Acquired tastes from around the world: Previewing the Vancouver Film Festival

By Brendan Newton, for THECOMMENTARY.CA

Well, I'm back. Finally. It's been almost two years since I put together a column for THECOMMENTARY.CA. Where have I been you ask? Well, I suppose I could make up some big absurd story about how I became involved with the CIA, or drug lords, and then how I got abducted by aliens, thus I haven't been able to write for the past two years. But the truth is that I simply don't yet understand this whole 'don't take on more than you can do' thing. Five or six classes per term? Sure! Act in a friend's play? Why not! Do some work for a couple more clubs at UBC? Bring it on!

I did have a couple of interesting pieces that I was working on for The Commentary, but they were wiped out by computer problems. For now, I'll be contributing occasional pieces. I have attended a number of screenings for the Vancouver International Film Festival. I went, I saw, and now here are some thoughts on some films worth checking out. I do not have much knowledge of the technical side of film, so do not expect technical reviews of all the different camera techniques used.

There was not a really bad movie in the bunch, but they are all very, very offbeat. But what else does one expect from film festival movies, right? They are all very much acquired tastes, small movies that highlight ordinary stories from people's lives around the globe. All but one of the five films below are documentaries. And of course, documentaries are acquired tastes-it is much easier to drag a disinterested viewer into a well-written and well-plotted fictional story than into a documentary-look into a given topic. For most documentaries, it helps if the viewer already has some interest in or knowledge of the subject matter.


Based on a True Story is the Dutch filmmaker Walter Stokman's documentary about John Wojtowicz, whose botched 1972 attempt to rob a bank in order to finance his lover's sex change operation was the inspiration for the Al Pacino movie Dog Day Afternoon. Stokman does a thorough job of telling what is a strangely fascinating story from many different angles, interviewing Wojtowicz's friends and family (including his long-suffering ex-wife), police and FBI that were present, hostages, and Wojtowicz himself, who engages Stokman in a bizarre series of telephone negotiations that end when Stokman cannot agree to Wojtowicz's megalomaniacal demands. The movie also offers an interesting view of what happens when a fictionalisation of an event becomes better known than the event itself. Wojtowicz was almost beaten to death in jail by fellow inmates who, having seen the movie believed that he had 'sold out' his accomplice (who was killed in the robbery) to the cops, though the 'selling out' was a creation of Dog Day Afternoon's screenwriter. However, it must be said that this film might be more interesting if one has seen the Pacino film beforehand. (Indeed, Stokman was inspired to make the documentary after he noticed during a late-night viewing of the film that it was 'based on a true story.') I recommend the film mildly if you haven't seen Dog Day Afternoon; and strongly if you have. Based on a True Story screened Sunday, 02 October, and screens Thursday, 13 October at 1.40 pm at the Granville 7 Cinemas.

Season of the Horse is the only fiction film featured in this preview. This Chinese film tells the story of a nomadic Mongolian tribesman struggling against the economic, cultural, and political changes that are inevitably making his traditional way of life (which is centered around his beloved horse) an impossibility. This is an old story-one proud man against the unstoppable forces of change-but it's also a story that still has the ability to move because of the tragedy inherent in it. We know that change and progress won't be stopped-that might not always be a bad thing-but we admire the nobility of the man who stands against it. At the same time, one feels pity for him because we know that his cause is doomed. This film has its flaws. At times it just doesn't pack the emotional punch that one feels as though it should. It also feels a bit stretched out. I thought the movie was finished three-thirds of the way through, but it went on. The basic story however is compelling and the key acting performances by the star and director Ning Cai especially, are impressive. See Season of the Horse if you don't mind some slowness. It's on at the Granville 7 Cinemas on Monday, 03 October at 11.30 AM, and on Friday, 07 October at 3.00 PM at the Pacific Cinematheque.

