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Bringing Down the House with Mr. Dressup: The Tyee’s Guide to VIFF

This year’s fest features Stanley Cup rioters, a man who lives with lynxes and Laura Dern in a surprising turn.

Dorothy Woodend 29 Sep 2023The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Cinephiles, start your engines: the 42nd edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival is here through Oct. 8. I’ve got a few suggestions to get you rolling, with future instalments on the way.

In I’m Just Here for the Riot, Vancouver in flames

On June 15, 2011, my sister and I were celebrating our shared birthday at a restaurant. It was hard to concentrate on celebratory fun, however, as the television screens in the place were showing a developing situation in downtown Vancouver. My son Louis kept darting out to the street to see if he could see smoke coming from the downtown core. Eventually he could.

It was the second time that a hockey riot rudely intruded on normal life. In 1996, I’d gone to see a movie, thinking that because everyone would be glued to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, the theatre would be quiet. When I went into the theatre, it was a pretty normal scene on the streets: a few people were milling about, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Two hours later, I emerged from the movie just in time to see the riot squad in full gear, marching down the centre of Granville Street, beating their shields with their batons.

“Shock” doesn’t quite do it justice; I was flabbergasted. The windows of Eaton’s and the Bay were smashed, and giant shards of glass were everywhere. The cops, in full berserker mode, were screaming at everyone to get off the streets. When I made it home, my phone rang. It was my stepdad calling to see if I was OK.

In I’m Just Here for the Riot, directors Kathleen S. Jayme and Asia Youngman do solid work in recreating the lead-up to the 2011 riot, as well as the actual events of the night of wilding. But the riotous aftermath is decidedly less riveting than the main event, as residents set out to reclaim Vancouver’s battered reputation.

The public baying for the metaphorical blood of those involved in the destruction took on a wild life of its own. The fact that many of these folks were teenagers or young adults makes for a rather sad denouement.

Most of the folks interviewed in the documentary spend the bulk of the time performing mea culpas for their involvement. Most weren’t actually looting, tipping over cars or setting fires but were merely posing for photos. But in the agonies of recrimination, fuelled in large part by social media, none of that much mattered.

The day following the 2011 riot, a co-worker said in a matter-of-fact manner, “We all want to riot.” Yes, we do, I thought. The key part that’s missing in the film is just how thin the skin between chaos and civilization really is.

There’s something about rioting that calls to an ancient part of us, the part that wants to escape the grind, upend the established order and let something else come forward.

This impulse has traditionally had channels — festivities and communal events — meant to unleash the pent-up stuff. Hockey is a poor substitute for these ancient rituals, but you use what you have. I don’t think the simmering stuff has really gone away. Maybe one day, another hockey riot will erupt. But whether the city learns anything remains to be seen.

Watch the trailer for I’m Just Here for the Riot on YouTube.

In Lynx Man, the quality of a waking dream

Eurasian lynxes, like their North American cousins, lead solitary and somewhat mysterious lives, a quality that also befits a Finnish farmer named Hannu.

On his property in a remote corner of the countryside, Hannu lives alongside a wealth of animal life, including deer, moose, foxes and wolves, as well as a number of lynxes. Lone males and females with their kits are captured on a revolving series of trail cameras that Hannu sets up on his property.

As the seasons evolve, we come to know these animals as unique individuals. Joseph, Grumpy Girl and her five offspring, Velvet Eyes and Spot share their lives and deaths. It is a singularly immersive experience, akin to a waking dream.

Juha Suonpää’s Lynx Man is a beautifully rendered documentary that questions the line between humans and the wild. Film trailer via Hot Docs Fest.

Director Juha Suonpää brings a playful inventiveness to the proceeding, mixed with what could almost be termed magical realism. Shadows, projections and theatrical experiments combine with the nocturnal comings and goings of creatures into a cinematic bouillabaisse that feels genuinely authentic, nourishing and warm.

How anyone could think that killing these exquisite creatures is a good idea is beyond me. As Hannu, behatted and large of beard, clumps about in his giant rubber boots and occasionally dons a handmade lynx mask, there is a sense that he isn’t that far removed from his wild feline friends.

In Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, a profound humanism

Break out your hankies, folks, because this film is bound to bring on a few tears for adults of a certain vintage. Even if you never sat down and watched Mr. Dressup when it was on the air, the show was/is/continues to be a cultural touchstone for generations. Falling within the tradition of recent films like Won’t You be My Neighbor? and Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, Mr. Dressup brings a distinctly Canadian angle.

