Poetry, hockey, and bad TV: An overview of VIFF’s BC Spotlight

In an already notorious advertisement screened before every movie playing at VIFF (for Telus, the “premier partner” of the festival), “locals” praise the qualities of the local items they love. “I love local food,” one says, “I love local baseball,” another, “I love local art,” and so on. And then: “I love … film — I like local TV.” It is, simply, a work of beauty and truth — not even the voiceover actor paid to sing the greatness of all things grown in this province can muster up a convincing sell for local film! But perhaps the answer to this half-asleep participation is within the festival: that, as any staff member and volunteer would be happy to remind us, is the point of the BC Spotlight program, now in its third year.

The premise: as Vancouver serves as a stopping ground for out-of-town productions, one has to wonder — where are the people who can do the work of an artist, rather than the assigned work of a week-by-week serial, who hide the city and the suburbs as an anonymous backdrop? Are they overshadowed by the industry’s prominence, ignored? The spotlight, with its financial prizes tied to making actual films (post-production services, career advancement, equipment credit), would seem to be a direct response to this gap. As it stands, the spotlight is a mix of wildly different tones, intentions, and subjects. Any time a prize is put at the head of a program, it raises the question: will it then attract submissions from those making the greatest work, or those whose work will be designed to look and sound like work called the “greatest” in the past? The answer, predictably, is both.

Hello Destroyer

Kevan Funk’s Hello Destroyer arrives at VIFF already anointed the “next big thing” in Canadian cinema, the type of success that means photo shoots for the director and topical notes on the film. But away from the logline (no, it isn’t really the Bertuzzi story, though a violent on-ice injury does happen, and yes, when you consider what the film does, and how the hockey-entertainment industry is, by comparison, overwhelmingly timid and dishonest, it is almost enough to call it something major), Hello Destroyer is a film structured around alienation, repeated in its depiction of downtime (Jared Abrahamson, in the lead role, voice cracking, offering to help, swallowed up in shadows and corners and a mostly abandoned cycle of rinks, training rooms, and farms), and its rigorous control of dialogue (like in Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok or Trier’s Oslo, August 31, mundane conversations carry on, advice is dispensed, and a main character stares into the middle distance, ready to escape, unable to speak, rooted to the spot). Hockey only exists in the periphery (we don’t know the thinking behind, or even clearly see, the critical moment), but Funk, who wrote the script, significantly changing the premise of his similarly hockey-team-set short Destroyer from 2013, repeats the point unambiguously: in a year when Sports Illustrated imagined the death of the NFL, Canadian hockey culture, with its repeated mantras of humility and service, has been bankrupt for a long time.

The Unseen

Whispers of a former hockey career hang around the protagonist of The Unseen, but the first feature directed by Geoff Redknap, a longtime makeup artist in the local TV industry (from Stargate SG-1 to Supernatural) represents another kind of filmmaking in the program: the movie that imitates the moves of larger, popular movies, the movie that feeds on other movies. These movies work with realism, but whether they show characters at work (The Unseen), at home (Cadence), or arguing and “loving” one another (Marrying the Family), they speak in “plot” and “argument” and “cliché” and portray life, even if mixed with parody, horror, or science fiction, as several dimensions away, the stuff of images inherited, but not re-translated or understood. To get specific: in The Unseen, a father (Aden Young), afflicted by an unexplained curse that is hollowing him out (and CG-erasing his body), tries to re-connect with his daughter (who is sick with living with her mother and her mother’s new partner). A merger of moody character study, crime-TV stereotypes, and racist shock-tropes (after offering natural medicine, a Chinatown store vendor, all broken English and smiling nods, ends up being a front for an organ-harvesting basement operation), the movie ends up being a record of Young walking from location to location, occasionally listening to propositions and accusations. Thankfully, at the end of the movie he kills someone bad and his daughter loves him.

