actors well known for their enormous talents (Anna Paquin, Sarah Polley, Ben Ratner, Mollie Parker, Catherine O'Hara, Brendan Fraser, Molly Parker... even Mary Pickford), VIFF has become an ever-greater venue for discovering new actors, directors, and filmmakers from the country's growing creative pool. Kicking off the Canadian series was Scott Smith's Saskatchewan/Ontario feature "Falling Angels," a witty, character-driven drama about a dysfunctional family starring Miranda Richardson. In addition to its annual programs, "Dragons and Tigers: The Cinemas of East Asia," "Canadian Images" and "Nonfiction features," VIFF this year added two unique and successful series to the mix: "Latin Music: from Fiesta to Fado" and "Los Angeles Plays Itself."
As director Thom Andersen points out in the film about his hometown "Los Angeles Plays Itself," the city of Los Angeles ironically is rarely the subject of films. Played to packed houses, the film, detailing drive-ins, gas stations, film history, and Hollywood, examines LA from a social and political context. The VIFF film series "Los Angeles Plays Itself" included several other films from France and the U.S. from the '50s to present day depicting LA in its many forms.
World music was hot this year, with 18 films covering music or dance. Special guest Jocelyn Ajami packed the house and charmed audiences with her film "Queen of the Gypsies: A Portait of Carmen Amaya." Passion poured out of every note in Dionyssis Gregoratos' beautiful music documentary on Greek work songs, "Hail, Proud and Immortal Labour." Colin Browne brought "Linton Garner: I Never Say Goodbye," a tribute and moving portrait of jazz pianist Linton Garner, the brother of Errol Garner, for its world premiere. Latin Music from Fiesta to Fado was a special feature this year, including the musical styles of fado, samba, opera, bolero, rumba, bolero, flamenco, Cuban "doo-wop," tango, rembetiko, trova, and danzon. Artists included Bola de Nieve, Antonio Machin, Gato Perez, Los Zafiros; legendary Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe and Argentinean classical pianist Martha Argerich. As festival director Alan Franey noted, these are "the most authentic practitioners of today or the 'legends' themselves -- not the Americanized or popularized or commercial later versions of those legends, but the 'originals.'"
In the Canadian Images series, Pete McCormack's "See Grace Fly," and John Cardigan's "People Say I'm Crazy," two films addressing mental illness and schizophrenia, received lengthy standing ovations and were followed by personally moving Q&A's from filmgoers with personal, professional, or intimate family experiences with the issues. Special presentations in the series also included Robert Pelage's "The Far Side of the Moon"; Jean-Francois Polio's "Seducing Doctor Lewis"; and Isabel Coixet's "My Life Without Me." Locally, Mort Ransen from nearby Saltspring Island brought "Bastards" for its world premiere, an amusing dialogue between a backwoods retired baby boomer architect and a zealous young female social activist who won't stand for any complacency. Sarah Polley appeared in three films at VIFF: Isabel Coixet's "My Life Without Me," Peter Wellington's "Luck," and Thom Fitzgerald's "The Event."
Vancouverite Ben Ratner, who wrote, directed, and starred in "Moving Malcolm" (which first screened at Montreal, receiving Special Jury mention), also acted in two other films at VIFF, Pete McCormack's "See Grace Fly" and Gary Burns' "A Problem With Fear" or Laurie's "Anxiety Confronting the Escalator." Commenting on "Moving Malcolm," Ratner said, "My friends, family, and collaborators sat in the sold-out theatre with me at the Vancouver premiere and laughed and cried at all the right parts. I've been anticipating that night since I started writing the film six years ago, and wasn't disappointed." On the street, word traveled fast about great films and festival surprises. Some popular North American premieres included Marek Koterski's "The Day of the Wacko" (Poland), Károly Makk's "Long Weekend in Pest and Buda" (Hungary), Raoul Ruiz's "That Day" (France/Switzerland), and Alexander Sokurov's "Father and Son" (Germany/Russia).
