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FILM FESTIVALS OF THE WORLD #4: Vancouver International Film Festival
by Chris Parry

Continuing our weekly look at the great (and not so great) film festivals of planet Earth, this time we turn our eye to the Pacific Northwest of Canada, where the Vancouver International Film Festival has been chugging along for 22 years now. Most festivals can be broken down into two categories: the competitive fests, where it's all about business, the sale, the awards and the parties, and then there's the international fests, which tend to be more an audience-driven celebration of the world of film. An international film festival will send their programmers out across the world to find movies from all corners of the globe, from Micronesia to Uzbekistan, and quite often a weak film is cut a little slack if it comes from somewhere exotic. That's certainly the case at times in Vancouver, where on occasion you truly need to have your Film 101 textbooks handy to figure out what's going on.

Vancouver is a different town to those most of you know. In Vancouver, being found with a pocket full of weed won't see you sent to prison. Out here, the bars are open until 4:00AM on the weekends. The local population is a mix of cultures from not just around the country, but from around the world. You can go from one side of the city to the other on public transport for $2. You can walk on the beach and jump in your car and 50 minutes later be on the ski slopes. And when it comes to 'cool', Vancouverites are on the cutting edge.

Suffice to say, it doesn't suck.

All of the above contributes to what is one of the great celebrations of film in its purest form in North America. Running for three weeks a year, the Vancouver Fest is about watching movies. Movies from everywhere. Movies you have no idea about. Movies that could well confound you. Movies that may even stink.

But it doesn't matter - the locals queue up for an hour, in lines wrapping around the block, just to see whatever is playing next.

Which isn't to say there aren't issue the Vancouver Festival honchos need to address. In fact, there may well be more administrative issues that need fixing here than in any fest I've been to in recent times. But that's something for the passholders to obsess over - for the rest of the filmgoers in attendance, what's on the screen counts, and what's on the screen is... mostly... awesome.


Where it be at: Vancouver, British Columbia. You know, that western edge of Canuckland where the marijuana is in thick supply.
When it be at: Late September to early October, for a little over two weeks (this year was Sept 25 - Oct 10).
How expensive it be: In order of expense...
VIP Pass: $600 - gets you into every screening, every forum, media screenings, and two tickets to one of the galas.
Express Pass: $500 - gets you into all of the above except the galas, allows you to phone ahead and book a seat.
Full Series Discount Pass: $275 - same as the Express Pass, but no advance booking - get there 20 minutes early and line up.
VISA Gold Pass: $235 - Only available to VISA card owners, same as the Full series Discount Pass but you're guaranteed a seat if you turn up 20 minutes early.
VISA Screening Room Pass: $68 - Gets you ten tickets that can be used for any film showing at the Vogue Theater over the festival.
Student/Senior Pass: $200 - Gets you into any screening, including media screenings.
Daytime Pass: $150: Gets you into any screening before 6pm. Bargain!
Weekday Matinee Pass: $100 Same as the daytime pass, but for weekdays only. Another bargain!
Individual tickets: $9 a movie after 6pm, $7 before 6pm.

Number of films screened: Over 300.
Value for money: If you get the Full Series Discount Pass and make it to 100 films, that's $2.75 per ticket. You honestly can't beat that for value.

What you'll see: Films from everywhere. Expect a lot of Asian and Indian films, due to the large segment of the Vancouver population that originate from those lands (and the fine work those areas put out), as well as a lot of local product that might make it to a wide release... but probably won't. Plenty of fare from smaller countries, which in 2003 meant films from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Colobia, Chad, Greece, Finland, Iceland, Tajikistan, Qatar, Romania, Nepal, Namibia, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Macau and more than that again. Of the American films on offer, a large number are documentaries, though most certainly excellent ones.

Celebrity-spotting: Forget it. If Andrew McCarthy shows up it's considered a PR coup. The one time at this fest that the 'stars' were expected to turn up, a producer of one of the films in competition held his own party and all the stars went there instead. The festival head made it very clear that he doesn't consider Vancouver a "red carpet" festival and thinks such behavior is silly. I'd tend to disagree, especially if you want your festival to get a worldwide reputation, but hey, who am I to judge?

