The Vancouver International Film Festival
by Dennis West

The thirty-fourth edition of the annual Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) took place in that culturally vibrant and diverse West Coast Canadian city—spectacularly situated between sea and mountains—over a sixteen-day period from late September to early October of 2015. The festival’s official “fact sheet” stresses Vancouver’s audiovisual industrial ties, noting that the city “is the third largest film and TV production centre in North America and the third largest hub for digital media, animation, visual effects, gaming and post-production in the world.” VIFF’s industry marketplace and conferences were expected to draw over one thousand delegates.

As for screenings of new and recent films, festival publicity touts the event as one of the largest film festivals in North America; and information listed on the fact sheet supports the claim: 370 films from seventy countries exhibited on nine screens—plus additional screens for special presentations. VIFF is an eclectic festival that offers up fare from the most recent editions of major festivals, such as Karlovy Vary, as well as dozens of world, North American, and Canadian premieres. The festival lineup included both competitive (e. g., Canadian Images, British Columbian Spotlight) and noncompetitive (e. g., Spotlight on France, Arts and Letters) programs. The unusual latter selection presented new international features that celebrate the visual and performing arts, such as Spanish director Carlos Saura’s superbly shot and edited Argentina, a documentary showcasing beautifully choreographed tableaux of traditional Argentine music and dance.

I had not attended VIFF since 2013, so this year I was surprised to learn of a recent major change to the renowned Dragons and Tigers program, which is billed as the largest annual exhibition of Pacific Asian films outside of Asia. For twenty years this selection had been capped with the presentation of the prestigious Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema, which was given to the Pacific Asian emerging filmmaker whose feature proved most creative and innovative, but had not yet received significant international recognition. Over the years, the careers of many Asian filmmakers (e. g., Hong Sang-soo) were significantly enhanced thanks to the prestige of that prize, which was eliminated in 2014 even though VIFF continues to run the Dragons and Tigers section.

The elimination of this honor was reportedly regarded as controversial in some quarters as it was seen to dilute VIFF’s highly regarded Asian emphasis. And the economic and cultural clout of Asia looms large in Vancouver, which is Canada’s principal Pacific port city. In conversation with me, the long-time programmer of this selection, Tony Rayns, indicated that the prize is no longer offered because films from that area of the world are now more readily seen and have better distribution possibilities; in addition, the sponsor of the award had withdrawn support. VIFF has now replaced the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema with the Best New Director Award, which caps a competition open to filmmakers from around the world.

 Unfortunately, I was able to attend this year’s edition of VIFF for only a week; and, in addition, certain popular films proved difficult to access with a mere press pass. Therefore, I did not follow selected programs in entirety but rather searched amongst the offerings in an effort to screen the most interesting accessible features regardless of category. The following communiqué, then, does not present a well-rounded and thorough overview of given programs or of the festival in entirety, but rather offers highlights in the form of impressionistic observations on selected films from different programs.

Diminutive humans amongst the wheat in the Fair Lady’s vast hold. (Dead Slow Ahead)

The meatiest program on offer was Cinema of Our Time, seventy-six new features billed as a “showcase of narrative films from around the world.” However, the most beautiful film I saw in this selection, the French-Spanish co-production Dead Slow Ahead (the original title), directed, photographed, and co-written by the Catalan Mauro Herce, is not best thought of as a narrative work, since little narration appears. Or, for that matter, as a documentary, unless we use that classification as the filmmaker himself has done in interviews, qualifying it as science-fiction documentary. Dead Slow Ahead—the title is a nautical term referring to a certain speed available to freighters—is most fruitfully approached as sui generis avant-garde filmmaking at its most innovative.

In his post-screening discussion, Herce described his long-time fascination with the sea and merchant shipping; and he contended that today ninety-some percent of international trade moves via maritime shipping. In Dead Slow Ahead, he envisions the voyage of the bulk carrier Fair Lady as its skeletal and sporadically seen Filipino crew transports wheat across vast seas extending to ever-distant horizons. Herce conceptualized this otherworldly voyage as follows: “We imagined that we were filming the last ship of mankind; a ship where the crew has not realized that the world has come to an end and continues—on and on to the point of unconsciousness—to perform mechanical actions subordinated to the needs of this floating steel monster.”

