VIFF evolving by involving

Photo: still from Evolution of Organic courtesy of Vancouver International Film Festival.

by Robert Alstead

How to stay relevant in the internet age? It’s a question organizers of film festivals across the media-saturated globe are asking themselves. While Vancouver’s film buffs can be depended on to cram in the 16 days of arthouse and overseas fare when the annual film jamboree starts later this month, VIFF, under executive director Jacqueline Dupuis, keeps a watchful eye on the cinema’s shifting sands.

This year’s VIFF program (September 28 to October 13, viff.org) builds on the changes introduced last year under the “Films Plus” banner with ‘creator’ talks, Virtual Reality events and nights that combine live music from local bands and the moving image. This year also sees a red carpet screening of award-winners from the Toronto-based Buffer Festival, a showcase for “elevated” YouTube storytelling.

While culturally speaking it’s not on the scale of Amazon swallowing Whole Foods, purists may recoil at the creeping influence of internet giants like Google on film festivals. Well, VIFF has a film for you. The excellent and evenhanded documentary You’re Soaking in It shows how the “math men” (and women) behind targeted advertising are working hard to know you better than you know yourself. Trading oceans of user data in a barely regulated marketplace, corporations have developed an invasive, or highly personalized, depending on your view, model of advertising whose reliance on brute computing power makes the golden age of intuitive, brand-oriented advertising look like art.

Scott Harper’s comparison of Madison Avenue versus Silicon Valley is a fascinating one, touching on many disconcerting aspects of our brave new world. It asks important questions about current practices like the risk of de-anonymized data falling into the wrong hands or using facial recognition software to interpret, in real time, our emotional response as we gaze up at the big screen.

Moving from the evolution of advertising, the upbeat Evolution of Organic charts the history of organic farming in North America from a bunch of “ragtag hippies” pioneering biodynamic growing techniques in the 1960s, to a global movement trying to scale that holistic idealism to industrial levels. The film is on firmer ground when establishing its rebellious roots as a response to pesticide reliance in the post-war years. “It smelled like the earth was meant to smell like,” remembers a grape grower after going organic. Ruddy-faced farm folk are good company, and archive material reveals it was fun, felt good and the food tasted better. As director Mark Kitchell brings the story up to the modern day, it becomes clear there’s enough material to create a whole television series, whether it be the Nigiri project using harvested rice fields as salmon nurseries, ranchers using Allan Savory’s earth-renewing, grazing systems, or the no-tillage practices that could help fix climate change. Leaves you wanting to dig deeper.

As VIFF pushes further into the digital arena, it’s also shoring up its role as a platform for homegrown talent. VIFF kicks off with Vancouver director Mina Shum’s Meditation Park, described as a bittersweet comedy starring Sandra Oh and Don McKellar. It tells of a Chinese-Canadian mother who embarks on a voyage of self-discovery in East Vancouver after discovering a woman’s thong in her husband’s pocket. The opening gala is part of a federal government initiative, Movie Nights Across Canada, marking 150 years of Confederation.

Bound to be well attended are the 12 BC films competing in the “Sea to Sky” strand (hashtag #mustseeBC), including films like On Putin’s Blacklist, a sprawling documentary that looks at how Russia’s ban on North American adoptions has hurt potential foster parents and children in Canada. Dissident Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of the State Duma to vote against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, provides fluid commentary on Putin’s modus operandi, while emotional, firsthand accounts by grown-up foster children and activists, including Pussy Riot, bring home the impact of Russia’s LGBT oppression.

A very different local film is Forest Movie by writer-director-editor Matthew Taylor Blais. The program notes are to be taken with a grain of salt; this is a concept film with little story and a very long, locked-off shot of some second-growth forest (looks like Pacific Spirit Park). Should be interesting with a live audience.

Song of Granite, an Irish/Canadian biopic, also likes to linger in its shots. Director Pat Collins uses the screen like a canvas to draw black-and-white scenes in the life of Irish sean-nós (old style) singer Joe Heaney, from his early upbringing in rural Galway to his later years in New York City before dying in 1984. The lead character is laconic and enigmatic, the dialogue spare and the solo songs given time to breathe and fill the room. A classic film festival film.

Robert Alstead made the feature documentary Running On Climate, www.runningonclimate.com

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