A parade of famous faces from Michael J. Fox to the Barenaked Ladies all attest to the legacy of the show, as well as the importance that Ernie Coombs held in their own lives. A gentle, good-natured guy, Coombs possessed exactly the right mixture of whimsy, talent and a profound humanism that instantly translated into devotion within the younger set.

Although he is recognized as a Canadian institution, Coombs was actually born in Maine. He came to Canada along with Fred Rogers at the behest of CBC to launch a children’s programming department. After Rogers returned to the United States, he suggested that his colleague Coombs be given his own program.

Following the launch of the foundational Canadian children’s television series Butternut Square, Mr. Dressup first aired in 1967. With 4,000 episodes, it became a cornerstone of CBC, and a gentle, treasured experience for millions of kids and no doubt their exhausted and grateful parents.

Robert McCallum’s Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe is an affecting portrait of Ernie Coombs, the man behind a long-running children’s television series enjoyed by generations. Film trailer via Prime Video Canada.

Director Robert McCallum has reams of material, and the film boasts a wealth of archival clips and interviews as well as more intimate recollections from Coombs’ children and grandchildren. The rest of the cast provide their own memories of what the show meant to them. Among these, Judith Lawrence, the Australian puppeteer who gave life to Casey and Finnegan, is the most fascinating. A gruff type, she seems somewhat bewildered by the emotional reaction invoked by the characters she created.

After she retired from the show, Lawrence moved to Hornby Island. In one of the funniest and most poignant moments in the film, she describes breaking out her creations to give an impromptu show at a local pub. When she looked out into the audience, the entire bar was in tears. Oh Canadians, what a sappy bunch.

But truly, it is impossible to resist the power of innate goodness embodied by the people who made the program, beginning with Mr. Dressup himself. Let the tears flow and remember the weird little kid you once were.

In Common Ground, celebrities grapple with climate grief

Josh and Rebecca Tickell’s Common Ground features actors reading letters for future generations. Film trailer via VIFF.

If you hate celebrities and performative piety, this one might not be for you. Scenes of actors like Jason Momoa, Laura Dern and Donald Glover reading letters for future generations, essentially saying “Sorry, kids, we fucked up!” is even worse than it sounds. The film is well-meaning and earnest to a fault, but Lordy, does it ever trowel it on thick.

To be fair, in amongst the treacle there are some interesting bits. The evils of Monsanto and industrialized agriculture won’t be a revelation unless you’ve been living in a hole in the ground, in which case you’re probably already aware. But when the narrative focuses on developments in agriculture, exploring elements from biodynamic farming and regenerative farming practices, it’s interesting.

This turf has been well covered by a wealth of other films, including Kiss the Ground, from the same filmmaking team of Josh and Rebecca Tickell. As much as the information contained in the film is necessary and critical, it’s very hard to get past the celebrity schmaltz. If you need additional and more in-depth coverage, read George Monbiot’s book Regenesis.

In The Mission, devotion becomes obsession

Prior to watching this film, I vaguely remembered the story of John Chau, the young evangelical missionary who staged a secret mission to visit one of the truly autonomous Indigenous civilizations on the planet.

North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal, is home to the Sentinelese people, an Indigenous community who have violently stood off anyone visiting their island home. Neighbouring communities suffered horrifically at the hands of colonizers. Since 1956, a no-contact zone has been established around the island, but this did little to deter John Chau, who decided he was on a mission from God.

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s The Mission is a haunting documentary that tracks the journey and lasting impact of John Chau, a 26-year-old who embarked on a quest to connect with the Sentinelese people, to tragic ends. Film trailer via National Geographic.

At the tender age of 26, Chau was no starry-eyed child raised on adventure stories, but a fully grown man, well aware that what he was doing was entirely illegal and incredibly dangerous. Aided, abetted and tacitly encouraged by more senior members of the evangelical missionary movement, Chau concocted a plan that involved visiting the island without permission in order to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. For his efforts, he was killed, and his body was never recovered.

Many of the people interviewed, including T.N. Pandit, Adam Goodheart and most especially linguist Daniel Everett, who worked as a missionary with the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon, provide context as well as thoughtful analysis.

The narrative is rounded out by Chau’s journal entries, letters to his parents and interviews with those who knew him best, as well as his own video footage from his climbs and treks around the world. But it is Chau’s grief-stricken father who provides the heart of the film, as he explains how his son’s religious devotion spiralled into obsession.

Meanwhile, back in American evangelical territory, Chau’s tragic death is being used to motivate other Christian missionaries to undertake similar action.

The Vancouver International Film Festival is on in Vancouver from Sept. 28 to Oct. 8.  [Tyee]

Read more: Film

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