The vast empty hold of the Fair Lady suggests a painterly composition. (Dead Slow Ahead)

Herce began his filmmaking career as a cinematographer; and his riveting and eerie visual style in Dead Slow Ahead successfully captures the monumentality of the bulker—and man’s smallness within it—as well the diminutiveness of humankind’s pretension and enterprise within nature’s immense watery arena. In addition, as critical commentary has noted, a disorienting alienation effect “making the familiar strange” is created by the prevalence of long-duration shots of sections of the freighter devoid of humans, such as steep stairs leading down into a vast hold. This visual strangeness is married to a singular sound design that virtually banishes dialogue while naturalistically stressing on-board ambient sounds, such as the ping of radar or the throb of engines.

The cineaste elaborated on his film’s unusual production history indicating that three months of shooting were involved—sometimes at the rate of fourteen to sixteen hours per day thanks to the economics of the digital format used. The film then took shape over a one-year period in the editing room, an approach that would have been financially unfeasible back when movies were created on expensive film stock. Critical reaction to Dead Slow Ahead has run the gamut: the project represents an enigmatic allegory for unbridled capitalism in the age of globalization or it merely presents hyper-real documentation of an ocean voyage in a twenty-first century bulk carrier. I think of Dead Slow Ahead more as a mysterious and provocative painting that invites viewers to ponder its images and imagine their implications.

The protagonists of A Nazi Legacy (left to right: Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands, Niklas Frank).

Another meaty program was the documentary and essay film selection, which presented eighty-four features from around the world, though the vast majority originated in the West. Certainly the most emotionally powerful of these films that I saw was A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, directed by David Evans. In a pivotal scene in this British documentary, three men stand pensively in a field near Lviv, Ukraine wherein lie—in a mass grave—thousands of Jews executed in 1943 on the orders of high-ranking Nazi officials, who also happened to have fathered the two elderly men present. The third man, middle-aged, is Philippe Sands, an eminent British—and Jewish—human rights barrister and author who believes that the remains of seventy-some members of his family lie in the ground beneath his feet. Sands has accompanied the two sons to Ukraine in an effort to examine and understand their relationships with their Nazi fathers. One son flaunts a photo of his hanged father—at Nuremberg in 1946—denouncing him as a mass murderer; in contrast, the other son , even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, prevaricates and, maddeningly, cannot bring himself to admit the brutal truth about his paterfamilias.

Hitler’s image looms large over the three protagonists of A Nazi Legacy.

Evans places his protagonists in evocative settings, where the truth will out: the abandoned and partially destroyed seventeenth-century Zhovkva Synagogue near the aforementioned mass grave/field; a present-day Ukrainian neo-Nazi get-together where the recently discovered remains of German soldiers in World War II are honored; the university hall where one of the fathers—Hans Frank, the infamous “Butcher of Poland”—announced in 1942 the implementation of the Final Solution in Lviv; and a free-wheeling and emotional public forum in London—cathartic for the sons—where the themes of memory, guilt, justice, truth, and history are openly and emotionally aired. Evans’s—and co-producer and writer Sands’s—dogged investigation draws on an extraordinary range of little-known material including amateur footage shot in the Krakow ghetto and a wealth of still photos and home-movie footage portraying the mass murderers as clean-cut family men. A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did stands out amongst the recent spate of books and documentaries on the children of prominent Nazis because of the determination, depth, and sensitivity with which the filmmakers explore the complex and timeless issues involved.

Nazi themes also pervade the Atom Egoyan-directed fiction feature Remember, which was slotted as a prestigious special presentation in the robust Canadian Images program. This thriller-revenge tale-road movie sets the dementia-stricken ninety-year-old Zev—a tattooed Holocaust survivor and resident of an assisted-living unit—off on a cross-continental hunt for the concentration camp guard who seventy-some years earlier had murdered his family. Zev intends to avenge those genocidal deaths by executing said guard, and he therefore packs a loaded pistol. But can he remember from day to day the purpose of his mission and its detailed logistics, or successfully determine which of several Rudy Kurlanders residing in North America is the long-sought war criminal? In his quest, Zev is cleverly aided and abetted by a clear-thinking, wheelchair-bound senior-citizen accomplice (Martin Landau) who issues instructions via letter and telephone.

Holocaust survivors (Martin Landau, left; Christopher Plummer) plot in Remember.

