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Reeling at Vancouver's Film Fest

An insider's guide to the best of this year's VIFF.

By Dorothy Woodend 19 Sep 2008 |

Tyee film critic Dorothy Woodend is also associate editor of publications for the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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'Paruthiveeran,' a Tamil love story.

Usually by the time I'm finished watching hundreds of films as part of my work at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), I can't bear to think about one more movie... for a while.

But then that insatiable appetite to see more springs back and off I go, film pass in hand.

This year, as per usual, there is a ridiculous amount of choice at the VIFF. Everything from music documentaries (films about Youssou N'Dour, Celia Cruz, Béla Fleck, The Wrecking Crew, etc.) to environmentally-themed films collected in a new section called The Ark. Actually, the VIFF is four or five separate and distinct film festivals -- Canadian film, documentaries, Asian cinema -- each section crammed under the larger auspices of this thing they call the VIFF.

If you're determined to pack in as many films as possible, God bless and good luck, but even if you only have time for a few, here's a smattering of VIFF choices to launch you into the festive mode.


If you've been watching festival favorites approach from previous festivals in Berlin, Sundance and Cannes, you're already in the know about Waltz with Bashir, Three Monkeys, and Hunger. These are all excellent choices, but you may not be surprised by them. And often surprise is the very best part of going to a festival, stumbling upon something that you know nothing about that literally explodes your brain into soggy chunks. Doesn't that sound fun?

Everyone deserves to discover their own secret festival film, but this year the one that rocked me sideways was director Ameer's Paruthiveeran, a two-hour Tamil epic packed with singing, dancing, murder, lust, crime, family honour, a feisty heroine, a leonine hero, and terrible, terrible tragedy. Right from the opening sequence (which takes place at a local village festival), this film practically wallops you over the head with colour and energy.

The story is complicated, but in short. Paruthiveeran is a wild child, who was raised by his libertine uncle after the death of his parents. His biggest ambition is to get locked up in the city jail. Despite his bad boy ways, he is loved passionately by a beautiful young woman named Muthazhagu. After he rescued her from a childhood accident, she swore her undying faithfulness and love. Stories about star-crossed lovers never end particularly well, and this film makes no exception to that rule. This is epic filmmaking -- plush and overripe, hot and sweet, sweaty, brutal, ridiculous -- and it ends like something Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe might have penned, if they were in a particularly vicious mood.

The horror

If you're a horror film fan, two films this year will thrill and chill you. Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, having picked up every major award in horror film festivals around the world, makes an appearance here. It is truly a great film. Oskar is a homely 12-year-old living in the outskirts of Stockholm with his single mom. He is the kind of kid that other kids sniff out, as if he emits an odor that says, "Here be bullying material."

But when a new girl named Eli moves in next door, everything changes for Oskar. Eli emits a strange smell of her own, a little like decay and dried blood. She may look like a 12-year-old girl, but Eli has been 12 for a very long time. When she and Oskar first meet, it's like any pre-teens sniffing at each other. They pretend they don't care, but, of course, both of them are dying of loneliness and desperately in need of a friend. What is ostensibly a vampire film is also very cleverly a classic coming-of-age drama.

Smaller scenes, such as Eli and Oskar learning Morse code so that they can tap out messages on the wall between their apartments, or an amazing sequence on a school skating trip, positively shine. There is gore in this film, but it is never needless; everything is made with clarity and precision and thoughtfulness. The pain of being a geeky outsider in an ugly sweater is something a great many of us can relate to. Let the Right One In, for all its supernatural trappings, has a deep naturalism that contains depth and surprising amounts of heart.

A more straightforward horror offering is [REC], a Spanish roller-coaster with a final scene that may send you rocketing straight out of your chair. It's a stripped down, lean, mean machine that positively races towards a final nasty conclusion, with nary a pause for breath. An American remake is already poised for release. If you're in need a good jolt, here's your film.


The Ark Series takes the natural world (water, animals, and of course, people and their assorted activities) as its purview. In the pack of animal-centric documentaries on offer this year, there are a couple that leap at your throat. Quite literally, in fact.

The story of Cat Dancers is the curious tale of Ron and Joy Holiday, who began their big cat act in the 1960s and catapulted themselves, and their menagerie, into the glitz and glam soaked Vegas circuit. The film is largely narrated by the only surviving member of the act, Ron Holiday, who is himself a pretty exotic creature, complete with tattooed eyeliner and big fluffy wigs. But despite his sometimes self-serving approach, he makes a pretty compelling storyteller, as he recounts the early years of his life and career.

