For 35th year, VIFF debuts a re-design and increases focus on BC film

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If you look up at a screen, or listen to a moderated conversation, or race-walk between venues during any of the sixteen days of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, it’s not likely you’ll notice much of a change from last year, or the year before. The message this year from the festival, in announcements and the program and other advertisements is one of change, but it’s designed to be a peripheral one.

“The series and the sections festival-goers are used to having seen in the past, that programming still exists,” says Jacqueline Dupuis, VIFF’s executive director. “We really want our loyal audience to understand that everything that they’ve always known and loved is still here and alive within this stream structure.” 

VIFF Street Poster

But it’d be wrong to say there’s nothing significant going on with the new naming conventions and redone typography and adjusted organization of “streams.” These are the most visible changes brought about by a new strategic plan for VIFF, one that intends to appeal to several targets, including filmgoers, workers in the local industry, the provincial government, and the international festival community.

VIFF, in its 35th year, is no stranger to any of those groups, but its approach is adjusting under Dupuis’ leadership. In her third year as executive director after taking over the role from Alan Franey (who has been with VIFF since its first year at the Ridge Theatre, and remains in the role of director of international programming), Dupuis says it is time for the festival to be clear about where VIFF stands in relation to its different audiences.

“We’ve been working really hard to build freshness and relevance into our programming and [to] support the industry where we can and engage industry professionals as much as possible,” she says, adding that this isn’t something that has been lacking in previous years, but that, through the festival’s reorganization, there will be a more concerted effort to “bring that forward.” 

What does that mean? For a start, the re-structure is attempting to erase the divisions between the festival, its industry sidebar, and the year-round programming of the Vancity Theatre, giving them all the same terms and a shared brand redesign. And where competitions and headlining speakers, in the past, emphasized film production and practices more generally, the additions this year all point directly at what’s happening in BC Workshop days for independent productions and sustainable practices indirectly correspond to prizes, which in multiple cases fund future work from new, local filmmakers. Only the audience award (now named the “Super Channel People’s Choice” after a change in advertising partner), technically, can now be awarded to a non-Canadian production.

VIFF Press Conference

“When I became festival director [in 1988], I didn’t need to change course much — it was really just a matter of clarifying what we were doing,” Franey says. “My decision at that time was to entrench the series that we had to create an international identity. We brought a lot of young Asian directors in, we launched the Dragons & Tigers series and the jury award, we brought in international experts in that respect. We also made Canadian films a central component of the festival, and a couple years after that, we added non-fiction films, so it became a three-tier identity: Canadian, East Asian, and documentary.”

Dupuis, arguably, is following a similar course, overseeing the re-defining of three distinct areas: the BC Spotlight and its numerous awards, two Canada-wide series (Canadian Images and Future//Present), and issue documentaries (now grouped under the “Impact” stream), with their related industry components. 

Dupuis calls the BC Spotlight the highest-attended series from last year’s festival, issue documentaries tend to be some of the most popular in lineup chatter, and, contrasted with the identity of Vancouver as the place where productions flock when the dollar is trading low and an identity-less backdrop is needed, the nationalist impulse has its attractions. 

“By now, I have learned to take it for what it is: a potpourri of current films from all over the world; some bad, some good — I see them all,” wrote Jonas Mekas, one of the New York Film Festival’s fiercest critics. Overlapping as it does with the NYFF (and following so soon after TIFF), choosing to highlight local offerings can be seen as a pragmatic choice: aligning itself with the industry would seem to steer VIFF well clear of the downturn (or demise, in the case of the Montreal World Film Festival) that non-profits see in their nightmares. And VIFF has never truly been in the business of jostling for world premieres, which gives it a modest, more reliably curated schedule, but also means it doesn’t always find trade-paper column-inches — a position as encourager and supporter of films that intentionally point their camera at the festival’s home province is, then, a niche that guarantees a certain amount of goodwill and good gate receipts.

“What a lot of people don’t think about when they think about not-for-profits is that if not-for-profits are able to generate revenues, they can make more art or create more services,” Dupuis says. “So it’s really important [to] drive those results so you can do more of your main mission work.” 

