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More Film Fest Picks by Woodend

This year, close your eyes and open your ears.

Dorothy Woodend 23 Sep

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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[Second of two parts. To read Woodend's earlier picks, go here.]

Music may be the language of love, but more often than not, it is also the international language of film. It's part of the whole human experience thing - like revolution and social change. In every nation of the world, someone is singing, plinking and plucking, strumming and drumming or otherwise engaged in making music.

This year, the VIFF is presenting a wealth of tuneful offerings, including Mahaleo, Brasileirinho, Everything Blue: The Colour of Music, Favela Rising, Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes for a Fugue, Abdullah Ibrahim - A Struggle for Love, The Miracle of Candeal, Forty Shades of Blue, Five Days in September, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Elliot Carter: Labyrinth of Time, Punk: Attitude. Do you see a theme here? Without music we wouldn't get up to very much -- no sexy stuff, no dancing, no overthrowing the status quo and, certainly, very little joy.

'Maria Bethânia: Music is Perfume'

One of the musical focuses is on Brazil -- samba, choro and AfroReggae -- musical movements that tell the story of a nation. In Maria Bethânia: Music is Perfume filmmaker Georges Gachot fashions a love letter to Brazilian singer Maria Bethânia, who is one of the most distinctive voices in Brazilian culture. Whether she's singing to a crowd of thousands or alone in the studio, the singer is a charming presence throughout.

One of the more interesting things about the film is just watching musicians being musicians, talking about their craft, following along as the singer demonstrates how a subtle shift in intonation can change the entire quality and intent of a song. When Maria Bethânia takes to the stage, she becomes an entirely different person, larger than life, the rest of the time she says "I'm just a boring housewife," and laughs. "My voice is nothing but a divine spark lit within me."

'Everything Blue: The Colour of Music'

Director Jesse Acevedo's Everything Blue: The Colour of Music covers similar ground, this time with Samba, a form of music that Bethânia terms "Sadness dancing." Brasileirinho examines choro, a musical form which predates Samba, and originated out of the unique cultural mix that is Brazil, a country of extremes, in every sense of the word.

'Favela Rising'

Racial segregation and deeply divisive politics have always been at the heart of Brazil's cultural mix, add to this drug violence and rampant corruption and you have a lethal combination. This deadly co-mingling erupted in bloodshed in 1993, when 21 innocent people were murdered by Rio de Janeiro police in retaliation for the death of four local cops. This event that inspired Anderson Sá, a drug-trafficker turned social revolutionary to use hip-hop music and Afro-Brazilian dance to unite the citizens of some of Rio de Janeiro's worst favelas (squatter settlements) that, in turn, inspired the documentary Favela Rising.

‘A Struggle for Love’

Racial unrest is at the heart of another musical documentary about jazz legend Abdullah Ibrahim, called A Struggle for Love. Ibrahim left South Africa for 28 years, returning only after Nelson Mandela was freed, and Apartheid fell. During his exile, he became one of the world's most beloved jazz performers.


In Mahaleo, filmmakers Cesar Paes and Raymond Rajaonarivelo document the activities of Mahaleo, a musical ensemble that has been the voice of the people of Madagascar for over 30 years.

'To the Other Side'

Music is also the underground document of people who have been marginalized almost out of existence in To the Other Side. Filmmaker Natalia Almada was drawn to the idea of the corridos, and ended up watching her film unfold virtually in front of her when she was introduced to Magdiel, a young corrodista who in exchange for composing a song that details the exploits of a coyote (someone who guides illegal migrants into the US) is offered secret passage into America.

'The Red Baton: Scenes of Musical Life'

One of the sure signs that you need music to control a movement is the state funded art of Communist China, and Stalinist Russia. The Red Baton: Scenes of Musical Life in Stalinist Russia, Bruno Monsaingeon's documentary about Russian composers during the time of Stalin, focuses on the era of programs, Siberian exile and terror -- a paradoxical time when world renowned soloists were forbidden to perform on the international stage, and party toadies were given complete power. Great composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, even Stravinsky himself, when he finally returned from his exile in the west, suffered humiliation and threat of far worse.

Like the famous quote about the cuckoo clock, sometimes hard times make for great art, and other times they simply destroy. One scene in particular sums it all up: one shot of Shostakovich, made up like a kewpie doll, is shown playing the piano during the Golden Hills Suite. You have never seen a more disgusted human being in your life; he radiates a ferocity of rage and resignation all without moving a single feature of his face. It is a masterpiece of subversion.