Cadence

That being said, it’s worth appreciating the general competence of the filmmaking in The Unseen. Not so in Cadence, a movie made by a recent UBC film program grad that displays the following: a protagonist whose only defining character traits are that she likes to make breakfast and has nightmares; horror sequences that turn out to be all in her head! and then aren’t!; psychopathic villains that taunt and torture, in the way untrained actors who have been given a vaguely defined prompt in an improv class might taunt and torture; and so on. There’s a lot more that could be said about the underlying sentiment of this project, but the first impression says it all: the film’s opening scene, in which the main character’s mother tells her that, last night, she was having nightmares, with the two actors left to flail by their director (they recite dialogue, technically), the scene edited by a blender — the movie, in a side-plot, makes fun of radio pop through a fake star, but there’s no rhythm, no sensitivity, and therefore no horror, here.

There’s always someone willing to sound the call that cinema is dead, and television supreme. Regardless of where you stand on that argument, there’s no denying that the proliferation of television series across new production companies has had an effect: people expect more out of a narrative comedy. Marrying the Family uses the pseudo-documentary style that is everywhere in comedy today, and that’s no surprise on its own: playing with how we process reality has turned out to be a reliable prop, zooming and panning often selling punchlines as much as the actors and dialogue (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine). But this is a careless movie, from the temp-track background music to the underwritten jokes, which combine bromides about marriage with zany family controversies that make Father of the Bride look like a work of neorealism. There are record scratch sound cues and plans fall to ruin, and the pseudo-cynical tone of the movie is arguably worse than any movie where marriage and happiness are taken as a given, since it ends up in the exact same place: everyone says “I love you,” there are a few sniffles as self-aware vows are exchanged, and a baby is the couple’s next stop on life’s journal. Repeat something enough times without any feeling and it loses all meaning. Families are difficult. Life is bittersweet. The movie was shot in Langley and Vancouver.

Spirit Unforgettable

The rest of the BC Spotlight selection is mostly composed of documentaries, many of them mixing different approaches to their subjects. But there might not be a more platonic ideal of the form for the program than Spirit Unforgettable, which profiles John Mann, known as the band leader for Spirit of the West, a Vancouver-born folk-rock group, and as a graduate of Studio 58 — Mann collaborated with Morris Panych on an original play that premiered last year at the Arts Club (and Panych directed the band’s most well-known music videos). The form of the documentary is sturdy and predictable: interviews give an oral history, and concert videos provide the proof. But, again, ideal: this could play at other festivals, it could be shown on television, but when it plays at VIFF (and it is showing as the centerpiece of the program, where the ceremony for awards winners will be announced), there will be people who know Mann in the audience, or at least know his work. The occasion for the documentary is Mann’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s — most of the band, at this point, has health problems of one kind or another, but Mann’s are now advanced. The film, then, is like a chance for fans to ask, “How are you doing?” and receive a tender, thoughtful reply and a wave of memories.

Konelne

Another documentary arriving at VIFF with acclaim is Konel?ne: Our Land Beautiful, the “best Canadian feature” at this year’s Hot Docs festival. An uneasy mix of ethnographic observation and isolated landscape b-roll shots, unrolling in stately slow-motion or timelapse, often with the sound of wind cutting through the mountains or a voiceover sharing thoughts on the beauty of the Canadian North, Konel?ne is mostly notable, according to the early notices, for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t stake out a position, it doesn’t resort to charts and contexts, it adopts a formal, almost regal perspective. And it does this with the contested land of the “Golden Triangle” mine development of Northern BC as a significant part of its focus (it skips between subjects, never emerging as an argument, more a catalogue of encounters in the geographical area). On the one hand, this journalistic distance does the work of apolitical “even-handedness,” the director, Nettie Wild, even noting in a statement she had to withhold her judgment as she interviewed the people she met, as if the removal of subjectivity is ever possible when pointing a camera at anything. On the other, it’s made clear that without giving mine workers, hunters, activists, and government representatives a non-judgmental place in the frame, they simply wouldn’t have agreed to participate in the project, and the film would not exist. So, the film lays out what there was to find in giving all sides a chance to speak, detaching every now and then for another voiceover explaining that, yes, what you’re looking at is land that people love and think is beautiful. The theory, perhaps, is that seeing the other side will “open up a dialogue.” In any case, no matter where you look, a lot of work goes into the land; a lot of work goes into the creation of the stories that upkeep the land, the ones that here seem to inevitably conclude, “It is good that so-and-so has possession of the land — they are making good use of it.”

