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Vancouver Film Fest Forges On Despite Uncertainty About Festival’s Future

Vancouver Film Fest Forges On Despite Uncertainty About Festival's Future

It hadn’t really rained on Granville Street since the end of July. But few were complaining back on September 22nd as the Vancouver International Film Festival began for the 31st time to a clear forecast.

Few festivals benefit from sunny skies as much as VIFF. Whether you bus in from over the bridge or set up shop in a hotel a stone’s throw from Yaletown, the festival’s four main venues are all within a few blocks. Once safely within the confines of the close-knit theater circle, there’s no need for public transportation, even if you’re hopping from screening to screening at different locations. The farthest you’d have to walk is a maximum distance of less than a kilometer.

Being in VIFF for the closing week is a bit of an atypical experience. Ending the festival on a Friday is almost a necessary choice, as finishing on a Saturday or Sunday would effectively stretch the proceedings out to a third weekend. In the week following closing night, the Vancity Theatre does replay the more popular films of the festival, but having those demand screenings outside the official purview of the festival helps to curb the fatigue from a festival that already stretches two and a half weeks.

But even with a festival whose last five days happen to be weekdays, with a lineup that featured a number of previously-premiered titles, some of the standouts were the non-feature, non-shorts elements of the program. “The Grub-Stake Revisited,” a live production that premiered at the Available Light Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon, featured a retooling of the 1923 Nell Shipman film “The Grub-Stake.” In addition to the traditional live performance of a newly-composed score, the distinguishing feature was a live voiceover featuring dialogue taken exclusively from the works of William Shakespeare.

Another key late-festival offering was the “City Lens” program, a series of short films commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Company in the 1960s. All featuring the city landscape in key ways, these shorts (among them both experimental and traditionally narrative offerings) were played on Vancouver sets as part of various evening television series, but rarely given the chance to play on movie screens, if ever. In some cases, as with Kelly Duncan, the editor of Ron Kelly’s 1959 short “The Seeds,” these shorts programs (continued at various points, year-round) afford the filmmakers the first public chance to see their work in over a half-century. Even though this work was produced for TV broadcast, it represents a period of BC filmmaking that existed before many scripted series were locally produced. The “City Lens” shorts were shown in their existing condition, without the benefit of restoration. If VIFF expands the historical aspects of the festival in the future, this is one area that might benefit from a higher, extended profile.

As the small screen products of decades past made their appearance towards the end of the festival, VIFF’s Film + TV Forum focused on current and future productions. This year, the annual series of panels coincided with the start of the festival, making for an opening weekend that targeted both cinephiles and aspiring industry professionals. Four days of panels and Q&As catered to an audience eager to gain insight from writers, producers, directors and executives alike.

With the nation’s French heritage, there is an importance placed on cinema from that country, whether it’s a focus on French productions or films that gained new life out of Cannes. VIFF also devoted significant portions of this year’s slate to Asian cinema (boasting one of the largest assemblances of Asian films outside of the continent) to an environmental-themed series. There were connections between programming blocks that were less explicit, including one trend that seemed emerge during the last week: films dealing with parental reconciliation and redemption. Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” prominently featuring members of her own family, played to a packed house, with many standby hopefuls denied entrance. Jonathan Holiff’s documentary “My Father and the Man in Black,” chronicling both the career and troubled family life of Jonathan’s father Saul Holiff, played under VIFF’s Special Presentation banner. “Becoming Redwood,” Jesse James Miller’s story of an 11-year-old trying to use golf to reunite his parents, was a big winner at awards night, capturing the audience award for Most Popular Canadian Film and nabbing honorable mention from the festival’s Canadian Images jury.

But the predominant issue throughout the 2012 version of the festival was the doomed fate of the Granville 7, a septet of screens housed at a complex on the street that shares its name. There are a number of other theaters in the immediate area with the square footage to compensate for the lost space, but the year-round festival-friendly atmosphere of the Granville 7 served as a independent film sweet spot, an atmosphere that would be difficult to recreate with a more traditional multiplex. Local newspapers seized on comments made by festival officials hinting that VIFF might be irrevocably crippled by the 70% loss in guaranteed screening space. But optimism seems to be winning out with other public shows of support for the near future. As Board of Directors Chair Dave Hewitt remarked on Friday to the closing night audience when discussing the possible death knells sounded by the local press, “Let me assure you that there couldn’t be anything farther from the truth.”

If Vancouver can survive this hit, piecing together a number of replacement venues while still maintaining the intimate, no-need-for-a-rental-car spirit, there’s room to establish itself as a premiere champion of Canadian film. With the mammoth Toronto Film Festival assuming a life of its own, Vancouver seems to be in a prime position to offer a full, diverse slate to those festivalgoers who are less keen on premieres and more focused on absorbing a wide swath of cinematic offerings with a local flair. As screen ads that ran before each screening described, “chances are good you’ll get to see the film you want.” In the festival’s own admission, nearly three-quarters of screenings still have tickets available near showtime. Erring on the side of more screenings in a spread-out schedule gives patrons some helpful flexibility in on-the-fly planning, as does the festival’s dedicated iPhone app. A new ticketing system this year also offered those with festival passes the opportunity to have priority for the most popular screenings without making it impossible for the general British Columbia public to also participate.

One of the events to which the public proved to be an eventual beneficiary was the closing night gala revolved around the traditional awards ceremony and a screening of Leos Carax’ “Holy Motors,” a cinematic potpourri that, as festival director Franey pointed out, seemed only appropriate for closing a film festival. While no official word came down about Granville 7 replacements, VIFF could do worse than to have more than the occasional screening on the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Art’s fifty-foot screen.

As the understandably ambitious film wowed some and perplexed others to the point of frustration, the precipitation that had eluded the area for many weeks finally made its triumphant return. Although some ominous clouds had foretold that the impending rain may arrive with the close of the festival, it didn’t come until the Amidst a sea of eager and helpful festival volunteers, perhaps the kindest of them all was Mother Nature herself. 

Time will tell if the comparable powers controlling Vancouver theaters will be as accomodating. Despite what happens in the intervening months, it’s impossible to imagine the 32nd edition of VIFF not exisiting in some substantive form. As Hewitt concluded his remarks on Friday, “As long as filmmakers from around the world keep making films, we’ll be here to show them to you.”

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