The maple trees return to their autumn-appropriate attire, keeping fluttering leaves in check. Hordes of cinephiles, lips stained from the markers used to highlight their puzzle of a schedule, make their way through a thick curtain of rain to the queues of the city’s film theaters. Atom Egoyan parades the red carpet, signifying Vancouver Film Festival has officially kicked off.
Two days in and screenings of Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, A Hidden Life and The Lighthouse are completely sold out. The brimming festival calendar meets a hungry audience that has been patient long enough. The majority of the films shown at VIFF hails from the European film circuit or has just been covered en masse in Toronto. Don’t let that ruin your fun, though. With over 201 feature films and 125 shorts, there’s something for everyone. Besides, the Left Coast festival also has merits beyond its Special Presentations. Sections like Future // Present, with quirky and original Canadian indie cinema curated by Adam Cook, and Dragons and Tigers (now Getaway), East Asian films meticulously selected by Shelley Kraicer and Maggie Lee, are an annual rendez-vous for film enthusiasts and make for a big part VIFF’s attraction as a stop on the festival circuit.
Fried rabbit ears and the suggestion of pedophilia got the festival off the ground, in Atom Egoyan’s newest film Guest of Honour. The Canadian veteran filmmaker sends you off on a narrative roller coaster ride, with more plot-twists than you cared for. Flashbacks fuelled with family trauma are thickly woven into the fabric of Egoyan’s story about grief and the convolutions of father-daughter relationships. His characters, tormented and tortured, are dancing around each other in the hopes to find answers. At times, the thread is lost. Particularly when to story makes a long detour in an Armenian restaurant. It’s not Exotica, but it also doesn’t have to be.
Byputting women at the center of the frame and adopting audacious and uncompromising aesthetics, the films of the Future//Present section offer a breath of fresh air. So much so that a New Toronto New Wave has been declared, referring to a 80’s group of young talent of which the young Egoyan was originally part of. The formal choices of Anne at 13.000 ft, Murmur and MS Slavic 7 are in total accordance with the message or idea their films’ narratives want to convey. Kazik Radwanski’s oppressive camera keeps you feeling uncomfortable in your squeezy little seat, while you struggle to keep up with the volatile main character of Anne at 13.000 ft. Anne’s conflictual efforts to break free from suffocating normative adulthood lead her straight to a new hobby: jumping out of planes at 13.000 ft, also called sky diving. In Murmur, Nova Scotian filmmaker Heather Young creates, with a tight 4:3 frame and an almost total absence of a score, the portrait of an older woman grappling with addiction and loneliness. Treading lightly, the lingering camera manages to depict the broken and flawed character without giving into miserabilism. It didn’t go unnoticed. This narrative film with the spine of a documentary, Young’s first feature wrapped just last August, picked up a FIPRESCI award at TIFF and $10.000 for Best Emerging Artist in Calgary (Alberta) on its way to Vancouver.
On Cherry Lane, a young tutor and a wealthy divorcee fall in love. Pushed forward by Fellinian dream sequences and changing seasons, it slowly merges into a delicate love triangle. Drenched in nostalgia and intoxicated by the Western canon, Yonfan’s luxuriant film experience No. 7 Cherry Lane is set in 60’s Hong Kong where the revolution merely forms a backdrop to highlight the age difference of the two lovers. Using anime, stop motion and hand-drawn work, he comfortably takes his time to put Madame Simone, Jan Eyre and Proust on an erotic pedestal. After 10 years of absence in the film world, the flamboyant filmmaker audaciously sets the mood for the Dragons and Tigers section.
Unlike their European counterparts, the major Canadian film festivals are rooted in community. VIFF, an audience festival par excellence, showcases work made in British Columbia in its Sea to Sky section. Films such as The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Ash, Haida Modern, and The World is Bright collectively hold the pride of the province this year. With over $100.000 in prizes and awards to hand out, filmmakers are pampered and placed in the spotlight. Before the festival is over, young, promising, local recipients are sent home with thick cash-in-hand envelopes, fretting over the fact that they’ll actually have to come up with another great idea to legitimate this ego-stroking recognition.
VIFF is mindful of the space in which it moves and seems to act in unison with the spirit of the hosting city. Built on tax incentives, special effects and film schools, Hollywood North is brimming with production crews and local talent. Last year, the festival launched a mentorship program for 15 emerging Vancouver-based filmmakers, paying particular attention to underrepresented and misrepresented voices. Candidates in the early stages of their filmmaking career are invited to further develop their filmmaking skills through industry sessions, facilitated access to funding and general networking. Rebaptizing VIFF as the Left Coast festival would honor that approach in a very literal manner. But it would cast a shadow on the international beads VIFF also has in store for us.