The Vancouver International Film Festival is here again, as dense, variegated, and impossible to cover in full as ever. Based on the Toronto post-mortems and investigations, this marks VIFF as an off-shoot of the festival-of-no-identity crowd, so broad and diffuse it can mean everything and nothing simultaneously. In its second year following a categorical revamp, VIFF might still screen a hard-to-define potpourri to the curious and inexperienced would-be ticket-buyer — from the soon-to-be-widely-released award sponge to the complete-mystery low-profile continental premiere — but for anyone determined enough to seek one out, there are pockets of deep discovery: a survey of the current state of BC film production, carefully curated selections of works from young Canadian artists and old and new East Asian filmmakers, and other avenues worth following that won’t be revealed until the DCP packages start elapsing and unanticipated connections begin to form.
In this year of daily migraines, it can be equally easy to say that a film festival is a big nothing, meaningless and comfortless, next to real-world threats, and to repeat the poorly-sourced theory that bad times yield great art. Where there is turmoil, one always expects the documentaries and the opportunistic surveyors of verite drama to rush in, but VIFF this year will not have any large change to its makeup — there are films whose subjects will inevitably draw comparison to the lightning-quick power of disorientation pulsing through the 24-hour news cycle, but none arrive professing to cover, specifically, the way “staying informed” is now synonymous with observing unbridled hatred and denial. But films are not ammunition, are not solutions, and are not effectors of change — they provide ways of seeing and spaces, sometimes, for thinking. “Shadows,” John Berger wrote, “offer shelter as can four walls and a roof.” VIFF, since year one, exists in part because its mandate is to bring the city’s communities together, “to encourage understanding of the world’s cultures through the art of cinema,” the kind of ideal that, at least, doesn’t change in urgency depending on what year it is.
Perhaps along this kind of line, one of the few changes this year is the addition of a documentary award (in the “Impact” stream), the only international financial prize of the festival (there are five Canadian awards with another four for BC productions). The only other addition to the festival this year is “MODES,” a two-program selection of short works hailing from “video and screen-based artists” — the screenings add, at least in theory, to room at the festival for experimental works.
But the largest of the changes at the festival this year comes from behind the scenes: Tony Rayns, the long-time programmer for the Dragons & Tigers series, is retiring from his role, which in recent years meant the selection of films from Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. While it is technically possible to see dozens of films at the festival without encountering the series, now grouped under the “Gateway” stream, in the early years of the festival Rayns’ curatorial work and the competition associated with it was instrumental to VIFF establishing a name for itself as a place for filmmakers to go to, and a standard of quality maintained today in the series — in Rayns’s absence this year, Chinese-language programmer Shelly Kraicer collaborated with Alan Franey, the director of programming, Maggie Lee, a new addition, PoChu AuYeung, the festival’s senior programmer, and Mark Peranson, a programming associate and editor of Cinema Scope.
“I hired Tony in 1989 to be the key person for Dragons & Tigers, so we’ll miss him, he’s hard to replace,” Franey says.
To accurately imagine the type of atmosphere created by the program is difficult today — film culture has changed: attitudes toward so-called “foreign” cinema are at once more porous and more solidified, and festival awards and the role of gate-keeper-esque figures like Rayns are regarded, typically, in a different, often diminished light. But to look, briefly, at its legacy as it appears today, Rayns’ work with the festival saw the recognition, awarding, and financial support of early works from Jia Zhangke, Diao Yinan, Lee Chang-dong, and Hong Sang-soo; this year’s rare and special in-theatre screening of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is unimaginable without the work of Rayns and Franey over the past two decades. In conversation, Franey balances the past, when he, Rayns, and the whole idea of a truly international festival was younger, with today.
“There was a time when very few people outside of Asia were paying attention to Asian films,” he says. “Tony really wanted to change that, and so he put a lot of personal investment into travelling the region and discovering filmmakers. [Later,] I think he felt that the more other festivals were also recognizing the strength of East Asian films, the more that was a general pursuit, rather than a singular pursuit … his role of being a pioneer was superseded by market realities to a certain extent.”
Those market realities play an invisible role at VIFF, at least when it comes to the program guide — next to the expected high-profile selections from Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, and Locarno are equal absences: new films from Claire Denis, Chloe Zhao, and Lucrecia Martel are nowhere to be seen, and, as it relates to Dragons and Tigers, Hirozaku Kore-eda, Wang Bing, John Woo, Vivian Qu, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa all had films premiere this year — at other festivals — before skipping VIFF. But Kraicer, the Chinese-language programmer, notes that these are also decisions made due to space, perhaps almost as much as due to sales agents and premiere-positioning — when choosing between a now-established name-director and an unknown with no shot at North American distribution, sometimes the film on the minds of those who follow festivals online won’t be the one to make it.
“Selecting and introducing to Western audiences films that are formally challenging, sometimes ‘experimental’ or avant-garde; films not necessarily designed to attract a broader audience or have any kind of box office-based commercial success — that’s the point, to me, of the Dragons and Tigers section at VIFF: to provide a special, curated space for these art films that would otherwise find it difficult to meet audiences they deserve,” he writes in an email.
Currently, there is nothing set in stone regarding the number of programmers for Dragons and Tigers for the long-term. After this year’s festival, Franey and team will reconvene to look at what worked and what might require alteration. Whatever the decision, Kraicer says one does not have to look far to gauge the success and importance of the program.
“It’s critically important, I believe, that VIFF’s films engage with Vancouver’s various ethnic, linguistic, and cultural communities,” he says. “In particular, there are so many Vancouverites from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and they should be able to find films at VIFF that reflect their film cultures.”
VIFF runs from September 28 through October 13 on three screens at International Village and one screen each at the Rio, Cinematheque, Playhouse, Centre for the Performing Arts, SFU Centre for the Arts, and the festival’s year-round home at Seymour and Davie. Vancouver Weekly will have coverage throughout the festival.