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The 2005 Vancouver International Film Festival - A Primer

VIFF 2005 - Sep. 29 to Oct. 14 -
by Jason Whyte

Well look, here I am again. The 24th Annual Vancouver Film Festival will be fully underway starting Thursday September 29th and running all the way until October 14th. I will be in the absolute thick of it all, going on a vacation all over the world without leaving the confines of the rainy downtown city. If your are a Vancouverite and love movies, you belong at this festival. For non Vancouverites who are the "flick buffs" this is one festival that brings together so many films from all over the world that you would be damned to not hop the next flight here. This wonderful but much underrated festival -- which uses several of the downtown Vancouver cinemas as their official venues -- brings cinema and community together in a way that very few other festivals can accomplish.

The festival kicks off on Thursday night with a gala opening screening of Deepa Mehta's "Water" (which also opened the Toronto Film Festival early in September) and closes with a screening of The Dardenne Brother's "L'enfant" which won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Both films are screening at the Vogue, an 1100 seat behemoth that has more than enough room for festivalgoers. This year also marks the grand opening of the Vancouver International Film Centre, which houses an ultra-comfortable 185 seat cinema along with a large reception area as well as becoming the new home offices for the festival.

In-between the gala presentations, there are 500 screenings of over 300 features, mid-lengths and shorts and a whole lot to do; not only do parties pop up from time to time, the festival's annual Trade Forum, which brings together industry professionals to discuss their secrets of the industry to help aspiring filmmakers find their way into the business, is running until the weekend at the new Vancity Film Centre. It is a real chance for film buffs to rub sholders with the people who work in the business.

Prior to the festival, there were a few events happening. Tuesday the 27th brought us the Red Carpet Gala and Brightlight Pictures' Red Carpet Gala bash which brought so many industry people, actors, filmmakers and "in the know" folk that my head is still spinning as I write this. Guests such as Gil Bellows, John Rhys Davies, Chris Kataan and local actors like Jane McGregor, Aubrey Nealon ("A Simple Curve") , Brendan Fletcher and many many more. With special thanks to publicist Rory Richards who helped put together the event, it was an evening that really "rolled out the red carpet" as it were for the sake of giving people in the biz to come together.

But for now, I must return to the films. Here is a look at some of the movies that I have sampled prior to the start of the festival. You will be seeing more coverage and commentary on the competing films as the festival progresses. (Please note that fellow EFC/HBS writer Greg Ursic will be posting an article with more capsule film reviews later this week, so be on the lookout!)

Behind The Mirror (3/5) -- Here is a nice little curiosity from India that reminds me more of the days of Satayjit Ray and the films of small, closely knit Indian families living out their existence, rather the usual Bollywood tradition of the films of Shah Rurh Khan. The film bonds a unique relationship between a wide eyed son and his grandmother, but the problem lies in the sad fact that the film has nowhere to go besides a few very good performances and the film's strong point of the family unit.

Beowulf and Grendel (2/5) -- Maybe it's just me, but I tire of the Celtic era, the gaul's and the trolls in the deep darkness of the mystical world. While "The Lord of the Rings" is one of my all time favorite trilogies, that film has heart, storytelling and character down to a tee, whereas Sturla Gunnarsson's "Beowulf" is grim, ugly and depressing. It does feature some truly great cinematography and some good performances, most notably Stellan Skarsgaard and Gerard Butler (but what the heck was Sarah Polley, wholly miscast, doing here?) and there are one or two amusing sequences, but the film feels rushed and jammed together with whatever money the creators had with them.

Hell on Wheels (3.5/5) -- This in depth look at the famous Tour De France on its 100th year runs a bit long at 125 minutes but contains a lot of interesting race footage, interviews with not only the riders but the very important assistants who follow the riders along providing the much needed water to help complete the race and some vintage footage which shows how the Tour De France has changed over the years. Director Pepe Danquart does a good job in getting into the soul of the athlete.

I Am a Sex Addict (3.5/5) -- You may not know who Caveh Zahedi is, but you will never forget him after this quasi-documentary about Caveh's painful sex addiction and the lengths that he goes to feed his problem. The more he does that, however, he keeps getting challenged by new obstacles that eventually begin to tear him apart. Shot on the cheap, the film has a somewhat minimal video look but still remains a brutally amusing look into a guy who just has too much baby batter on the brain.

