VIFF 2018: Spice It Up (Lev Lewis, Yonah Lewis, & Calvin Thomas, 2018)


One of the highlights of this year’s Future//Present program, and almost certainly the funniest movie to ever play in the now three-year-old series highlighting the cutting edge in Canadian independent cinema, is Spice It Up, from the directorial troika of Lev and Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas. Beginning life five years ago as a shambolic portrait of seven young women who, failing at high school, join the Canadian Army and spend one crazy summer together hanging out, dancing and somehow becoming involved in a terrorist plot involving French Canadian separatists. Charming and goofy, the original film seems like exactly the kind of thing people who teach in film schools rail against: it’s formless and fails to follow the rules of screenwriting as set done by hacks in how-to books. The current version of the film embraces that criticism, inventing a frame story in which the film student who ostensibly directed the movie (played by Jennifer Hardy), is tasked by her teacher (a very funny Adam Nayman) with restoring some classical virtues to her slice-of-life hangout movie. And he isn’t the only one with criticisms: seemingly everyone Hardy meets tells her what is wrong with her film and makes suggestions that simply don’t make sense to her. Still, she works at it, but, as she says, every change she makes away from her original vision simply makes her like the movie less.

Of course all the people who criticize Hardy’s work are men: her instructor, her editor, a guy who suggests she turn her characters into manifestations of virtues set down by moral philosophers, a guy who lives next door who walks out of her movie halfway through a screening. The only woman she actually talks to about it is her sister, played by Sophy Romvari, who hasn’t even bothered to watch the movie yet. It’s a pointed criticism of the film school system, and the wider world of film criticism, dominated by the point of view of men, both under- and over-educated, with directors like Hardy flustered when their personal style of cinema doesn’t line up with established norms. It’s hardly a polemic, though, and the film is just as hilarious in its parody of film culture as the film within a film is of a group of underprepared women sticking together (where Hardy in her story is pointedly alone) despite a significant dearth of common sense. It’s maybe the funniest movie about independent filmmaking since La última película, or maybe even Tom DiCillo’s classic Living in Oblivion. It’s also, with its memorable supporting cast, a compelling portrait of the Toronto film scene as it stands right now in the 2010s, resolutely opposed to commercial norms and dedicated to making the personal cinematic and the cinematic personal.

Fail to Appear (2017, Antoine Bourges)


One of the highlights of last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (my first) was the Future//Present film series, curated by Adam Cook. While the films varied in subject matter and stylistic expression, they were united by a general sense of experimentation, delving into the complexities and possibilities offered by a particular, independent mode of filmmaking. Now, the Northwest Film Forum has brought together films from the series’s first two years, to be shown over the next half-week. It does not contain my favorite of the handful I’ve seen thus far, Blake William’s ambitious 3D experiment PROTOTYPE (which is likely beyond the projection capabilities of NWFF), but each movie in the Future//Present series promises to be distinctive and enlightening in its own way.

So it is with Antoine Bourges’s Fail to Appear, which showed at last year’s VIFF and will play at NWFF alongside Kazik Radwanski’s excellent short “Scaffold” (which I reviewed here). The short feature’s narrative is simple, verging on the ascetic: Isolde (Deragh Campbell), an entry-level social worker at a care center in Toronto, is assigned to Eric (Nathan Roder) a man with an unspecified condition who has been charged with petty theft. Divided rather neatly into thirds, the film first charts Isolde’s day-to-day work and interactions with both her clients and her colleagues (one of whom, in a delightful touch mirrored by Eric’s own private ambitions, is an aspiring musical artist). After an extended court hearing, Isolde and Eric have a few tentative conversations, before the film shifts in its final third towards a documentation of Eric’s own home life.


All of this is carried out in a (perhaps necessarily) constricted style, one verging on the Bressonian, as Bourges carefully arranges his frames in a mostly straight-on, somewhat sterile fashion, with the occasional pan or single tracking shot registering with a singular forcefulness. Correspondingly, the performances are subdued; Campbell is especially adept at lingering on the pauses between words, as the imprecise nature of communicating with other people continually manifests itself in “flubbed” words or a momentary lapse in the flow of conversation. Even if Fail to Appear in some ways registers as primarily a success in commitment to an engaging aesthetic style, this is no demerit: much of the strength of the film lies in this interplay, as emotional beats are downplayed in favor of the awkwardness of the moment-to-moment interaction. Its purposeful lack of resolution is only the final gesture towards the ambiguity and unreadability of any particular person, and in that sense Fail to Appear registers with its own odd, unique force.

