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Ready, Set, VIFF!: Let the Film Onslaught Begin

As festival floodgates open, Tyee's reviewer sketches your survival guide.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Sep

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

So, the Vancouver International Film Festival begins tonight. If you feel a bit exhausted already, come and sit with me in the movie theatre. We can fall asleep together and wake up ninety minutes later, deeply confused and having to pee.

I jest, but only slightly.  

Even if you're relatively familiar with the films, directors, actors and themes on offer, VIFF is a veritable onslaught of cinema. If you're a risk-taker, just jump in. If you want to mitigate your level of possible disappointment, you can research like hell, pick a few select films and still be somewhat confounded.

But be not afraid! There are ways to manage, even tame the behemoth. You could close your eyes, spin a circle and point a finger at a random program page, but it's probably best to ask the folk in the know.

I can't claim to be one of those people. I've only seen a small portion of each program, and there are a great many more films that I would still like to see, including Philippe Garrel's In the Shadow of Women, Miguel Gomes's Arabian Nights, Ben Wheatley's High-Rise, Charles Wilkison's Haida-Gwaii: On the Edge of the World, Mina Shum's Ninth Floor, and Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, among many others.

Festivals do their best to wrangle a swarm of stories into manageable collections -- a means of ordering the flood -- but eventually you will simply have to take a chance. Maybe you'll like it, or maybe you won't, but either way, you will be able to offer a loud and vociferous opinion at cocktail parties and social events for the next few weeks. Speaking for myself, sometimes it is the films that don't entirely work that linger the longest in my brain.

Conversation pieces

Let's take The Visit for example. Director Michael Madsen's previous film Into Eternity garnered festival play and awards the world over. The Visit, the second film in Madsen's trilogy, is a bit more of a curious creature.

The conceit is just this -- NASA scientists, UN representatives and government agents attempt to enact what they think would happen when (if?) humans finally encounter alien life. It is a surprisingly bureaucratic process. The film is composed of interviews that take deadpan to an entirely new place. This reaches an apotheosis of sorts in an interview with two members of the British government who debate in toffee-nosed elocution about the correct wording for a public announcement on the alien arrival.

As composed and controlled as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space OdysseyThe Visit is alternately fascinating and frustrating. Depending on your level of patience (or maybe indulgence) you may find it charming, quixotic, or simply silly. That's okay. The point is that you've seen something that isn't instantly definable. It is its own weird thing. I don't know whether I liked the film or not, but I am still thinking about it, so that means something.

Another example of an interesting film essay (taken from the French root essai, meaning to try) is Jenni Olson's The Royal Road. Ms. Olson's earlier work The Joy of Life, like Mr. Madsen's first outing gained universal acclaim, so it is natural to approach her new film with a certain level of expectation. The Royal Road, appropriately enough, is a bit of ramble. It perambulates through American history (the film takes its title from El Camino Real, the ancient road that joined missions in California). Along the way there are side jaunts into old Hollywood (paying particular homage to Vertigo and Hitchcock's glossy, fetishized vision of San Francisco) and a meandering trek through a doomed lesbian love affair.

As the interwoven tangle of narratives converge and collide, moving over and beside each other, one gets pulled along for the ride. (A section devoted to the U.S. invasion of Mexico is particularly fascinating.) All the while, Ms. Olson drily narrates, like you were on a road trip together.

Acquired tastes

Depending on whether you like or loathe the central figure will determine if 90 minutes of a film is torture or a goofy good time.

I didn't initially hate Sam Klemke of Sam Klemke's Time Machine, but by the end of the film, that documents some 35 years of Klemke's life, I was a little exhausted by the man. Beginning in 1977, 19-year-old Sam began filming annual status updates about his life. His ambitions, hopes, dreams, girlfriends, jobs, eating habits, all of the minutiae of an ordinary life are captured in all their mundane, occasionally maddening glory. Director Matthew Bate sets Klemke's story alongside that of the creation of the Golden Record, a collection of human society and life on earth that was sent into space with the Voyager 1 spacecraft. If you feel for the pathos of Mr. Klemke, you may find this marriage of the micro and macrocosm sweetly charming. If you're a woman, you may lose patience 30 minutes in and walked out the door, like Sam's many ex-girlfriends.

As much as director Lewis Bennett seems like a lovely fellow, I simply couldn't stomach his film about Salam Kahil, a.k.a. The Sandwich Nazi, although I know many folk who felt quite differently. If it's simply a matter of taste, I will own up to that. I didn't like the man, did not want to spend any time with him, and couldn't wait to escape his company. All of which to say is that one woman's chopped liver is another man's endless chatter about blowjobs and bodily stains. Or something like that.