Accommodation: Unlike most cities, Vancouver hotels don't jack up their room rates when the festival is in town. The official festival hotel, the Crowne Plaza on Georgia, charges around CAN$145 a night (about US$105), and if you want something a little cheaper, and closer to the action, you can get a VERY cheap room at Bosman's Hotel on Howe St for less than half of that. It's not elite, but it does have a bar, and it's a block away from all the action.

Transport: You won't need it. If you're coming up from Seattle (a wise move if you want to save $150 or so in airfare), a train ride to Vancouver will cost you $60 and get you right into the center of town. You can also drive from Seattle if you don't mind a 150-minute drive north. Canadian customs officials rarely give anyone a hard time, and Americans generally don't need anything more than a driver's license to get across the border safely and quickly. Just make sure you have your passport ready going back the other way...
From the airport, there are plenty of buses that will shuttle you to downtown for $10 or so, and once you're downtown you can walk to EVERYTHING in a handful of minutes. Unlike Sundance, there's no snow to navigate. Unlike Seattle, there are no hills to endure. Three theaters and the forums are basically within a block of each other, and the only distant theater is a short $2 bus ride away. Easy-peasy.
Rent a car if you want to look flash, but you won't use it unless you decide to get out of town for a day.

Parties: As I'm not a member of the reigning Vancouver film social elite, I couldn't tell you anything about the parties at this festival. It was hard enough to get my press accreditation, let alone finagle a gala invite. Apparently they're very ordinary affairs where a lot of government and corporate bigwigs make a lot of speeches where they pat themselves on the back for being awesome. I can lie without that.

Getting laid: If you have less than two heads, have a decent command of the English language, and can afford a $5 cover charge, I guarantee you will get lucky in Vancouver. Not just kinda lucky maybe, but totally lucky, as many tims as you can muster up the energy. The Roxy, far from Vancouver's best bar, but certainly the easiest place in the world to meet the opposite sex, is right between the Vogue and Granville theaters. Go in on a weekday and be cool and you shall not go home alone. Swear. Added to this, Vancouver has the most attractive women outside of the Rio carnival. I've got friends who've visited and plan on moving back ASAP just because of the standard of female in this town. But take a tip from a local... if a girl says she's from Surrey, slowly step away from the hottie and don't look back. Just trust me on this one.

Best venues: The bulk of the VIFF fest goes on at the Granville theaters, which is a decent sized 7 theater cineplex that serves terrible popcorn at ridiculous prices. No, I'm talking ridiculous even at Cineplex standards. But it does show a good movie. If you can get in to the Cinematheque, it's a great place to watch a film, but it's very small and tends to carry audience noise a little too well for my liking.

Worst venues: The Vogue is the biggest room to see a flick in at the Vancouver fest, with a 1000+ capacity spread over a wide main floor and a huge balcony, but the balcony seats have an elevated view that really isn't optimal. Added to that, the sound is AWFUL. This room is generally used as a rock concert venue, so I guess the tourin acts bring their own sound gear, because eight speakers at the front of a HUGE room just isn't up to standard to show a movie that might have crappy sound to begin with. Added to this, to get into the Vogue, even with a pass, you're looking at queuing up for an hour, even if it's raining, on the second crappiest street in Vancouver - Granville Street. The homeless people are at least non-violent, but it gets really old standing in front of an adult movie-house while the same crazy homeless guy asks you for the sixth time if you have a dime to lend him.

Places to hang out: If you're a guy - The Cat's Meow on Granville Island can not be beat. Except maybe by the Cactus Club on Robson. Both these bar/restaurants have the most unbelievable looking waitresses this side of Mars. I actually believe they may be femme-bots, because nobody looks this perfect, not without special effects. They can't serve food worth a damn, but I don't know a guy who cares.
For the ladies (and please understand I'm not being sexist here, I'm just observant) you can't beat the shopping on Robson St. While Robson is considered pricey by Canadian standards, if you're coming to the Vancouver fest with a pocket full of US dollars, you could buy yourself a small family here and still have change left over for a double latte. And apparently plenty of people do just that, because if you get to the halfway stage of Robson you'll find the intersection where there's a Starbucks on BOTH sides of the street.
Gastown is neat place to eat, and drink, but understand that on a Satruday night, you'll queue to get into any Vancouver bar worth its salt if you go out after 9PM. Forewarned is forearmed.
Where should you not hang out? Granville St. It's just scuzzy. Not unsafe, mind you... just scuzzy.