Ron met Joy when they were both kids in ballet class. After he fled for New York City, she followed a few years later. A few pounds lighter, and sporting a platinum dye-job, the young Joy proved a knockout and love was instantaneous. The couple began their stage career as adagio dancers, but when actor William Holden gifted them with a very young black panther, the Cat Dancers act was born. Before long, the Holidays had added lions, tigers and jaguars (although at the time, jaguars were considered completely untrainable.)

When a young circus performer named Chuck Lizza joined the act, he became a fixture in Ron and Joy's life, and eventually became their shared lover. For almost 15 years, this arrangement continued happily (at least according to Ron), until the couple decided to add a white Bengal tiger to their act.

You may find yourself a little skeptical about Ron's version of events, simply because there is no one left to contradict him. Still, there is a remarkable pathos about this film. Director Harris Fishman brings sympathy and a deep compassion to this most curious of tales.

Another film that examines the curious relationship between animals and people is Robyn Bliley's Circus Rosaire. The Rosaire family has been in the circus biz for nine generations. Over time, each member of the clan has come to oddly resemble the animals they work with. There are the bear guys, big, hairy and boisterous. There is the monkey woman, irascible and wiry, and the tiger lady, sleek and regal. The Rosaires seem to have developed an almost uncanny bond with the animals they work with, and this deep and abiding love and affection is abundantly clear. This film is also extremely funny and filled with joy and wit.

My favorite animal film in the festival is The Lie of the Land, which is perhaps an odd choice, since it is principally concerned with the death of animals, including a number of extremely young calves. Documentarian Molly Dineen was first drawn to the plight of the small British farmer because of the ongoing and heated debate in England over the tradition of the fox hunt. When she traveled to rural England, she discovered that the reality of the situation is both more complicated and more tragic. What I found most enthralling about this film was simply the farmers themselves. Blunt, plainspoken and wonderfully idiosyncratic, the opportunity to be in their company was a deeply compelling experience.

Political animals

These days, I get almost all of my political information from watching documentaries. If you're a political animal, too, and love being incensed, then I suggest: Secrets of Economic Hitman; Blue Gold: World Water Wars or Chomsky & Co. But best of this bunch is Secrecy. Peter Galison and Rob Moss's film, unlike many other political offerings, has the confidence and the intelligence to speak to both sides of the secrecy question.

Everyone interviewed in the film has a strong opinion on the subject, and they make reasoned, albeit impassioned, statements for and against the need for information. The film does not impose one side over the other, but to a large extent presents different sides of the debate, and allows the viewer to piece together their own opinion. This is not to say that the film does not a have a point of view. When you think about the film after seeing it, it's fairly clear where the director's sympathies lie. But still, even ex-CIA types are allowed to speak their piece, and their arguments carry weight. It is also beautifully crafted, filled with slippery bits of black and white animation that graphically illustrate some of the points being made.

Sexy stuff

Secret Museums is about the little known collections of erotic imagery that have been squirreled away over the centuries for the delectation of wealthy old perverts, and of course, the Catholic Church. This is truly a polyglot film, switching from English to French to German, as various curators and collectors explain the impetus behind the need to collect or censor sexy images. Often the two things go hand in hand.

There are a number of curious and often very funny stories in director Peter Woditsch's film. Example: the head librarian at L'Enfer (Hell), housed in the bowels of the Bibliothque Nationale, and the repository of Napoleon's banned books, recounting how she was only given the job after she'd had a child, when it was assumed she knew a thing or two about the facts of life. Or a German collector, who stumbled upon a portfolio of erotic etchings, and initially didn't want to tell the director where they actually resided, wanting to savor the secret pleasure of knowing their whereabouts for as long as possible.

Despite the salacious subject matter, this is a surprisingly sophisticated film. While it does examine some rather raunchy material, including the original manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom, written, naturally enough, on a roll of toilet paper, while the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, the ideas themselves are remarkably erudite. Questions about control and power are far more challenging than any number of marble penises.

And many, many more...

This is only barely scraping the surface. There is a host of other wonderful choices: The Lost Colony, Pachamama, Sita Sings the Blues, Firaaq, Must Read After My Death, The Rest is Silence, Who Is Afraid of Kathy Acker?, Paper Cannot Hold the Embers, Marina of the Zabbaleen, My Marlon, and Brando, A Christmas Tale, Modern Life, Chelsea on the Rocks, and many more.

Six can't miss picks

If you only have time for a couple, I would suggest Let the Right One In, Paruthiveeran, The Lie of the Land, Waltz with Bashir, and leaven things up with a bit of comedy, Welcome to the Sticks or The Grocer's Son.

Everyone's experience of the festival ought to be uniquely their own. You have yours, I have mine, and maybe we can meet for coffee one day to discuss things.

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