Some films are interesting, charming or compelling enough, but then there are a few that are disappointments. I wanted to like Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein's film This Changes Everything, I genuinely did. Leaving aside the furor that has sprung up around Klein's Leap Manifesto, I don't think the film will win hearts and minds. I wish it were otherwise, but more on that here.

Festival gems

Of the VIFF films I have seen thus far, I would highly recommend 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (agonizing, but a necessary look at gun violence and racism in America), Li Wen at East Lake (director Luo Li possesses a wonderful eye and an idiosyncratic take on both documentary and drama), and Sean McAllister's A Syrian Love Story.

McAllister's previous film The Reluctant Revolutionary had its heart a wonderful character, a Yemeni tour guide named Kais. In his new work, he has an entire cast of amazing folk, a family composed of Syrian activist mother Raghda, Lebanese father Amer, and their four kids including the incredibly precocious and adorable Bob. If you want to witness the true cost of the Syrian revolution, here it is in within the confines of one family. Wrenching and emotional, but not without hope, this is riveting look at how personal and political history meet and implode.

Some of the most interesting things on offer at VIFF this year aren't actually films. Hidden Pasts, Digital Futures: A Festival of Immersive Arts is a series of environments/installations that are available to mess about with until Oct. 16 at SFU Woodwards.

Of the many starting and innovative works included in the exhibit, and the one that hits closest to home is Stan Douglas's collaboration with the National Film Board -- Circa 1948. At the opening of the exhibition, Mr. Douglas spoke about the genesis of the work, stemming from his art student days, back when Emily Carr was still The Vancouver School of Art. While walking to school, Douglas talked about how suddenly he began to notice aspects of his neighbourhood, just by looking up. Even the slightest shift in perception was enough to introduce an entirely new sense of the city.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone talk as fast as Stan Douglas, a voluble flood of ideas and impressions pours of out of him. Circa 1948 has been in the works for quite a while, which as Mr. Douglas indicated was actually a good thing, as it gave the technology time to catch up to the vision in his head.

The opening gala provided a sneak peek at the installations themselves, and it was a fascinating experience. I highly recommend The Pure Land exhibit created by Sarah Kenderdine and Jeffrey Shaw. The installation is a recreation of the Dunhuang Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in China's Gansu province. The caves themselves are situated at the beginning of the Silk Road, and have been deemed a World Heritage Site

In her introductory talk about the work, Ms. Kenderdine spoke about the experience of witnessing government forces bulldozing the community that had grown up around the caves. Squatters' shacks and small businesses were turned into rubble to make way for a planned amusement park. Leaving aside some of the more problematic aspects, the installation itself is something to behold.

The Pure Land environment is designed to provide a level of detail, colour and texture in the cave artwork that is very hard to see with the naked eye, due to the level of degradation brought about by humans and their humidity. When you enter, a thousand years of history virtually leaps out and smack in the face. In technical terms, the AVIE system recreates the cave in the round, some 360-degrees, all in 3D, animated and stunningly beautiful. Even the briefest glimpse on the opening night was enough to stun and amaze.

The other works on offer are equally compelling, and best of all they are free. You can book tickets to see the full incarnation at the SFU Woodwards site. At last glance they were going very fast, so get them while they're hot.

But as fascinating as these installations are -- and indeed, they are genuinely amazing -- the nature of the experience gave me a strange feeling. These are only copies of things: the originals are no longer accessible to ordinary folk.

I recently saw a 3D project, similar to Pure Land, about the Caves of Lascaux in France. Though still a work in progress, it was a mesmerizing film -- beautiful almost beyond belief -- yet it called up some strange form of melancholy. I am still pondering over this experience. Walter Benjamin may still turn over in his grave. "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be," he wrote in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

New film frontier?

The most interesting aspect of a work like Circa 1948 is its ability to recreate a place that no longer exists, complete with the physical memory of actually inhabiting that period of time. This idea feels genuinely new. I don't know if it is actually a glimpse of the future of cinema, as was stated during the opening night speeches, but I guess we will see.

Maybe it’s because technology is now capable of doing what was only possible in your mind, but some deep-seated part of my soul feels uneasy. Or maybe it's because there is something curiously lonely about these experiences. Wandering through a recreation, encased in 3D glasses, one can feel like a miniature submarine, peering at the world through a periscope. It is a different experience than the social one offered by traditional cinematic presentation, which is by its very nature is a collective thing.

The ritualistic aspects of looking at something together, whether it's a cave painting or a film about cave painting, seems like something inherently human. It is an experience with roots in the very beginning of human history.

I think about early humans, making pictures on a wall, lit only by torch, and know that sitting in a movie theatre is not dissimilar. Maybe that's why we love movies so much: we've been going to them since before time began.  [Tyee]

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