The 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival
by Dennis West
The thirty-second edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) unspooled September 26–October 11 in that western British Columbian city that nestles spectacularly between sea and mountains. Though “unspooled” is perhaps not the appropriate term since, according to festival publicity, only four features were actually exhibited in a film format. This edition of Vancouver, then, may be the last to screen any “films” whatsoever, as actual films-on-celluloid are displaced by digital delivery systems on the festival circuit, which simply mirrors exhibition practices on the regular commercial circuits. More on this later.
The VIFF is an eclectic, midsized festival that plays down red-carpet shenanigans in favor of creating a cinephile-friendly atmosphere in which local audiences sample the bestrecent Canadian and world cinema. In order to accomplish this goal at the thirty-second edition, Festival Director Alan Franey and his programming staff culled the best titles from prestigious recent megafestivals, such as Cannes and Karlovy Vary, and mixed in plenty of Canadian, North American, and international premieres. Audience support was strong. When I nonchalantly appeared on time one sunny Saturday morning for a screening of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s documentaryThe Gardener, I was astonished to find no decent seats still available in a huge auditorium holding hundreds.
Eventually seated, I resolved to cock my head as needed in order to look around a post and view full screen the exiled Iranian auteur’s visually impressive and intellectually engaging meditation on religious belief set in the stunning Baha’i formal gardens in Israel—well worth the effort!The Gardener, incidentally, has already stirred considerable controversy in Iran, in part because of the agnostic Makhmalbaf’s sheer audacity in travelling to Israel in order to make a film, one that is respectful of the Baha’i religion to boot. Both the Baha’i faith and travel to Israel have long been banned by the Iranian government.
VIFF 2013 featured a special spotlight on French cinema; a meaty, noncompetitive Cinema of Our Time program of fiction features from around the world; a vast selection of international nonfiction films including seventy-five features; a Canadian Images program presenting approximately one hundred home-grown works (including co-productions); the Dragons and Tigers selection of thirty-three features from Pacific Asia; and Special Presentations, such as the omnibus film3X3D, which brings together esthetically innovative 3-D shorts by Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Greenaway, and Edgar Pera. Lower-profile programs included Arts and Letters, which presented international features dedicated to showing how “cinema can convey the power of the other arts.”
Festival publicity touted the Dragons and Tigers program as “the largest annual exhibition of Pacific Asian films outside Asia.” Long programmed by Tony Rayns, this is Vancouver’s best known selection internationally. This year marked the twentieth anniversary of the awarding of the prestigious Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema, which was earmarked for “a creative and innovative film, made early in the director’s career, which has not yet won significant international recognition.” This year’s winner was the Japanese Anatomy of a Paperclip,which was billed as an international premiere; and at a well-attended public ceremony, director Ikeda Akira appeared in person to collect his cash award.
Have you ever ventured inside a paperclip factory? Neither had I until Ikeda took me there in his absurdist, stiff-necked, deadpan comedy, which stars an inexplicably and eternally neck-brace-wearing, chubby, sad sack of a young man who humbly and silently toils with two other exploited mates in a ramshackle workshop where they laboriously turn out—one at a time—handmade paperclips in a primitive assembly line straight out of silent comedy crossed with theater of the absurd. Ikeda, who also wrote the script and edited the film, has indicated that he thinks ofAnatomy of a Paperclipas a modern equivalent of a Japanese folk tale. Western critics, however, will be quick to point out other possible influences, such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, David Lynch, and maybe even the Dilbert comic strip. Ikeda’s drolly deadpan universe will captivate absurdist-oriented viewers thanks to the artistic unity created by no-nonsense camerawork, measured narrative pacing, and a uniformly cardboard acting style that allows untethered characters to drudge away at their worktables or simply wander stiffly through a hard-luck dreamscape where wonders and crimes may occur, but little makes rational sense.