'The Yang Ban XI: The Eight Models Works'

The Yang Ban XI: The Eight Models Works refers to the operas that Madame Mao commissioned to celebrate the glory of China's Cultural Revolution. For many years they were the only forms of art shown (on stage and in movie versions). The people who made them, and the fans who remember them, recall the operas with a strange combination of nostalgia and bitter sadness. The works themselves, relics from an age when political movements were bigger than God, are both luridly appalling and strangely fascinating.

'Elliot Carter: Labyrinth of Time'

Elliott Carter was born in 1908, and has lived through almost a century of musical history, which more often than not, is intimately connected with regular old history, whether it's the battlefields of WW I, Paris during the rise of the Third Reich, or September 11, 2001. Carter has the last word, when he pronounces "In the future (...) people will become more sensitive and aware than they are now. They will have to, because society will become more complicated, more full of people, with more different things happening. People will have to become much cleverer and much sharper. Then they will like my music."

'Punk: Attitude'

Anarchy in the UK was only the beginning in director Don Letts' Punk: Attitude. It's the second word that is actually more critical since it is the informing element of the punk ethos and such practitioners as the Clash, The Ramones, The New York Dolls, The Sex Pistols, MC5, Patti Smith, The Dead Kennedy's, Nirvana, Black Flag and the Velvet Underground. There is something both simultaneously heart rending and warming to see the surviving members of the New York Dolls recollect their early days. Old punks never die, unless they do actually die, they just turn into cabaret acts.

Canada's offerings Canada too, rocks, when Rodney Graham takes to the stage with a special pre-festival event entitled An Evening with Rodney Graham. Graham is one of Vancouver's favorite art stars, but here he brings another of his talents to the stage of the new Vancouver International Film Centre stage - being loud and proudly Canadian.

Which also, oddly enough, describes another of this year's festival highlights Five Days in September -- a documentary about the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Wha...? I hear you say, but trust me you'll like it.

The Score, from Vancouver's Electric Company, also uses music to make sense of the science of genomes.

Another song and dance routine comes from animator Áron Gauder's The District! where kids of every possible ethnic origin do battle via anime influenced rap, and working girls sing about their experiences in hot pillow joints. The blues comes full circle on this little blue and white world.

The way music infiltrates every layer of life in most cultures, unites in usual, and often unsuspected ways. As in Play, the debut feature from Chilean director Alicia Scherson, a film that uses sound in very unusual ways. A young woman finds an iPOD player that a young man has lost, she spends most of the film with his headphones clapped to her head. His music is a way to enter into his world, an intimate and immediate path straight into his heart and mind.


You want opera, we got opera, because, really the world is a pretty operatic place. Carmen strikes again, this time in an African township in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha. Carmen is one of the most well-known operas in the world, and here it is given essentially a new lease on life, another way to hear the story of love, betrayal, jealousy and tragedy, all those things that make life worth living and worth listening to. The film screened at Cannes also picked up the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Sung in Xhosa, one of South Africa's 11 official languages, it is Bizet gets busy.

Opera also plays a pivotal role in The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, the Quay Brothers sourced inspiration in their typical eclectic fashion with music from composers Trevor Duncan and Christopher Slaski. Sounds fun. Even if music only plays an incidental role as it does in Yolande Moreau and Gilles Porte's When the Tide Comes In, in which Verdi's La Traviata figures prominently, it adds an underscore of sadness and poignancy to the proceedings of woman meets man, woman leaves man.

People have known the power of music to break down boundaries since primitive man picked up a rock to hit another primitive man and realized he liked the "Bong!" sound it made bouncing off his head. Early British explorers would often play musical instruments when they came upon hostile Amazon tribes to prove that their intentions were good, so too, venture anywhere in the world, and you will hear Eminem probably. This is either very good or very bad or both more likely.

Although one tends to think of films as something you watch, they are also something you hear. Music can make a good film great, and a great film, transcendent. It's nice sometimes to simply shut your eyes and listen. I think if I had to give up any sense, pluck out my eyes, cut off my nose and tongue but leave me my rather large ears. I need them!

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday. This year, she helped to write the program guide for the VIFF.  [Tyee]

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