The Vancouver International Film Festival
by Dennis West
The thirtieth-anniversary edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) was held September 29–October 14, 2011 in that mid-sized British Columbian city spectacularly located between the sea and the nearby mountains that tower just beyond the suburbs. Although Vancouver—which boasts in Canadian terms a moderate maritime winter climate—is widely known as an outdoorsy metropolis, it also represents a major cultural draw for the West of Canada and the Northwest of the United States. And with this well organized and heavily attended thirtieth-anniversary edition, VIFF celebrated its status as one of the city’s leading cultural magnets.
Since the offerings at this two-week-plus event were so vast, I resolved to troll through a sampling of programs in search of lesser known titles of potential interest to readers. I began with the festival’s meatiest program, The Cinema of Our Time, which is a noncompetitive international selection of recent fiction features. The festival catalogue aptly described it in the following manner: “The largest section at VIFF may also best represent its essence: entertainment and enrichment through fresh perspectives and vital new forms.” This program included features from more than thirty countries. Prominent directors, such as Béla Tarr, were represented, as were first-time feature filmmakers, including the Argentinean Pablo Giorgelli, who presented his well-crafted and engaging character-study-cum-road-movie Las acacias.
Festival director Alan Franey and his staff shy away from the glitz, glamour, and red-carpet fanfare typical of storied European megafestivals such as Cannes; and they very appropriately aim the Cinema of Our Time program squarely at the appreciative local audience, a demographic that in many cases will be unable to view foreign features on the big screen after the festival shutters. Franey and staff assembled a strong selection in part because they did not hesitate to cherry-pick the plentiful crop from the major European festivals, such as Cannes, Berlin, and Locarno. Many selections represented Canadian and North American premieres, such as screenwriter-directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Brazilian opera prima Hard Labor.
As its title suggests, work is at the thematic heart of this drama, which is set in Brazil’s rapidly expanding urban middle-class milieu. Front and center is a heterosexual, middle-class, middle-aged couple entering a crisis as the husband unexpectedly loses his job in the insurance industry at the very moment the wife, ironically, is finally able to start up the small business, a grocery store, she has long dreamed of. Everyone works hard in this emotionally unrelenting narrative as the husband doggedly seeks employment or helps out at the grocery, and the wife deals with far more intractable problems in her store than she had anticipated—while, on the home front, she must supervise the work of the couple’s new maid/nanny, who is not at all happy with her employment. The middle-class themes of Hard Labor are timely, and the characterization of the harried wife is particularly nuanced; but, in my opinion, the filmmakers falter when they intrepidly but unconvincingly introduce horror elements into a project whose initial stylistic parameters suggested a conventional realist narrative.
A more artistically coherent and successful debut feature is screenwriter-director Michael R. Roskam’s stylish Belgian thriller Bullhead. Roskam assuredly draws on standard genre conventions to tell the story of a Flemish cattleman who gets suckered into a get-rich-quick scheme involving artificial growth-hormone-fed beef by an unscrupulous and murderous local meat impresario and his mafia. Bullhead is an unusually complex thriller because of its intertwined socially-conscious themes involving the illegal adulteration of food, the abuse of the human body with drugs, and male violence in a traditional patriarchal context. Much of Bullhead’s success is owing to the hulking Matthias Schoenaerts’s powerful “raging bull” performance as a tragic figure—his testicles had been irredeemably smashed in childhood—whose periodic injections of hormones and steroids lead him as a young adult not only to compulsively pumping iron and shadow boxing, but also to the violent brutalization of other human beings—a crisis of masculinity indeed.