The most provocative feature I saw in the Canadian Images program was Twyla Roscovich’s esthetically conventional but thematically powerful documentary featureSalmon Confidential,which, according to the hard-hitting notes in the festival catalogue, “tells the behind-the-scenes story of the biggest environmental government cover-up ever perpetrated on British Columbians.”Salmon Confidentialcaptured the audience distinction formally known as the Most Popular Environmental Documentary Award. Roscovich follows the determined and prolonged efforts of biologist Alexandra Morton to alert her countrymen to the fact that Frazer River wild salmon are increasingly testing positive for European salmon viruses, which have now spread internationally thanks to the proliferation of industrial fish farms, such as those located squarely within that river’s watershed, which is adjacent to Vancouver. Morton’s principal problem in denouncing this environmental crisis is the government bureaucracies lined up against her, and Roscovich takes us into the actual public forums where the literally shifty-eyed bureaucrats stonewall. In one sickening scene, the filmmaker—now a shopper—enters a Vancouver supermarket, proceeds to the frozen food case, and removes and places into her shopping cart whole salmon that appear to show the obvious physical signs of sickness.
As I waited in queues to enter screenings during the festival,Salmon Confidentialwas the film I most often heard discussed by moviegoers. That discussion has now gone viral, with, for instance, extensive Internet postings attacking Roscovich’s science. After all, the millions of Fraser River wild salmon and their farmed counterparts are not merely important natural resources, they now represent an extremely valuable commodity controlled in large part by powerful commercial interests. Before you enter another sushi restaurant, however, you may wish to see this film for yourself. After the festival, Roscovich posted it at salmonconfidential.ca.
The festival’s extensive program of nonfiction features offered memorable highlights, such as the very personal filmsCésar’s Grill, written and directed by Dario Aguirre, andThe Missing Picture, directed and co-written by Rithy Panh. The Ecuadorian-German-Swiss co-productionCésar’s Grill, which screened as an international premiere, opens in Germany when the young Aguirre receives news that his father’s down-at-the-heels restaurant in Ecuador is failing. Though Aguirre has been residing for a decade in Germany, he does not hesitate to return to his native country. Most of the film, then, follows the protagonist’s efforts to help his reluctant father, who retains many old-fashioned business protocols while his son attempts to introduce new ideas, such as the latest Excel spread sheets, which could easily track business expenses. But the clashes between father and son occur not only in the business realm, they also involve differing generational perspectives; European/developed-world cultural approaches vs. Latin American/developing world equivalents; responsibility to oneself vs. responsibility to one’s family; and even vegetarianism vs. the bloody business of chopping up, grilling, and serving meat. AlthoughCésar’s Grillappeared in the festival’s nonfiction program, this hybrid work blends in many elements commonly associated with fiction film, such as an engaging chronological narrative that draws on suspense and emotion, touches of both comedy and drama, and audience identification with a protagonist whose frequent voice-over narration encourages just that. This small but fresh and appealing work suggests that Aguirre is an up-and-coming, multitalented filmmaker—he even receives a music credit—worth keeping an eye on.
The fifty-year-old Cambodian auteur Rithy Panh was already well known for his work documenting the Khmer Rouge genocide in 1975–1979 before completion of his latest film,The Missing Picture, which was certainly the most artistically remarkable project that I saw at VIFF 2013. Panh himself is a victim and a lucky survivor of the Pol Pot era during which he lost his parents, siblings, and extended family. InThe Missing Picture,Panh combines footage of Khmer Rouge propaganda films—think supposedly happy agricultural workers collectively transporting dirt by hand in baskets—with elaborately detailed tableaux of miniature, unanimated clay figurines in a variety of activities and social settings, such as family gatherings, before, during, and after the genocide. In an illuminating interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Panh has elaborated on the special significance of clay for Buddhists like himself: “Clay is a very interesting and fundamental material—it’s earth, it’s water and—with fire—it takes on form and life. It was very important to us to give the figurines a very precise expression—to give them a soul. In fact, what is art? Art is giving to what you create a soul.” This form of memorialization offers a striking way to depict the collective tragedy of genocide and to keep personal and cultural memory alive. Tying together the tableaux and the abundant propaganda clips is the filmmaker’s now poetic, now brutally frank autobiographical first-person voice-over narration, which is spoken in English by Jean-Baptiste Phou. In the aforementioned interview, Pahn reminds us that, “the Khmer Rouge did not only kill our people, but they destroyed our cultural heritage.”The Missing Picturerepresents a towering landmark in the effort to restore that heritage.