The District (3.5/5) -- I have seen many strange animated films (last year's bizarre, South Park inspired "Terkel in Trouble" comes to mind) but here is an animated film that uses the same quirky animated process from the film "Waking Life" to tell the story of a large group of people living in Budapest, Hungary, where one group of kids finds a way to go back in time and import oil to better their lives in the "District". Not only is the animation crazy, but so are the characters and humor, especially towards the end where certain heads of state get very angry at the kids for finding their new form of Texas tea. Perhaps you may be thinking of one such government official as I write this.

Duelist (2/5) -- Think of the recent films by Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai where their visual flair for storytelling was so beautiful that it helped sweep us up in the whole beauty and mysticism of it all. The South Korean “Duelist? on the other hand, has all of the beauty but a complete lack of storytelling, performances or even a sense of getting us to care about what is happening. It’s the kind of swordplay film ? the minimal plot involving a female detective who encounters a curious looking masked man and the warring adventures they have together ?where we look at the slow-motion, long takes and off-kilter dialogue and question why the film isn’t taking a new direction and instead giving us everything we have seen before.

Little Man (2/5) -- Here is what starts out as a good natured film about a lesbian couple who give birth to a baby over 100 days premature, and the struggles that both women have to face when the baby is taken to the NICU ward of the hospital. Sadly, the problem is that the documentary is done so poorly, with bewildering interview footage shot at odd and strange angles, not to mention that the film's director is Nicole Conn, the mother of the child featured in the story, which is a bad choice because it gives us little perspective for opinion on the story; and the way that she details this by forcing far too many close-up shots of the baby, annoying baby talk, bad music and clich? narration, sinks what is otherwise a good thesis for a documentary. It should have been made by an actual documentary crew.

Look Both Ways ?(4.5/5) (Hot Pick!) -- This fine Australian Import features connected individuals who all come together from strange events and director Sarah Watt does a fine job with her editing and visual storytelling (although I wasn't the biggest fan of the animated interludes, some of which come out of nowhere) to bring everything together. The film features two lead characters, Merril (a wonderful Justine Clarke, who communicates so much with her amazing eyes) who paints greeting card pictures, and Nick (William McInnes) a photo-journalist who has testicular cancer. At the offset of the story is coverage of a horrible train crash which oddly brings these two characters, and all of the people around each of them, together in interesting and sometimes bewildering ways.

Odete (3.5/5) -- Here is an intentionally slow moving drama named after the film's lead character, who is a supermarket worker who may or may not be pregnant with the baby from his dead boyfriend, who, as it turns out, also had a gay lover. Odete meets the gay lover at the boyfriend's grave and the two create one of the oddest relationships I've seen in a movie in quite a while. It doesn't always work, but the timing of certain sequences along with some truly bizarre sequences towards the end make the film stand out as a whole. Add to that, the actress playing Odete, the lovingly named Ana Cristina de Oliveria, reminds me of a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Keira Knightley. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

Souvenir of Canada (4/5) -- The terrific "Souvenir of Canada" is about our country, through and through, told from the perspective of novelist Douglas Coupland, who creates a "Canada House" built from a home that is planning to be demolished. The film intercuts the documentary footage with commentary on many aspects of Canadian culture such as the dead-and-gone slogan "Chimo" French/English cereal boxes (and as you may have noticed, DVD covers as well), universal health care and those pesky Canada geese. As well, the film is a sharp commentary on the fellows down south who always poke fun at us and the slight but noticeable differences. You Americans would also be good to watch this film.

State of Fear (3.5/5) -- A telling documentary about the war status in Peru told through various testimony of people who were afflicted before the terrorist takeover to afterwards when the country was overrun with the Shining Path who was against the Peruvian Government. The film has some truly horrifying video footage (including the secret taping of bribing big wigs in the government with millions of dollars) along with a sad testimony from a connected woman who was raped and tortured. The film also has room for some mild humour, including a scene where Carlos Raffi, the spokesman for the Peru president, who ignores the interview while taking a call on his cell phone.

Swimmers (4/5) -- One of the films focusing on American independent films at this year's VIFF, Doug Sadler's gorgeously photographed film set in the Chesapeake Bay follows a young girl named Emma (the terrific Tara Devon Gallagher who was also a featured contestant in "Mad Hot Ballroom" earlier this year) who has had hearing damage in her ear after a swimming accident. She finds a friend in Merrill (Sarah Paulson), an outsider harboring a dark secret while Emma has problems with her father (Robert Knott) who is battling drinking and humiliation after sinking his boat. Excellent performances all around with a great sense of the small-town life present.