Amnesty is an impressive Albanian debut feature written and directed by Bujar Alimani. In Alimani’s unsparing and bleak vision, contemporary Albania is a traditional patriarchal society in which adultery must be violently punished. The narrative follows an attractive young middle-aged woman who travels from the countryside to the city to visit her spouse in prison and thus take advantage of a new law allowing for monthly conjugal visits. During these uninspiring—to say the least—visitations, she happens onto an interesting man also unenthusiastically committed to conjugally visiting his incarcerated spouse. Alimani shows a sure hand in directing his actors through the ensuing affair. When an unexpected amnesty suddenly frees both convict spouses, events inexorably play out in desolate emotional territory reminiscent of the tragedies of García Lorca. Alimani’s measured narrative pacing and spare but striking visual style mark him as an up-and-coming talent from a little-known corner of the movie universe.
According to official festival publicity, one third of films screened were nonfiction, thus making the thirtieth edition of VIFF one of the largest documentary festivals. Several interesting documentary features appeared in the Heaven and Earth program, which was characterized in the catalogue as follows: “Perhaps reacting to the homogenization of globalized culture, many young (and not so young) filmmakers are taking us to remote places for direct encounters with antiquated lifestyles and nature in the raw.”
One of these young cinéastes was Richard Boyce, a documentary filmmaker and photojournalist who is a native of nearby Vancouver Island. Over the years, Boyce has watched his huge island become one of the most intensely clearcut logged sites on earth in spite of the old growth forest’s centrality for thousands of years in the lifestyle of First Nation people. To counter this trend of no-holds-barred industrial logging, he spent months living precariously in the unique ecosystem high in the rainforest canopy of a grove of colossal 1,200-year-old Western red cedars, where scores of new insect species have recently been discovered. Rainforest is Boyce’s moving documentary record of his commitment to save a fraction of Vancouver Island’s ancient temperate rainforest. At the screening I attended—which opened with a Kwaxkwaka’wakw elder’s in-person blessing in Salish—the documentary’s unadorned aesthetic worked well with the audience, who seemed to appreciate a local’s sounding the ecological alarm in artistically interesting and socially understandable terms.
As for antiquated lifestyles, there was Portuguese director Gonçalo Tocha’s three-hour It’s the Earth Not the Moon, a slow-paced but enthralling look at life yesterday and today amongst the four-hundred-some inhabitants of the remote volcanic island of Corvo, a speck in Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores. Until the early twentieth century, Corvo had been a largely self-sustaining agricultural and fishing community. Tocha acts as a friendly social historian as he establishes relationships with the islanders and examines the old and the new in terms of activities such as hog slaughter, cheese making, locksmithing, whaling, political speechifying, fishing, religious customs, and the intricate hand knitting of wool caps. Tocha’s casually observational style serves him well, since viewers are not distracted from the islanders recounting and enacting their own stories.
Other festival programs also yielded notable documentary features. Two stood out for the treasure trove of information that they offered. Director Judy Chaikin’s The Girls in the Band adroitly mixes archival footage and interviews to trace the little-known history of female jazz musicians and their colleagues playing in all-woman big bands in the United States during an era when professional women musicians were frequently unwelcome. In the “documentary collage” The Green Wave, director Ali Samadi Ahadi creatively weaves together animation, amateur video actuality footage, and the dramatization of blog posts to dramatically depict the risky and dangerous efforts of the social-network-connected citizens in Iran’s Green Revolution that sought to topple Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections and their bloody aftermath.
Because of scheduling difficulties, I barely sampled other festival programs, such as Spotlight on France, Canadian Images, and Dragons and Tigers, a highly regarded competitive selection of features by new directors from Pacific Asia. The staff of this thirtieth anniversary edition are to be congratulated for successfully mounting a major cultural event that turned out audiences in droves, and for thoughtfully looking after the all-important details, such as creating a hospitable atmosphere where filmmakers, staff, and critics freely mingled, or commissioning a festival trailer—by Traction Creative Communications—which proved both mesmerizing and short. The snappily laid-out, brightly-illustrated festival catalogue, edited by Jack Vermee, was one of the most beautiful, information-laden, and generally useful catalogues I have ever encountered at a film festival—though heavy, well worth lugging around at all times. Apart from a time-consuming ticket reservation system, there did not seem to be much room for improvement at the thirtieth edition of VIFF.
Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.