VIFF 2017: BC Spotlight


Personal stories are the province of the emerging filmmaker and every year the BC Spotlight competition at VIFF is filled with a fresh batch of intimate debuts. This iteration is no exception, but this year the new arrivals have landed within a climate that has shifted somewhat. Earlier this year, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey penned an op ed in The Globe and Mail bemoaning a certain tendency among Canadian indie features to favour small, personal stories – “coming of age, family tensions, falling in and out of love” – over more ambitious and widely aimed socially and politically minded works. Shocking as it was, coming from perhaps the single most powerful individual in the Canadian festival scene, this contemptible lecture thankfully received pushback from filmmakers. It remains to be seen whether anyone will take Bailey’s complaints to heart – perhaps it is too early to be reflected in the debuts of 2017 – but it remains one of the questions haunting Canada’s mounting national debate over what exactly lies ahead for its cultural industries.

Luk’Luk’I, the feature debut of Wayne Wapeemukwa, seems initially well-positioned to answer Bailey’s challenge for a more socially conscious cinema. Even if it weren’t emerging from a mostly vacuous and Hollywood-chasing local film scene, it’s audacious concept would still be just as striking and original. Set over the course of the last day of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, it follows the plights and paths of five marginalized residents (played by four non-actors and one professional) of Vancouver’s rapidly gentrifying Downtown East Side as they navigate a fevered city counting down the hours to the gold medal hockey final.

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Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

(Authorship Note: We are pleased to publish this essay, written by Sarah Hunter, a fabulous writer and brilliant student of film. Formerly a student at Whatcom Community College, where she received the discipline award in film in 2016-17, Sarah will be entering the filmmaking program at New York Film Academy Los Angeles in 2018.  ~MT)

Alicia in doorway

To many, famed director Alfred Hitchcock is known fondly as the “Master of Suspense,” whose enduring films have terrified and delighted audiences for decades (and who irreparably tainted the act of showering for an entire generation.) To others still, he is the quintessential auteur, a forefather of modern cinema whose methods have had a lasting impact on the craft of filmmaking – his disciples include the likes of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. There is, however, another understanding of Hitchcock that, while perhaps possessing less of our collective consciousness, is no less significant or worthy of study: that of the capacity within his oeuvre for provocative and profound feminist analysis. In the words of scholar Tania Modleski, “Feminists have found themselves compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired by Hitchcock’s works.” To be sure, feminist opinion of Hitchcock is undeniably split; many consider his persistent depictions of victimized women to be indicative of blatant misogyny. Yet others persuasively advocate for a more nuanced and open-minded examination, one which potentially suggests a richer depth to his representations of both women and men. Feminists, critics, and cinephiles alike would be remiss to ignore the subversive, oftentimes even progressive, approach to gender evident throughout Hitchcock’s body of work.

As Modleski argues in her seminal 1988 anthology The Women Who Knew Too Much, a number of Hitchcock’s films “reveal some of the difficulties for women in becoming socialized in patriarchy,” and that “despite the often considerable violence with which women are treated in [his] films, they remain resistant to patriarchal assimilation.” This indomitable spirit is best exemplified by Notorious’s brave, brazen Alicia; Shadow of a Doubt’s freethinking young Charlie; Rear Window’s daring, multifaceted Lisa; and Marnie’s titular bandit, a survivor of sexual assault. Furthermore, Modleski illustrates Hitchcock’s pattern of “putting the blame on violence against women where it belongs,” that is to say, on the male abusers and, by extension, the patriarchal system which enables them. This sentiment is echoed by biographer Donald Spoto, who points out that Hitchcock “describes the devastating effect of crime on the victim; his real contempt is for the victimizer, in every case a man.” Moreover, the men in his films (Notorious’ Devlin and North by Northwest’s Thornhill, most pointedly) typically can only achieve resolution by identifying with their female peers and gaining a more compassionate understanding of their struggles. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the men to change – first themselves, and then the system.

This dynamic – the persecuted woman who boldly resists the patriarchal structure, and the unenlightened man compelled, both by transparent self-interest and a larger sense of justice, to empathize with her – is at its most distilled in 1946’s surprisingly sincere romantic-thriller Notorious. Unconventional leading lady Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a binge-drinking Miami playgirl and estranged daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. A covert American agency interrupts her decadent lifestyle to recruit her for a unique mission: infiltrate a Nazi cell by seducing its ringleader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains.) Their established history – Alex had once been in love with Alicia, though his advances were spurned – coupled with Alicia’s promiscuous reputation makes her, in the eyes of the exclusively male agency, the ideal candidate for such an unsavory assignment. “She’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” one operative explains suggestively. Continue reading Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)”

VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)

Robin on beach

Jane Campion’s most recent project, Top of the Lake: China Girl, a follow-up to Top of the Lake (2013), is a 6-hour, episodic journey that premiered, variously, at Cannes, on the Sundance channel, and, played, most recently, at the Vancouver Film International Festival. It is, as its length and as its screening venues suggest, difficult to pin neatly into a category. Is it a gorgeously shot TV show? A very long film? Campion and her work, as usual, resist tidy classifications of all sorts.

Does her work represent “female annihilation in bonnets,” as BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode once suggested, or is she definitely a feminist director, her work “emphasiz[ing] and almost perverse figuration of female strength” as Professor of Film Studies at University of East Anglia, Yvonne Trasker has said? Campion herself has championed women and women filmmakers, quoted as saying in an 1993 Cahiers du Cinema piece, “I think I know things about women that men cannot express.” And yet she “bridles” Virginia Wright Wexman notes in Jane Campion: Interviews, “at being narrowly identified as a feminist filmmaker,” and Wexman cites Campion as saying, “‘I think it’s quite clear in my work that my orientation isn’t political or doesn’t come out of modern politics.’” Continue reading “VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)”

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017, Robin Campillo)


There is a key scene located someplace in the last third of the immensely moving and rousing activist drama 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) involving that most intimate of moments: a conversation about the past. There have been many such discussions between boyfriends Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a HIV-positive founding member of ACT UP Paris, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a HIV-negative new member, but this is the first to take place during one of ACT UP’s meetings. As one of the speakers talks to the group at large, the two men turn to each other and slowly, considerately discuss how Nathan has managed, at the height of the AIDS crisis in a group comprised almost exclusively of HIV-positive gay men, to stay negative. The content is moving enough, but the context, of moving from this purposefully public forum into a private space, makes it all the more vital.

120 BPM is built on breaking down this foundational dichotomy, of making public activism a deeply personal mission and vice versa. Not one member of ACT UP is less than totally committed to their mission of fighting for better treatment, prevention, and medicine for HIV-positive people, and this sense of urgency pulsates from the screen in both the overtly political scenes and the ones motivated a less obvious purpose.

Continue reading 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017, Robin Campillo)”