Takeshis (5/5) HOT PICK! -- WOWSERS. Takeshi Kitano's new film is so challenging, fascinating and unique, but this comes as no surprise since it features Mr. Beat Takeshi himself. Here is a kind of unique masterpiece involving the real Beat Takeshi who lives out his famous celebrity in Japan while a similar looking man named Kitano lives a life in boredom at a convenience store and has dreams of making it big. Suddenly, through various auditions and actually meeting the real Takeshi, Kitano falls into a world of bewildering dreams and fantasy, much of which I can not describe. This will easily be one of the best films I will see at the VIFF this year, and I challenge everyone to take this film on.

War Hospital (4/5) -- Here is a brutal documentary that takes a back seat to interviews, narration and people telling us how to feel about the subject. Rather, "War Hospital" asks us to simply observe a war hospital in Kenya where the Red Cross medical mission takes care of patients from neighboring Sudan where there are still horrific civil wars going on. The footage of the surgery, amputation and pregnant mothers all fighting to survive in this hospital has never left me, and the film's power lies in just letting us observe what happens and still gives the viewer much to talk about. The film is co-directed by Calgary-based David Christensen and actor Damien Lewis (who also has an upcoming film in the festival called "Keane".)

Yang Bax IX: The 8 Model Works (2.5/5) -- I do not know much about the Chinese propaganda films made during the 1970's (for several years around that time, these operas and the cinematic versions were the only thing allowed to play in China!), but "Yang Bax Xi: The 8 Model Works" focuses on the Yang Bax Xi opera today as the film follows several people -- mainly many youthful dancing groups -- and gives us a look back to the cultural change of communist China before things changed tune a few decades ago. The problem with this movie, despite its great subject, is that the film is plodding and slow, and did not hold much interest despite its thesis (kind of like the film "Scaredsacred" which is playing in Vancouver right now). While some of the street dance sequences and the old film footage are fun to watch, the slow interviews and performance footage later in the film (one of which is oh-so boringly shot entirely from a backstage angle) sadly take away from the overall idea.

A small blip of the films included on my "Must See" list include Lars Von Trier's "Manderlay," his sequel to his much discussed "Dogville" from 2003; North Country, Niki Caro's much-anticipated followup to "Whale Rider"; a remastered print of Otto Preminger's "Bonjour Triesette" (which is also being screened with a documentary on the evolution of the famous Cinemascope process); the Quebec smash "C.R.A.Z.Y." which has just been submitted as Canada's official film for Best Foreign Film consideration; Seijun Suzuki's Princess Raccoon which has "awesome" and "beautiful" written all over it, and Aubrey Nealon's "A Simple Curve" which opens up the Canadian Images section of the festival. Along with the Canadian Images programming, all of the films are featured in the well-categorized Special Presentations, Cinema of our Time, Non-Fiction Features and the Dragons and Tigers series, so there is always something to look for.

(And believe me when I say this: I have over 75 films planned to see during the Vancouver IFF, so believe me when I say that previous blip is a small one!)

If you are planning a serious trip to the VIFF, take my word and purchase one of the several passes up for offer; I recommend the Full Series discount pass for $300 which gets you into everything, except the galas, and is a great deal if you are seeing a few movies a day. Otherwise, tickets will cost you $9.50 in the evenings and $7.50 for matinees, which runs about the same as some of the downtown cinemas in Vancouver, but I can guarantee you that you'll be getting some better film for your buck.

This is the third year that has made visit to the Vancouver Film Festival and has been known as one of the best audience festivals in the world that really brings people with common interests together. One of the not-much discussed aspects of film festival-going is meeting similar, like-minded people (who also can disagree a lot) who do not have a problem seeing 3 to 5 movies a day (or in my case, sometimes even 6!). No matter your age or cultural background, there is always somebody interesting to meet that likes what you do. Add to that, the VIFF takes care of their patrons handsomely, offering screening times that begin as early as 10am and go all the way until 10pm, with something starting almost every hour, if not every half hour.

I hope to see many festivalgoers in line and will continue my coverage with some interviews as well. You know where to find me, and if you do, please feel free to say hi! Bring on the festival!

For more information on the festival including tickets, synopses of films and other information, point your browser to Watch soon for more coverage pieces and interviews. You can also check out Jason's festival blog at Email Jason at

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originally posted: 09/29/05 10:44:10
last updated: 10/21/05 01:46:48
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