In his memorable documentaryCoast of Death—labeled “visual anthropology” by some—director-editor-cinematographer Lois Patiño takes us to Northwestern Galicia, in Spain, and shows us the ways in which the inhabitants of this rugged coastal land have managed to survive since Roman times, when this remote part of the Iberian Peninsula was known as Finis Terrae, the end of the world. Patiño’s slow-paced esthetic approach is perhaps influenced by Mercedes Alvarez’sThe Sky Turns: tableaux featuring long-duration stationary camera long shots showing far-away inhabitants integrated in the natural landscape while in voice-over we hear “up close” the characters’ dialogues concerning the history of the area, its natural resources and occupational opportunities, dangerous maritime conditions, and so forth. One of the salient social themes presented is the persistence of old ways in spite of evident danger, as when brave (or foolish?) barnacle gatherers tread nimbly and dangerously along jagged rocks rising from the sea foam as they meticulously time their efforts at collection to the approach of powerful surging waves that could topple them to their death. Cinematographer Patiño’s painterly compositions are at times breathtaking, particularly those that show sea and sky seamlessly melding together in a limitless horizon.
As I drank in this dazzling cinematography—the presentation format was DCP—I could not help but consider this issue: to my admittedly festival-blurry eyes, the landscape/seascape imagery did not look as sharp and richly colored as seemed appropriate. Have shooting in HD and projection in DCP robbed moviegoers of the richness of imagery that we have come to expect after the domination of the 35mm film format for over a century? We shall leave that answer to the technical folks. Furthermore, and very unfortunately—because of scheduling complications—I missed the festival offering presumably most concerned with the much touted “new forms of cinema”:La última película, directed by the Filipino Raya Martin and the Canadian Mark Peranson, who served as a Programming Associate at VIFF 2013. This “last movie” was reportedly shot on nine different cameras in seven different shooting formats ranging from Super 8mm to high definition digital. And it was exhibited at the festival, according to the catalogue notes, in 35mm.
At any rate and to sum up: we film-festivalgoers now have no choice but to mentally place quotation marks around “film” and to hope that the here-to-stay digital projection and the new forms of cinema will eventually add up to or surpass the visual quality of 35mm film. Come to think of it, the opinions concerning these matters of centenarian Portuguese maestro Manoel de Oliveira—one of our last living links to the silent era—would have been interesting to ascertain had he attended VIFF 2013. The festival did program his latest feature,Gebo and the Shadow, a spare, magisterial adaptation of a darkly Dostoevskian play by Raul Brandão.Gebo and the Shadow, which features a tour de force by French actor Michael Lonsdale, was filmed in HD on a studio set and projected at the festival in DCP.
In the 2011 Canadian census, Greater Vancouver tallied approximately 2.3 million inhabitants. It is a cosmopolitan, ethnically and linguistically diverse city—for fifty-two percent of the population, English is not a first language—that features one of the leading film production centers in North America. Current indexes of livability rate Vancouver as one of the most livable metropolises in the world. And major cultural events and tourism are engines of the local economy.
Soon after VIFF 2013 ended, Alan Franey, after serving for twenty-six years, announced his departure from the position of Festival Director in charge of both artistic and executive functions. With the thirty-second edition, Franey and his trusted programming team gave the city the last hurrah it deserved: a warmly hospitable, diversely programmed, and superbly organized film festival that more and more movers and shakers, government officials, and others are referencing as a cornerstone cultural event for Western Canada, all of Canada, and beyond. Indeed, one rumor has it that VIFF has now become one of the top five film festivals in North America. Such is Franey’s distinguished legacy.
Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste.
For more information on the Vancouver International Film Festival, visit http://www.viff.org.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1