As VIFF forges ahead, there are some innovations that might give some festival-goers, both filmmakers and film enthusiasts alike, pause. Is virtual reality going to become an intersection of new technology and “new storytelling,” or is it more likely another of the several horsemen that show up in Godfrey Cheshire’s “Death of Film/Decay of Cinema” essay?

Tony Rayns, the programming consultant for selections from Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, the Phillipines, and Vietnam, notes that since the lapse in a young directors’ award for the Dragons & Tigers series three years ago (the award’s funder, Brad Birarda, stepped back from support, and a replacement was not found), the festival’s international stature has, if not exactly been diminished, changed. 

VIFF Posters

“Losing the award did affect the programming: several filmmakers preferred to hold back their films for festivals elsewhere,” Rayns writes in an email. “But I think it’s equally significant that VIFF’s new management is less interested than its predecessor was in exploring East Asian cinema; you can see this from the scaling-down of the Dragons & Tigers section, and from the way that it has been moved from the front of the old catalogue to the back of the new programme brochure.”

While the Dragons & Tigers series continues, with 27 films, under the new “Gateway” stream, only one of the 15 gala and special presentation selections is from a director working in Asia — the well-established Park Chan-wook.

“I think the whole premise is, for non-profit cultural agencies is: they should be taking risks, they should be thinking about the interests of the artist as much as their own bottom line, and they should be thinking about the plurality of audiences out there,” Franey says. “Fortunately, when you have a large selection of things, you can afford to have highly specialized work and ones that appeal to just about everyone.”

That, in the end, is VIFF’s identity: not even the head programmers will see every film, and it is impossible to both attend the industry meet-ups and workshops and catch the movies programmed throughout the middle of the festival. Schedules, and the connections formed between films, how they inspire or disappoint or surprise, will overlap for a couple screenings in a row at best: VIFF is ultimately a loosely guided experience.

That being said, there’s always an enormous amount of thought behind the series at VIFF, whether it’s the selections from Cannes, Locarno, or the uniquely curated shorts programs.

“Technology has allowed filmmakers to make things that look ‘good’ and sound really ‘good’ much easier than they ever could before … but it still comes down to the script, it still comes down to directing, comes down to acting,” says Sandy Gow, who programs the international shorts (Curtis Woloschuk oversees the Canadian selections).

With the exception of the Rio, the Cinematheque, and the VIFF-run Vancity, Vancouver doesn’t have much in the way of alternatives for first-run offerings of any kind (plans to keep the Park and Fifth Avenue devoted to their slate of arthouse and foreign films were basically discarded by Cineplex as soon as a financial quarter had passed; today you’re just as likely to see a Marvel episode as a movie that isn’t playing at five other screens around town), which makes VIFF’s role even more significant as a home for films that aren’t de jure parts of “the conversation” — many films at VIFF will find their way to multi-week runs, but in more cases, this is it. 

As for the re-structure, the way to look at it might not be within the context of the next two months, but how it will be put to use in the future. Will it increase VIFF’s brand recognition? We’ll see if, next year, it’s easy to recall the difference between “Ignite” and “Next” without consulting the program guide. Will it bolster the festival community, better promoting the many options for attendees? Aside from the continued lack of Q&A guest listings in the program (likely the result of scheduling intricacies and deadlines), the streams are, if nothing else, clearly defined and sensible. And, according to the executive director, it’s in the plans to see them grow, even beyond their use year-round at the festival’s theatre.

“Every year we’ll be able to add programming to each of those streams,” Dupuis says. “It’s a really exciting and flexible model.” 

The Vancouver International Film Festival runs from September 29 to October 14, beginning with opening film Maudie, a period-piece biopic about Nova Scotian artist Maude Lewis, and closing with a special screening of Terrence Malick’s IMAX cut of his birth-of-the-universe docu-essay Voyage of Time at Science World. Vancouver Weekly will have reviews and coverage throughout the three weeks of the festival.