After the last number of years as a hybrid festival, the 41st Vancouver International Film Festival is headed back to the theatres this year. I think this is a good thing, although there is a portion of me that is still uneasy about large, mostly unmasked crowds. Don’t feel pressured into venturing out naked faced, even if you think all the cool kids are doing it. If ever there was a place you could sit quietly, masked to the gills, it should be a movie theatre.
Now onto the offerings in this year’s festival, cinematic and otherwise. There are films, live presentations, industry events, creator talks and more. There’s no human or humane way to take it all in. But I have a few suggestions of what to see, what to skip, and how to create your own personal festival that is both enjoyable and enlightening.
Bones of Crows
While it is a necessary film, VIFF’s opening night film Bones of Crows is not easy. The film begins with a caveat about the difficult content contained therein and it is on point.
The bludgeoning brutality of Indigenous peoples' experience in Canada manifests in different narratives throughout Dene-Métis director Marie Clements’ epic story. Bones of Crows contains ongoing trauma of residential schools, murdered and missing women, sexual abuse, addiction and violence: all of these are filtered through the life of the Spears family.
When Aline Spears and her brothers and sisters are taken from their parents and sent to residential school, the cycle of destruction begins. Clements (The Road Forward, Red Snow) knows her way around a story and here she has an expansive canvas, both thematic and temporal. Aline’s story begins in the early 1920s and stretches to current day. Alongside her personal experiences, the bigger events of the previous century play out, from the Second World War to the upheaval of the 1960s, with the emergence of the Indigenous rights movement.
Aline (played at different ages by Grace Dove, Summer Testawich and Carla Rae) is joined by a stellar cast including Glen Gould, Cara Gee, Michelle Thrush, Joshua Odjick, Gail Maurice, Paulina Alexis, and the one and only Alanis Obomsawin.
In spite of the challenging content, there are many moments of grace in the film, especially early on when the Spears family is still intact and together and later, when through sheer dint of extraordinary will, Aline raises her own children to be courageous and whole.
The acts of confrontation with the forces of colonialist oppression, whether it’s the Catholic church or the Canadian government, are ongoing. One of the most powerful moments occurs at the end of the film, with documentary footage of residential school survivors telling their stories.
My Imaginary Country
In his new film, Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button, The Battle of Chile series) returns to Chile, the country of his birth, to document the emergence of a new social movement. The film is a remarkable mixture of biography, history and current events.
In his mellifluous voice, the filmmaker explains how his first film about the Chilean revolution came about, with help from French auteur Chris Marker. As Guzmán recounts it was the 1973 military coup led by Augusto Pinochet that resulted in the death of then-president Salvador Allende, as well as the imprisonment, torture and death of thousands of his fellow Chileans that sparked his career as a filmmaker. Guzmán himself was arrested and spent a couple of weeks imprisoned in the National Stadium before decamping for France.
His return to Chile was prompted by the need to document and understand the birth of revolutionary change spearheaded by young, largely female leadership. A sudden increase in subway fares sparked an uprising by students, and the protests soon spread. Before long, young people were pulling up pavement stones to create makeshift weapons. Street battles with the police erupted across the country in what came to be known as the Estallido Social. Nowhere are the painful echoes of history more apparent than in the struggle to rewrite the Chilean constitution.
When a million people gathered in Santiago, the scope of the desire for change was revealed. In this footage, filmed from a bird’s-eye perspective, the astounding number of folk gathered in the streets make explicitly clear what is at stake: nothing less than the future of the country.
Director Anthony Shim (Daughter) has created a truly remarkable thing with his film Riceboy Sleeps. Nothing less than a heartbreaking, funny and often astoundingly beautiful piece of work, Riceboy Sleeps is a new Canadian classic. Huzzah!
The story begins with young woman named So-young (the astounding Choi Seung-yoon). Raised as an orphan, she falls in love with a young man, and gives birth to their son. But when tragedy strikes, So-young and her baby boy Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) set forth on a new course.
After the pair move to Canada, she finds work in a factory, and Dong-hyun starts school. It’s not an easy transition for either of them. The kids at school think Dong-hyun’s lunch smells weird and the teacher can’t pronounce his name. He is advised to choose a new anglicized version and immediately wants to be called Michael Jordan.
These are only the beginnings of a film graced with many lovely, idiosyncratic moments ranging from the camaraderie of the women working in the factory to the scenes of young Dong-hyun growing into a teenager (played by Ethan Hwang), complete with bleached yellow hair and a sullen attitude.
The intricacy of intimacy, whether in friendship or family, is examined with intelligence and compassion. Even the smaller moments, such as when Dong-hyun makes marijuana milkshakes with his lactose-intolerant buddy, are so wonderfully observed that they become a thing of pure easy joy.
It is the relationship at the centre of the film, that of mother and son, that is the most nuanced and complex. When tragedy circles back around for another kick at the family, it’s inevitable to feel your own heart break a little.