Remember boasts strong production values, including a star-studded international cast lead by octogenarian Canadian acting legend Christopher Plummer, who convincingly captures the play between bafflement and determination at the heart of Zev’s mental-emotional state. First-time screenwriter Benjamin August’s script, which appears heavily influenced by Memento, is rich in its exploration of themes relating to remembering, trauma, and memory at both personal and societal levels; but it suffers from too many improbable moments. The timing of this production is most propitious: the recent trial of the ninety-four-year-old Oskar Groening, the “Accountant of Auschwitz,” remains fresh in our minds; and there exists a heightened awareness that within a very few years no scores whatsoever will be settled between survivors of the Holocaust and victimizers. After the screening, Egoyan appeared on stage to a standing ovation that was perhaps encouraged by his status—as he himself mentioned—as a native of the West Coast of Canada.

In dark Idaho, Zev (Christopher Plummer with Dean Norris, right) encounters a trove of Nazi memorabilia. (Remember)

Festival publicity touted the Canadian Images program as “one of the largest showcases of new Canadian cinema on the planet and a true point of pride for VIFF.” This selection offered many features of interest made within production parameters far more modest than those of Remember. The best of these that I saw was the engaging coming-of-age tale The Sound of Trees, which was ably directed by François Péloquin and co-written by him and Sarah Lévesque. In their remarks after the film’s screening, the filmmakers elaborated on their effective approach to scripting the film: a pared-down narrative featuring thirty-some “moments” in the life of a seventeen-year-old male protagonist in flux. Jérémie, during one summer, attempts to see for himself a possible future as a cog in an old–fashioned family sawmill operation or as a young person who emigrates and leaves behind the Quebec rural culture of the remote Bas-du-fleuve region along the St. Lawrence River. In their remarks, the filmmakers stressed their desire to explore this Francophone geographic region and its culture, which they believe have historically been underrepresented in Canadian cinema. And, indeed, one of the greatest successes of The Sound of Trees is the multifaceted and powerful depiction of the gritty socioeconomic context: promising economic opportunities are few for a working-class youth uninterested in committing to the dangerous work of lumbering in a family operation which, in the near future, will presumably sell out to a more ecologically unfriendly but modern, industrially mechanized, large-scale outfit. Meanwhile, the social horizons for working-class youth remain severely limited—and drug dealers abound.

How long will father (Roy Dupuis) and son (Antoine L’Écuyer) continue to work together in the family sawmill operation in The Sound of Trees?

Péloquin assembled a top-flight team to realize this complex character study beginning with his felicitous selection of Antoine L’Écuyer as the lead actor playing Jérémie. L’Écuyer effectively melds together the show-offishness, rebellion, slackerdom, class consciousness, and grudging respect for family that marks the confused adolescent, who one moment is having sex with his girlfriend and the next is requesting his father tuck him into bed; who rides around now on his bicycle, now in his souped-up car. French-Canadian star Roy Dupuis plays the protagonist’s ecologically aware father as a single parent attempting to do right by his son, but frequently failing because of his own limited vision and innate awkwardness. François Messier-Rheault’s fluid, wide-screen cinematography seamlessly follows the protagonist through this tangled world of forests, junkyards, farms, lumber yards, athletic fields, and the hardscrabble human habitations along the edge of a river so wide that we cannot glimpse the other side—a sort of end-of-the world setting. For his impressive achievement in The Sound of Trees, debuting feature film director Péloquin deservedly swept VIFF’s best emerging Canadian director award, which was offered for the first time this year in an effort to underscore the festival’s commitment to Canadian narrative filmmaking.

Over the years, I have attended VIFF a number of times. My intense week at this year’s thirty-fourth edition suggested that strong art-house programming—overseen by Alan Franey—remains a festival hallmark, as does a welcoming hospitality that allows visiting critics, filmmakers, festival staff, and other film folks to freely mingle and exchange views. And the many sold-out screenings suggest that overall audience support remains strong, no doubt stimulated by the festival’s laudable propensity to bring in, whenever possible, the filmmakers themselves to discuss their work. VIFF, then, continues to represent a major highlight in the cultural life of the city, the region, and the nation.  

Dennis West is a Cineaste contributing editor.  

For more information on the Vancouver International Film Festival, click here.

Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 1