A New Moon Over Tohoku

When it comes to interview-based documentaries, often it’s worth wondering what the questions were. In Konel?ne, Wild removes her voice from the movie. In A New Moon over Tohoku, they aren’t foregrounded either, but because of the documentary’s simple structure, we know: How did it happen, and Now what are you going to do? Linda Ohama, the director, is asking about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and she is asking it years after — when she tries to reconstruct the pieces of the oral histories that she is able to gather, showing the paths people used to walk, there is only packed earth and open spaces to see. So this is a movie about memory, Ohama asking her subjects to relive their trauma before the camera, and how it doesn’t, in the same way, change the land. It is also, in its steady, unhurried manner, less of a narrative documentary, more a personal archive — there is the sense of trying to capture as much as possible, to show that this is how people feel about a still-recent nightmare, though at times the approach seems to fail to deeply consider the enormous amount of pain the people she meets, dredging up the unspoken, are asked to give: one woman, overcome with regret, thinking of the people she could not help the day of the earthquake, says, “It is unforgivable that I am alive!” and the camera, already holding her in its gaze, is walked forward and repositioned, abruptly, inelegantly, so it can zoom in on her anguish.

Mixed Match

Jeff Chiba Stearns’ Mixed Match is, basically, an education video — an illustrated magazine article. It acknowledges this: its topic, bone marrow transplant donors, and the difficulty in finding ones for patients of mixed race, has been covered before — profiles in Glamour magazine, Time magazine, and the national media after American League All-Star Rod Carew’s daughter was faced with the same problem years ago. But Stearns, after providing an easy-to-understand entry-point to the situation, keeps researching, meeting new subjects, putting more faces to the same dilemma. Mixed Match is an awareness tool, one that explains the difference between white and red blood cells, but it also provides a careful overview of the way donations fail, how research takes time, and how, in a side-narrative, the targeting of mixed-race donors is not the only, or necessarily most accurate way of describing how diverse HLA types need to be identified and matched. But, as the organizations he catalogues say, it is the easiest way to get more people to understand — which is currently lacking. And so the movie makes its point.

Window Horses

Even though Mixed Match animates some of its genetic-intro segments and Stearns’ personal thoughts on the matter, the movie’s visual approach (smooth handheld naturalism) is consistent. That’s true of all the movie’s in this program, bad and good, from Hello Destroyer’s shallow-focus natural light to the DV-quality digital flatness of A New Moon over Tohoku and Marrying the Family. And then there’s Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming, an animated collage-memoir-essay directed by Ann Marie Fleming, which changes styles almost every 10 minutes: watercolour, digital line-drawing, mosaic, charcoal, op art, silhouette, and so on. To describe the plot is to make it sound banal: a young girl writes a poetry book, is invited to a poetry festival, and meets people that knew her mother and father before they emigrated to Canada. Voiced by Sandra Oh, the script is deft and light, even as it opens a portal into the history of Persian poetry and brings out the politics of any artwork’s origins. It, at the same time, very clearly, declares a vision of creation as one that comes from contact with other people, rather than only other art — Rosie, like a young Agnès Varda or Chantal Akerman, has created without knowing her influences, and so is said to have transcended them. As critics praised Boyhood for its drawing on autobiography, while also playing with structural experimentation, Window Horses, though it may seem more conventional, with its cartoon-strip two-shots and flights of poetic visualization, hits the same sensitive area: without the support of others, Rosie, unsure of whether she should really call herself a poet, wouldn’t have the space to practice her craft.

The BC Spotlight, as a whole, is proof of this. No matter how dire some of these films may be — suggesting the bar to entry, at this point, could be seen as pretty low — all of the films in the Spotlight required a significant amount of funding to make it this far: government grants, tax credits, support from Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board, and crowdfunding campaigns. The awards for this program, then, directly guarantee the continued creation of the artists behind the work, in a way that will, perhaps inevitably, result in another film, to be submitted to VIFF again in few years from now.

Note: Keepers of the Magic, a documentary about cinematographers, also playing in the BC Spotlight, was not available for preview.

  • John Malcolm

    Huh? Did you only stay past the first 15 minutes of Cadence? The second half of the film is awesome, totally explains why the first is riddled with dream cliche’s etc. Was actually a really clever movie, one of my favourites from VIFF this year.