The Grizzlie Truth
Despite its somewhat goofy premise and slick execution, Kat Jayme’s film ends up in unexpected and often deeply emotional territory. Jayme’s previous outing with the Vancouver Grizzlies, the 2018 short Finding Big Country, took on the quest for one player, one Bryant Reeves. In The Grizzlie Truth, Jayme’s directorial scope has widened, encompassing not only the team itself, but also issues of money, race, identity, family, and an odd species of loneliness particular to Vancouver.
Despite their truly dismal record, the Grizzlies were Jayme’s team. As she explains, she attended games with her family, cheering like a maniac, collecting memorabilia and even making a diorama of team members with herself included.
Part of the NBA expansion that included the 1995 founding of the Toronto Raptors, the Vancouver Grizzlies came roaring into town in the mid-’90s. While the Raptors went onto fame and sporty glory, the fate of Vancouver’s franchise was not as easy or simple. A combination of bad luck and a lack of superstar players was part of it. But as various folk weigh in, pondering whether the team was doomed from the start, key questions pop up in the film. There are more than a few surprises along the way, as Jayme indomitably tracks down the truth of what really happened.
As former Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson explains in an interview, his strategy of learning by losing was starting to bear fruit, even as the forces that would send the team down south were already at work. Rebranded the Memphis Grizzlies, the team found a new fanbase in Tennessee, much to the horror of hardcore Vancouver fans. Although die-hards still hold out some hope that the city might again have an NBA team, insiders are not nearly so optimistic.
Interviews with former players now scattered across North America reveal the complexities of the story. Strap yourself in, it’s a hell of a ride. From the most epic losing streak in NBA history to the machinations of the league itself (hint: the role that money plays cannot be underestimated), to more personal reactions to the loss of the city’s team, the film is a true odyssey, buoyed by the effervescent character that is the filmmaker herself.
The Killing of a Journalist
Alexander Nanau’s 2019 documentary Collective set the bar extremely high for stories of courageous journalists and corrupt systems. Matt Sarnecki’s exposé of the 2018 targeted murder of Slovak reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová comes pretty close to the extraordinary territory established by the earlier film.
The assassination of Kuciak rocked the nation, especially after the collusion between government ministers, senior police officials and mafioso-stye oligarchs was revealed. Before his death, the young reporter had specialized in the dark financial dealings of shady businessman Marián Kočner. Kočner made little secret of his enmity for the journalist, threatening him in public not long before the murder took place. When the police appeared little interested in solving the crime, street protests erupted as the public demanded justice and accountability.
Sarnecki orchestrates the multiple strands of narrative with efficiency, offering interviews with Kuciak’s journalism colleagues and family members alongside court proceedings, police interrogations and street protests. Some of the most startling footage comes from a most unexpected source, namely Kočner’s legal counsel.
Although justice isn’t exactly served in the way that you might wish, the film reveals the true cost of telling the truth. When the rich and the powerful control the mechanisms and institutions of the state, the only true opponent is a free and dedicated media. The Killing of a Journalist joins a wealth of recent films that hammer home the critical importance of the fourth estate with precision and fury.
When Nisha Platzer’s older brother Josh took his own life at age 15, his little sister was too young to fully understand what happened and why. Decades later, Platzer returns to her hometown and rediscovers the community who became Josh’s support network. With poetic attention to the smaller details that carry outsized emotional weight, Back Home navigates the agony of loss with clarity and a stubborn species of hope. In watching the film, I was reminded of Petra Costa’s luminous documentary Elena, about the death of her older sister. The same attention to the grace and the ordinary beauty of the world suffuses both works.
Intimate moments of conversation and reminiscence with those who knew and loved Josh are assembled alongside the filmmaker’s own journey of discovery. As Platzer contends with her health issues, curious synchronicities begin to occur. The mother of Josh’s best friend Sam is the only person in town who offers the healing services that help Platzer.
As family members and friends contend with Josh’s death in their own fashion, another narrative unfolds in delicate and painterly explorations on 16mm and Super 8 film. Back Home bridges together the twinned worlds of art and emotion, creating a shared space for grief, healing and true catharsis.
Director Jason Karman’s debut feature mixes a rom-com premise with kitchen sink drama to a somewhat uneven convergence. On the surface of things, an East Vancouver teenager named Jake Wong has a pretty good life. In addition to his devoted girlfriend, he has solid friendships, and budding basketball skills. But Jake is hiding a secret. When a cute young guy moves in across the alleyway, their mutual attraction cannot be denied.
Meanwhile, the other members of Jake’s family are dealing with their own issues. His parents are trying to run a restaurant together even as their marriage is disintegrating, and his older sister is struggling at culinary school. While the drama quotient is cranked a little high in places, the film has its charms.
The lead performance by Cardi Wong is particularly strong. It’s wonderful to see East Vancouver play its crotchety old self.
Come back tomorrow for more VIFF picks!
The Vancouver International Film Festival runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 9.