The September 25th opening gala featured Denis Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions," which was well liked by many, but took no prizes (as it did at both Toronto and Cannes). Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World," starring Isabella Rossellini, screened at the anniversary gala on October 4. While some filmgoers at the closing gala said that this year was "maybe the best ever," individually others commented that though they saw a lot of "very good" films, there were more in other years that "completely wowed" them. Very popular films at VIFF included Mikael Håfström's "Evil"; Kitano Takeshi's "Zatoichi"; Lone Scherfig's "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself"; Adolfo Aristarain's "Common Ground"; Aparna Sen's "Mr. & Mrs. Iyer"; Jonathan Karsh's "My Flesh and Blood"; Paolo Briguglia's "El Alamein: The Line of Fire"; and "The Barbarian Invasions."
Miwa Nishikawa's "Hebi Ichigo" (Wild Berries) may have been overlooked by the jury, but audience responses to the young writer/director's feature film, which previously played at Sarajevo and New York, was completely enthusiastic; many seemed to be in awe of her skill in creating an in-depth but comic look at a dysfunctional family. "The Story of the Weeping Camel," a much-talked-about film despite its late addition to the schedule, was directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni. After seeing Alessandro Calosci's popular film "The Best of Youth," which played for six hours broken in two parts, one audience member said, "The length didn't matter. I left feeling passionate, exhilarated, and completely energized." So many documentaries, both in and out of the Non-Fiction Features series, were great: "The Century of the Self"; "Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs -- The Iraqi Connection"; "The Day My God Died"; "A Great Wonder"; "From Harling Point"; "Al-Jazeera Exclusive"; and "Wildness," to name just a few.
Marcelo Pineyro's "Kamchatka" (Argentina/Spain) won the The Air Canada people's choice award for most popular film. The Federal Express award for most popular Canadian film went to Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's "The Corporation." Runner-up was Trenton Carlson's "The Delicate Art of Parking." The Citytv Western Canada Feature Film Award went to Nathaniel Geary for "On the Corner," a story of two siblings struggling with drug abuse and the rough life of Vancouver's East Side. The Keystone Award (for best young western Canadian director of a short film) went to Jesse McKeown for "The Big Charade." Thom Anderson's "Los Angeles Plays Itself" won the National Film Board Award for best documentary feature. Gina Chiarelli received The Women in Film and Video Vancouver Artistic Merit Award for her acting role in "See Grace Fly." John Cadigan won The Chief Dan George Humanitarian Award for "People Say I'm Crazy." China's Diao Yinan won the annual Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema for his film "Uniform"; the jury, noting that the film "in short, is about the masks we wear as people, and the way in which lies can sometimes bring us to a place deeper than truth." Gan Xiao's "The Only Sons," in Vancouver for its world premiere, received a special jury citation for its "visually and emotionally rich evocation of life in a rural Chinese village no longer immune to the push-and-pull of religion and politics." Chugoku Shoichi received a special jury citation for his film "815," which jurors described as "a fearless critique of a contemporary Japan paralyzed by its imperialist legacy."
Earlier in the festival, special guests and programs at VIFF's Film and Television and Trade forum included an interview with Stan Lee ("Spiderman") and a workshop on adaptation with screenwriters Jim Uhls ("Fight Club") and Eric Axel Weiss ("Buffalo Soldiers").
With 324 films playing, journalists, festival programmers, and industry reps didn't have time to explore the lush greenery of Vancouver's Stanley Park, the beaches of English Bay, or the charming neighborhoods that this city offers -- save that for another time. Festival director Alan Franey, commenting on the nature of VIFF, describes the fest as being "opposite to Hollywood studio fare." With its roster of diverse films, VIFF, with its incredibly intelligent, dedicated, charming, and organized group of volunteers and staff, is one of the best international festivals that, as Franey notes, has its "first priority to filmmakers."