Traps for young players: Don't give the homeless people money. When you do, you piss off the locals who spend all year telling the homeless people to sod off. I mean, if you want to help a guy out, buy him a sandwich, don't buy into the whole '10c from everyone' theory that keeps these people bothering the rest of us for more.

If you have a pass, get up early and be at the Granville theaters by 10am so you can collect your tickets for the day. If you don't do this, you may well be annoyed when you show up half an hour before a film you really wanted to see and are told that advance tickets are all gone. It annoys most passholders to have to queue up for rush tickets, especially when you see six people walk out early on a film that was turning people away ten minutes earlier.
If you're going in on individual tickets, buy them online and confirm them by phone. The ticket bookings have a tendency to vanish on you otherwise, something I heard being bitched about by more than a few people just in my immediate circle.

If you have a ticket and you're told to stand in the ticketholders line, check the board out front of the theater to see if it has sold out or not before opting to spend the next half hour queuing for a seat you already have. If it's not sold out, you'll get a seat just fine when the doors open 20 minutes before the show, so what's the point in lining up just so you can be three rows further back than you'd be otherwise?

Press facilities/access: I had a real hard time getting accredited for this fest, but I'm prepared to put that down to understaffing rather than intent. Once you have your accreditation, this is actually a very press friendly event. Turn up early in the day and you can pick up tickets for every film you want to see that day. Turn up half an hour before a screening and you might get a ticket, especially in the first week of the fest, but you'll probably have to line up in the rush line and be the last ones let in. It's annoying to not be able to get in to some screenings at peak times even though you have a press pass, or when you've changed plans only to find you have an hour wait ahead of you for a ticket, but the world isn't perfect, yo.
Screeners are available for press if you miss something you wanted to see, and surprisingly the selection is huge. Lots of narrative features, lots of popular shows, both of which are usually screener-free at places like Sundance where you end up taking home tapes full of shorts and documentaries. The downside of the Vancouver screener situation is that you have to watch them on the premises, which sucks if you're like me and like to watch something at 2am while you're cranking out that day's reviews.
Press screenings are run out of the Pacific Cinematheque for two weeks prior to the fest, which isn't much use to out-of-towners, and I can't tell you how much it peeved me to be sharing those screenings with passholders and volunteers who seem to walk out early on any film that didn't absolutely blow them away, and eat and talk loudly through those that they bothered to stay in. If I'm there as press, I need to see these films without some old biddy unwrapping her cereal bar and sandwiches in my ear for the next ninety minutes.
There are no internet facilites for press, so you'll be hitting the cyber-cafes or bringing a laptop. Such is life. And don't expect a ticket to the gala screenings either.

What needs fixin': Staffing issues are a serious downside, with big glitches happening in the areas of ticket sales. and the city should really make some effort to clean up Granville St for the duration of the festival. Emptying the trash cans once a day and watching the trash pile up all night isn't a way to introduce folks to a fine city.
The sharing of press screenings is a sincere annoyance, not because of any elite desire to be a secret club, but because nobody from the festival bothered to be present to tell these people to shut the hell up while the movie is going.
Lastly, if you're going to run a sponsor's ad before each film, someone needs to let the sponsors know that they need more than one (awful) ad. When people start booing sponsors, it's not a good scene.

The Hollywood Bitchslap final grade for VIFF: B+. Crappy theater locations, iffy administration, clunky ticketing systems, zero city support, and long, long lines detract from the great programming, awesome city, fantastic prices and friendly locals. VIFF promises to open a brand new multi-million dollar film center soon that will be the new home of the festival, which may well see their grade raise to the levels of those awarded to Seattle and SXSW, but for now it's a good value for money film festival that, credit where it's due, the Vancouver crowds can not get enough of.

For more information on VIFF, jump to

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originally posted: 10/08/03 15:15:33
last updated: 12/30/03 09:32:30
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