Bright Lights Film Journal

The Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival: February 2002

An engaging mix of cinema – two-thirds of it Canadian – visits the Great White North’s “postcard village on steroids”

The Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival, now in its eighth year, is like the little engine that could in a city that’s, well … not really a city so much as a postcard village on steroids. With a mission to expose and inspire both youth and adults to the use of film as a creative tool, this year’s event screened 165 films and had an impressive array of special programs including new media interactive events, film forums, art shows, workshops, lectures, special screenings, parties, and more parties. One of the new events at this year’s festival was InFocus, a program that emphasizes the films of one country. This year the spotlight was on Austria with such notable films asJedermanns Fest andLa Pianistewith the wonderful Isabelle Huppert in the title role.

Kathy Kay, the festival’s director, is serious about making independent film accessible to the average viewer, and it was while on that quest that the opening night film was chosen.

“We have found in general that the gala audience are not particularly independent filmgoers, and so this year we selected a film that was more accessible.”

From where I sit, I’m not sure that was such a good choice.The Man from Elysian Fields, despite the draw of big names – Andy Garcia, James Coburn, Anjelica Huston, Mick Jagger – never rises above the muck of typical Hollywood fare. Andy Garcia plays a writer who can’t find a publisher for his book and, unable to support his wife (Juliana Marguiles) and young son, takes a job with an escort service run by Luther Fox (Mick Jagger). The woman he squires around (Olivia Williams) is married (and devoted) to arealwriter (James Coburn) who happens to be dying. Though the script may sound promising, the worst thing about the film is, in fact, the script. The best thing is the acting, with Mick Jagger (as a kind ofX-Filessmoking man character) and Anjelica Huston (who plays Jagger’s longtime paying client) leading the pack. There are a couple of scenes with Huston that are almost worth the price of admission. Almost. Unfortunately, with the typical wrap it up, never mind if the audience believes it or not storybook ending, it’s hard to see why it was chosen as the opening film. The short that showed with it,Bad Animalsby David Birdsell, was the best part of the screening and deservedly won the festival’s Best Short award.

I don’t like to compare films, hell, truth be told, I don’t even particularly like reviewing films, butfilm festivalsare a setup for that inevitability. So let me say straight up that Todd Solondz’s latest,Storytelling, was not only the best at the festival but surpasses his own earlier films (Welcome to the DollhouseandHappiness) as well. Storytellingis the best commentary on race and class that I have seen, and it is one of the best on sex. (Beware, though, if you see the film outside of a film festival venue, you’ll probably see a big red box strategically placed to cover the most graphic of the sex scenes – Solondz’s one concession in pursuit of an R rating.) Storytellinghas been described as two films in one, though it might be more accurately described as one film from two different perspectives. The first, titled Fiction, has four main characters – young punkish girl, disabled boyfriend, sadistic teacher, star student – using sex and creative writing to spar with each other and themselves in ways that leave the audience crying “uncle.” Part two, titled Nonfiction, doesn’t let up in its uncompromising romp through America’s suburbs, this time through the lens of a loser documentarian who follows a high school student whose only goal is to be a talk show host, and his family (John Goodman plays the father) and their Salvadoran help. In my view, Solondz has done his best work yet.

Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradisefrom Britain’s Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) is the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman whose sole purpose in life is to sell more than anybody else with such obnoxious aggression that he is hated by all his colleagues. Timothy Spall plays it so well and so maniacally that the audience hopes only for his long and torturous demise. But just when we think we don’t give a rat’s ass about the character and, in fact, think he may be too over-the-top nasty, Boyle does something remarkable. He manages, within minutes, to make us care. Jim Cartwright has written an ending that slams the brakes on a runaway train and the audience is left to recover as the credits roll.

Lunch with Charles, a Canada-Hong Kong coproduction, written and directed by Michael Parker, is a light romantic comedy that could have easily swerved into slapstick but never did partly because of the development of each of the four main characters and partly because the script always stayed interesting.Lunch with Charles is the story of a husband who lives in Hong Kong and his wife who lives in Canada. She’s given him an ultimatum to move to Canada or lose her. He thinks she’s having an affair and, unbeknownst to her, makes the trip to Vancouver to save his marriage. Circumstances have them continuously missing each other as she travels to the Canadian Rockies for work, meeting somebody else along the way, her husband following in her trail and also meeting somebody else along the way. The cast of Sean Lau (Hong Kong film veteran), Nicholas Lea (X-Files,Vertical Limit), Theresa Lee (The Poet), Francoise Yip (The Pledge), and Bif Naked, in a debut performance, are all excellent and play off each other well.

On the more serious side,Lolais the story of a woman (Sabrina Grokvich) who is unhappy in her marriage to emotionally abusive Mike (Colm Feore) and would appear to have been just waiting to meet wild child Sandra (Joanna Going) to set herself free. After tragedy takes Sandra out of the picture, Lola decides to leave her husband for good and take Sandra’s place, wig and all, in what would have been her first visit home in ten years to see her mother. Canadian director Carl Bessai shot this film with a minimal crew andDogme-style techniques, and it is exactly because of that (along with the wonderfully subtle acting of both Going and Grokvich) thatLolasucceeds. The excellent editing, acting, and lighting make this a film to watch out for.Lolawon the festival’s Best Canadian First Feature award.

If you’re wondering what really went on behind the scenes of the renowned all-women Lilith tour,Lilith on Top, a Canadian documentary from Lynne Stopkewich, follows Sarah McLachlan et al. in the final year of their life on the road. Editing together over 400 hours of recorded material and 200 of archival footage, Stopkewich has documented what McLachlan set out to prove – that women musicians could successfully tour the continent, creating culture along the way. There are a few scenes that stand above the rest, most notably any in which the indefatigable Sarah Bernhard appears. Chrissie Hynde spent her days on the tour trying to get Sarah to stop being such a “good girl,” succeeding at last, to her surprise, when the two of them were playing on stage together. Suffice it to say, Ms. Hynde ends up on her knees mumbling into the mike about Sarah’s beautiful breasts. The great thing about Lilith was the camaraderie and playfulness between the musicians, andLilith on Tophighlights that well. The film won the festival’s award for best documentary.

The VIFVF 2002 Audience award went toThe Business of Fancydancing, in which Sherman Alexie (writer ofSmoke Signals) makes his directorial debut. The story follows two young men – Seymour (Evan Adams) and Aristotle (Gene Tagaban) – from a Northwest reserve who head off to college together. Seymour makes it and stays, becoming a famous poet, discovering along the way that he’sgay, hooking up with a white partner. Ari doesn’t make it and moves back to the reserve, resenting Seymour for stealing the tribe’s stories. After a friend’s death, Seymour returns to the reserve for the first time in ten years where he must learn to come to terms with who he is on his own and in relation to his friends, his culture, and his tribe.Fancydancing is based on Alexie’s own poetry, which weaves its way throughout the film, adding a delightful lyrical feel.

The Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival has a mandate to screen at least 50 percent Canadian films, which they surpassed this year with a showing of 66 percent. Given the ubiquitousness ofHollywood, that’s a really good thing for us Canadians.