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Vancouver International Film Festival takes BC film in a new direction

Each year, the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) reliably rolls out an impressively vast lineup of films, numbering enough to approach the level of Canada’s “festival of festivals” in Toronto, but curated into small enough segments that the event has an easily summarized identity.

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By Michael Scoular (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: September 24, 2014

(Image: Dennis Tsang)

(Image: Dennis Tsang)

Each year, the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) reliably rolls out an impressively vast lineup of films, numbering enough to approach the level of Canada’s “festival of festivals” in Toronto, but curated into small enough segments that the event has an easily summarized identity. This approach has given the festival a diverse audience, appealing to Vancouverites interested in films that the city’s now mostly homologous first-run theatres tend to ignore.

VIFF supplies choice beyond what its flagship, year-round location on Seymour and Davie Street can cover, but this has also been the reason for VIFF’s limited publicity as a festival — coming shortly after Toronto, overlapping with New York, and attaining the cultural attention of neither.

Industry-directed red carpets and premieres are typically limited to the festival’s opening and closing films (neither of which is guaranteed to bring in directors or actors), and a spot in Vancouver is often the only run a film will receive in a major festival, with its closer focus on films from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong. Distribution deals are not usually in the future for movies that screen at VIFF, and the same goes for the entertainment news that usually accompanies a production-deal-segmented festival. The films people have watched are what get talked about in line-ups, and with few outside reviewers and bloggers attracted to the relatively low-key event, even the quickest of snap judgments usually don’t end up on Twitter.

Theoretically, it’s as close to an ideal way to engage with new films as you’ll find in the North American festival circuit; and economically, it appears to work, with last year’s attendance touted as a new high despite — or even because of — the death of its former hub. Before, the bulk of the lineup was contained within the Granville 7; now, it can be found at SFU’s downtown campus, the Vancouver Playhouse, the Rio, International Village, the Centre for the Performing Arts, and the two main film centres in Vancouver: VIFF’s own theatre, and the Cinematheque, all of them with a different seating arrangement, screen and sound placement, and, to some degree, film variety.

However, this year’s VIFF signals a change in directorship, with Jacqueline Dupuis taking over from Alan Franey. The festival’s mix of films acclaimed at other sites earlier in the year, and its unique Dragons & Tigers series (programmed by Shelly Kraicer and Tony Rayns) — an assortment of Canadian film, documentaries, and the like — seem mostly intact, but a difference in direction is evident with what is now being called VIFF Industry (previously VIFF Film and Television Forum).

The series of workshops and guest speakers, many from around the province, is not new, but with a bit of rebranding and reordering of voted-on competitions seems to suggest a push in favour of the festival as a central, shaping force in BC film. Where in past years there was an award for first-time filmmakers in the Dragons & Tigers lineup, now the debut prize is applied generally. The largest award is now for the “best BC film,” with production and equipment credits tied to multiple awards. BC films to date, unlike those made in Toronto or Quebec, do not have a reputation as exportable Canadian talent, and VIFF, as an organization, is looking to find a way into that cultural pool.

The effect this has on VIFF’s selection process is, for now, gradual. Six debut films that previously would have counted in the old competition are included in the line-up, and BC filmmaking as something apart from a production location for American television and films is a sensible cause to back.

It’s worth noting that Toronto tried a similar approach with Perspective Canada, a program that has launched a number of careers. As current TIFF director Cameron Bailey puts it in an article in the Globe & Mail, “People began to question whether these films can or should be thought about as Canadian films, or whether they actually have a larger frame that’s more useful.”

This year’s BC spotlight, which includes a Norwegian-set album promo video (for a BC band!) and a handful of relationship dramas ostensibly unfinished in time for Sundance, will at least be an interesting indicator of what VIFF intends to identify itself as, whether a viewer-centric compendium of world cinema, or a proving ground for industry-educated local debutantes.

Look for continued coverage of VIFF over our next two issues, including new films from Jean-Luc Godard, Studio Ghibli, and Olivier Assayas (starring Kristen Stewart).

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