A Particular Silence is an intimate and personal documentary by the Italian filmmaker Stefano Rulli about his severely autistic son Matteo's struggles, as well as the lives of other mentally and developmentally disabled people that his family meets. The movie is at times slow and painful to watch, but one gets the sense that this is intentional and that the viewer's frustration echoes that of Matteo's parents and caregivers. I would imagine that this film would have added resonance for those who have a loved one who is so afflicted. It definitely offers a very realistic view of the disabled that is at odds with the way in which they are often portrayed in popular culture, which tends to idealise the disabled as perpetually child-like, angelic persons who seem to have been given extra sweetness in exchanged for a diminished intellect. These disabled people on the other hand, are adults, with all of the attributes and flaws that that entails. In particular, they have relationships with each other. In one memorable moment, one woman with Down's syndrome discusses her relationship's suffering from the 'seven year itch.' At times, they are angry and even violent. Matteo is withdrawn, angry, and must not be left alone with his mother because he is aggressive towards her. In the end, this film is all about Matteo's parents's patience, which is of course borne of their love of their son. The viewer too is required to be patient, but it is in the end a rewarding look at these people's lives. See it Tuesday, 04 October at 7.30 PM at the Vancity Theatre, and at the Granville 7 on Saturday, 08 October at 1.40 PM, or Tuesday, 11 October at 8.45 PM.

Memory for Max, Claire, Ida, and Company is an 'actuality drama' about several residents of a nursing home struggling with the realities of aging, especially memory loss, that much like A Particular Silence is affecting because it deals with people that mainstream society generally ignores, and when it does pay attention to them, tends to anglicise them, and at worst dehumanises them in the truest sense of that word. Like Silence, this film reminds us that its subjects are simply human beings like us afflicted by unpleasant circumstances that we might well experience if we are lucky to live that long. The title characters love, laugh, rage, cry, forget, and struggle to remember. It's often very painful to watch, though at other times we are almost driven to nervous, guilty laughter. But there are some very touching and happy moments of love and companionship between the residents that assure us that like everybody else, these people are filled with pain that is only relieved by love and laughter. This film is recommended to anyone who doesn't mind an unflinching look at oft-painful realities. It's demanding but rewarding. The film screens Wednesday, 05 October at the Granville 7 at 6.40 PM, and Sunday, 09 October at 3.00 PM at the Pacific Cinematheque.

Everything Blue: The Colour of Music is a documentary about the vital role of samba music in the mostly black favelas (ghettos) of urban Brazil. This impressive documentary was of interest to me because I had read the Alma Guillermoprieto book Samba in a Latin American history course I took. The book intrigued me and this film is a good visual companion to it. Where the two differ is that while Guillermoprieto's book was really all about the author's efforts to integrate herself with her subjects (and her final failure to do so), Everything Blue's director Jesse Acevedo wisely detaches himself from the movie, offering no narration, letting the musicians and performers of the favelas speak for themselves. Especially memorable characters include a grandmotherly community leader who talks frankly about how she made her money as a prostitute in younger days, and a flamboyant transvestite who treats his female persona as though it/she was a work of art that he is continually creating. As one who is continually fascinated by how much of our lives and stories are self-created, I found him/her to be an extremely intriguing figure. "When I die," she memorably declares, "I will turn to neon and not dust." Even more memorable than these colourful characters however, is the brilliant samba music that fills the film. We are left with no doubt that this music brings meaning to lives that are filled with violence and racism. If you are a music lover, or a music liker, or have heard of music, go see this movie at the Granville 7, Saturday, 08 October and Tuesday, 11 October at 7.15 PM and 3.20 PM respectively.


There you have it. Five movies, five acquired tastes from around the world. None of them are exactly fun escapist fare, but they all have their merits and will be especially rewarding for those who already have some experience with or interest in the subject matter. Even if none of these films are your thing, I would recommend checking out the Vancouver International Film Festival as with such a variety of films from around the world, there's sure to be something that suits you. The full schedule is available at their website:


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