VIFF 2017: Future//Present


The Future//Present program at VIFF has quickly become one of the most dynamic and interesting streams the festival has to offer, adding to the festival’s longtime commitment to the cutting edge in Asian cinema an exploration of the burgeoning Canadian independent film scene, offering showcase opportunities to young filmmakers from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. This year’s program was even better than last year’s inaugural offering, and provided some of the festival’s most interesting, engaging and challenging films.

Last year’s program was lead by a feature and a trilogy of shorts from director Sofia Bohdanowicz, who returns this year with her documentary Maison du bonheur. Filmed on a Bolex over 30 days during a stay with a friend’s mother in Paris, the film is both the story of a woman and the way she does things (makes bread, gets her hair styled) and the story of a woman making a film about a woman she finds fascinating. While not as explicitly meta-cinematic as Never Eat Alone, Bohdanowicz continually leaves in her own attempts to erase herself from her movie (telling her subject how to answer questions when the questioner won’t be heard, or telling people not to look directly at the camera or acknowledge her presence), and at times simply can’t help but take it over, including snippets of her nightly audio journal entries, or taking a side trip to Deauville, the site of some unexplained unhappiness in her past, for which this trip, this film project, seems in some way designed to, if not exactly erase, then somehow compensate for: she wants new memories. It’s a warm, fascinating film from one of the best young filmmakers in the world today.

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VIFF 2017: Maison du bonheur (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2017)


Maison du bonheur celebrates a very French epicureanism—that old Gallic fondness for fromage, pastries, and Aperol spritzes—that seems to animate the daydreams of drab North Americans more than it does to the soul of La République in the era of Macronisme. But as with any ancient philosophy there are holdout practitioners who keep the flame alive. Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s second feature zeroes in on one such philosopher, Juliane, a sixtyish astrologer and casual gourmand who lives in the Hausmannian maison of the title. Maison du bonheur’s offhand genesis (Bohdanowicz was asked by a friend if she might consider documenting her mother, a woman that the director had never met and knew nothing about) profoundly informs its approach. Rather than cross-examining Juliane about the details of her personal history, which would be très gauche, Bohdanowicz simply observes the objects, from astrological ephemera to a well-loved KitchenAid, and the routines, largely centered on food, that comprise her everyday life. Conceived as a series of grainy 16mm insert shots, Maison du bonheur glows with Juliane’s anachronistic spirit and shares with her a deeply considered approach to things.

Luxe generosity, on the part of both filmmaker and subject, defines the project; a mid-film toast to the offscreen filmmaker by Juliane and friends typifies the constant magnanimity on display. But as one mysterious detour to Deauville suggests, Bohdanowicz’s prior stay in France was significantly more troubled. Bohdanowicz’s role in the film mostly goes unspoken, save this detour and an amusing anecdote about Paris’s worst eclair, though the way that her camera watches Juliane’s hands—which are omnipresent—mold a Shabbat challah or caress an astrological chart reveal a subtle master/student relationship. During the post-film Q&A Bohdanowicz revealed that she shot the film without sync sound and crafted the film’s lush foley track entirely on her own by following Juliane’s design for living at home: recreating the challah recipe or recording a friend savoring a pastry at Juliane’s deliberate pace. Image and sound thus become a teacher’s instruction and the student’s recital, so that Maison du bonheur begins as a mere document of Juliane’s way of life and ends up as true, delectable praxis. Bohdanowicz need not say more about herself to communicate what this gourmandine education means to her, though she does make one final gesture of gratitude at the conclusion: she returns Juliane’s toast, dedicating Maison du bonheur to all those who live in this house of happiness. And with her film, she kindly opens the door for the rest of us.

VIFF 2017: Forest Movie (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2017) and Prototype (Blake Williams, 2017)


Two tricks of the eye:

Matthew Taylor Blais’s Forest Movie focuses attention on the center knowing that you’ll likely miss what’s happening at the margins. The pivotal shot that comprises nearly half the film’s runtime works explicitly on this principal. After tracking a young woman on a half hour stroll through the forest, Blais sits her and his camera down to stare at a patch of woods for thirty straight minutes in a fixed, Academy ratio long take, a la James Benning. Anyone who’s had a brush with the work of that august American avant-gardist will know that the pleasures offered by an image like this lie in the shifting textures of light and the peripatetic impulse of the human mind to drift elsewhere when confronted with something this still; he will also know that Benning got there first and has fruitfully mined similar landscapes for nearly a half century. But keep watching and Blais’s distinctive spin on the set-up reveals itself around the edges of the frame: the aspect ratio is slowly expanding over the duration of the shot, widening from 4:3 to 1.85 widescreen. Blais hides the change by framing a circular stump dead center, which naturally draws the eye away from the edges and obscures the movement happening on the periphery, where our vision is less sensitive. The moment of realization will arise differently for each viewer, though Blais wakes up even the most hypnotized (or bored) viewer with a hard cut back to Academy ratio. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this wonderfully deployed trompe l’oeil in context of the rest of the film, which for better or worse melted from my thoughts the longer I gazed at the screen, but there’s no denying the primal (and very physical) awe inspired by Forest Movie’s slow-cinema sleight of hand.

PrototypePrototype, which also showed as part of VIFF’s Future//Present series, plays even more directly with the anatomy of human vision. Blake Williams, like gran-père Godard before him, explodes the possibilities of modern 3D—and early twentieth century American history for good measure—with his science fiction rendering of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Archival stereoscopic images of the disaster open the film before a tidal wave of light bends towards the audience and seemingly merges past with present (or is it Future//Present?). Five TV screens then materialize against the void and flicker with found footage both directly and indirectly connected to the subject historical event. The result is a virtual gallery space where up to five images exist simultaneously within the frame, each image itself split in two, across the left and right eye. The densest moments offer no less than ten possible images, which are only accessible individually by closing one eye and then the other. With both eyes open, more information hits the retina than the mind can process. Williams clearly delights in the pleasure/pain dichotomy that arises from such a deluge of visual data, which partly explains Prototype’s final plunge into complete abstraction. The found footage breaks into pulsating white swatches which swirl around an unseen center, and the images Williams previously layered on top of one another (and across the eyes) decouple feverishly. Matter, time, and history have come apart at the seams.

VIFF 2016: Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie, 2016)


It’s already too late for someone. A rope is pulled down from a tree and strung back up again. Two shots, and a cloud of suicidal despair rolls in over the coming proceedings. The film stops briefly to introduce itself—the title appears as if clawed across the screen—and just as quickly director Ashley McKenzie plunges back into the lives of two lovers and recovering drug addicts living on the fringes of society.

Werewolf is an addiction movie. And like many films in the genre, its drama orbits around the twin poles of drugs and romance. The compulsive behavior brought on by both intoxicants proves an irresistible symmetry for filmmakers interested in that sort of thing. Narcotics as l’amour fou, or vice versa. The more clinical term is, I believe, co-dependency, and although Werewolf plays freely with the established image of the addict lovers, it distinguishes itself by honing in on the pharmacological ties that bind this relationship. Methadone treatment isn’t just a metaphor here, but a very real medical regime with rules, regulations, lockboxes, and psych evals, all of which are administered and enforced by the faceless social workers who hover around the edges of the rigid frame, abstracted as benignly indifferent voices or anonymous limbs. Snatches of poetry do enter this antiseptic world through McKenzie’s eye, and her Denis-like fascination with skin— real skin, not the finely polished alabaster of most movie actors—keeps things pulsing with humanity. Human moments, however, give way always to the exhausting task of navigating the social order of recovery, and the film remains steadfastly committed to depicting the same degrading ritual time and again: hauling yourself up to the pharmacist’s counter to guzzle down one more dose, the humiliation nearly unbearable save for the fact that it’s shared.

The tragedy, as the opening shots warn us, is that this life can’t be shared forever, and so Werewolf is finally a diverged path, a fork leading two places, one deathly definitive and the other indeterminate, lonely, but not entirely without hope.

VIFF 2016: Maudite Poutine (Karl Lemieux, 2016) and Pop Song (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2016)


The loudest film of the Future // Present series thus far is Karl Lemieux’s film about a drummer in a noisy band (I’m at least 20 years out of date on music genres) trying to make up for the fact that he and his bandmates, in an off-screen act of stupidity, stole a bunch of pot from local gangsters and now owe several thousand dollars they don’t have and can’t raise. The drummer, Vincent, walks and drives around, drinks beer, works at his job in a factory and tries to get his brother, a meth addict with connections to the mob, to help him out. It’s all shot in black and white, with long sequences scored only by music, recalling the hallucinatory interstitial passages of Jim Jarmsuch’s Dead Man, or the desperate final third of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Jean-Simon Leduc, as Vincent, dominates the film, but he’s an incongruous presence in this world. Looking a bit like George Clooney and a lot like Jordan Catalano-era Jared Leto, he’s far too pretty to be a drummer, let alone to be trapped in this dead-end life.

Paired with the feature is one of the best films of the festival so far this year, a three minute short Pop Song (a perfect title), directed by Matthew Taylor Blais. Completely silent, it’s a visual experiment wherein images are layered such that they cancel each other out, creating black spaces in the frame, and then misaligned by a frame, creating a spatial and temporal discontinuity which, with the movement of the image, reveals flashes of gorgeous bright color. Documenting a few quotidian locations: a street sign, trees in a park, a woman, we see their beauty in an entirely new way. It reminded me of Lois Patiño’s Night Without Distance and the nature footage from Godard’s Adieu au langage.

VIFF 2016: Never Eat Alone (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)


Of the three films in VIFF’s new Future // Present series that I’ve seen thus far, the program Sunday night of Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s new feature paired with three of her short films is the standout. The feature is a fictionalization of the story of her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing herself, who in the early 1950s, appeared as a singer and actress on a kitschy television show. Remembering this in a dream, she tasks her granddaughter Audrey (played by Deragh Campbell, in one of her three films at VIFF this year) with finding the show and tracking down the boy she co-starred with and had dated briefly. She does, she thinks, and writes the man a letter. He’s living on the other end of the country, in a small town where he lives alone and teaches a choir. Audrey writes the man a letter, asking him to call, but he never manages to connect with the women in Toronto (he’s played by George Radovics, Bohdanowicz’s producer’s grandfather). The bulk of the film cuts between the three principals, usually as they’re eating, alone. The television episode is interspersed throughout, and there’s a digressive slideshow of the grandmother’s trip to the Bahamas, both of which are actual artifacts. But wholly fictionalized scenes abound as well, such as one where Audrey tries on a bunch of old clothes her grandmother is trying to get rid of while the two delicately balance familial niceness with the desire not to give or receive these gifts. It’s a found-footage film, using bits and pieces of the past to build a collage of a fictionalized history, an alternate reality version of her family’s history. It bears a kind of inverse relationship to Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films, which use a highly structured script and compositional style to document her family’s life, their work and routines and relationships as they go about various tasks: cleaning the house, making leather goods, cooking dumplings. Bohdanowicz in contrast films with an off-hand directness, emotionally straightforward compositions chronicling wholly improvised interactions (both Campbell and Benac receive screenplay credits).

Even more astonishing though, are the three short films paired with the feature, chronicling Bohdanowicz’s paternal grandmother. The first, A Prayer, is a short documentary, following said grandmother around her house has she does various chores (and eats a meal, alone, naturally). The second, An Evening, is something special: a tour of the grandmother’s house shortly after her death, patiently documenting its spaces while one of her records plays on the stereo, intermittently marred by a broken needle, from late afternoon until the space disappears into the darkness of night. It’s a film Chantal Akerman would be proud of. The third, Another Prayer, replays the first short, but superimposed over the now empty spaces of the woman’s home, completely silent. Each film is prefaced by a poem composed by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother, and the cumulative effect of the trilogy together is devastating.

VIFF 2016: The Lockpicker (Randall Okita, 2016)


The promise of summer comes early in The Lockpicker in the form of a sailing trip, a post-diploma work opportunity that doubles, more importantly, as a dream of warmth and far-flung travels, a balm for the bleakness of winter. And Hashi could clearly use a lodestar to navigate his way through his final months of high school, which find him in an unsustainable cycle of drugs and outbursts. As conceived by director Randall Okita and played by Keigian Umi Tang, Hashi embodies a familiar vision of teenage masculinity: haunted, but sensitive, confrontational at times, but more out of hurt than genuine ill-will.

Okita’s film charts the teenage mind’s limited horizon, where just one school semester seems an uncrossable chasm between the present and the future. Admittedly, the present does look pretty dull. A slushy gray tone dominates the film and the soft textures of DP Jackson Parrell’s cinematography turn this small Canadian town into a blurred no-place. Only the crushed blacks of night provide an escape, although Hashi’s evenings morph into baroquely staged nightmares just as frequently as they take the form of drunken revelry. Okita is most at home with these party scenes; he understands how intoxicants heighten juvenile braggadocio, but also how those boasts paper over pain and vulnerability. The pain, however, proves too much for Hashi. His high school days end in violence and he’s cast out into unceasing winter, the film finally giving into the grim cliche it earlier strived to avoid. It needn’t end this way. A little more wisdom, and a little more time, might be enough to convince all involved that summer always, inevitably rolls around.