After years of anticipation the Vancouver International Film Centre, the newest cinema in this shimmering city of glass, finally opened its doors. The occasion: the launch of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs 29 September to 14th October.
There's still a few loose ends to tie up before the centre is open full-time, but Vancouver International Film Festival staff have moved into their elegant downtown residence at 1181 Seymour Street and are gearing up for the fortnight film feast starting at the end of this month.
Director Alan Franey, who can look down from his office window on the spacious, curved lobby, is as excited as a new dad. Understandably. The plush 175-seater cinema is extravagant by normal standards. "The room is as large as many 500-seat theatres," says Franey. The seats, "the premium seats in the world", were shipped in from Paris. The 35mm, 16mm and digital projectors came from Germany, "the Mercedes Benz of projectors," he says.
"The difference is that we've emphasised quality over quantity: that's true in everything we've done. It's the exact opposite sort of logic of most theatres, which is, 'Get 'em in! Get 'em out! Distract them with arcade games. Get as much of their money at the concession stand as possible.'... We encourage people to stay." The lobby area has more capacity than the cinema and will be the venue events, parties, installations, and launches in coming months.
At a time when the public appears to be turning its back on the cinema for DVD, this kind of lavishness may rekindle peoples' passion for the big screen experience. That and a diverse, international programme that will be radically different from mainstream fare. As a non-profit, VIFF doesn't have a commercial remit - so Franey will be catering the year-round for his constituency of 40,000 VIFF Society members (if you see a film at the festival you must buy membership as most films are unclassified).
Franey also hopes that the organisation's "club" status will make them eligible for a liquor licence, which will allow cinema-goers to take their favourite tipple with them to a screening. That would be a big step in a city that still hasn't shirked its puritan attitude toward social drinking.
With the festival still to get through, Franey expects that he wont be scheduling full VIFC monthly programs until January 2006, but he will be using the festival to "signal" what kind of programming we can expect when VIFC is fully operational. For example, Argentinian filmmaker Adolfo Aristarain (A Place in the World, Common Ground) will bring his latest film Roma to VIFF, tying in with a planned retrospective of his work at VIFC. The first event to use the new centre will be the annual Film and Television Trade Forum (28 -30 September).
Deepha Mehta's Water, the last part in her elements trilogy, opens the festival on 29th September. Mark Donrford-May's U-Carmen In Ekhayelitsha, the "South African Carmen" that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, will be the Anniversary Gala screening on 8 October and the festival closes on 14 October with the Dardenne brothers L'Enfant, which won the Palme D'or at Cannes.
VIFF isn't known for being a starry festival, but Isabella Rosselini is in town for a presentation of short My Dad Is 100 Years Old, which is directed by Guy Maddin from a script by Rossellini, in anticipation of the 100th birthday, in 2006, of her father Roberto Rossellini. The screening will be followed by Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City which first had its release 60 years ago.
The second in Lars von Trier's US Trilogy, Manderlay, picks up where Dogville left off. French stars Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil feature in Michael Haneke's acclaimed thriller Cache, about a bourgeois couple who start finding videotapes of themselves on their doorstep. Danis Tanovic, director of No Man's Land, returns with his sophomore film, Hell, about three sisters who are bound forever by an act of violence witnessed in their childhood.
As in previous years, there's a strong quotient of documentaries at VIFF. Franey recommends The White Diamond, by veteran German documentarian Werner Herzog, about a project to explore the dense, tropical rainforest in the heart of Guyana using a jungle airship. Another is The Devil's Miner, about child silver miners in Bolivia. Franey calls it "extraordinary... amazingly shot". He also recommends Mahaleo, about a Madagascan big band. "It's got a very fine photographic eye, so you really feel like you are in Madagascar, and there's lots more happening than just the music". Sounds like The Buena Vista Social Club? "It's way better," insists Franey.
Franey also loved Shape of the Moon (Stand van de Maan), an intimate portrait of a poor family in Indonesia. The film won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award, although Franey is not sure that everybody will appreciate it. "It makes you much more worldly, and empathetic and your bullshit metre is improved, because we hear a lot of stuff that we don't know how to interpret in the Third World."
Monte Grande - What is Life? about Chilean neurobiologist Francisco Varela, who spent his whole life working on the question of how body and mind exist as a whole, has a commendable scientific rigour.
Franey has been impressed by the quality of Central and Eastern European films, like Hungarian historical drama Fateless (SorstalansÃ¡g), "another film about the holocaust, but it is really, really good."
He's noticing a new tone in some of the U.S. films, almost too subtle to put his finger on. He hesitates to call it shame. "An introspective, muted quality," he suggests. "I don't think it's just Americans. A lot of young people have been humbled or put slightly off step by political events... there seems to be a real sort of alienation, but almost a healthy alienation." Examples are dysfunctional family drama Forty Shades of Blue and Police Beat, about a Senegalise, Seattle cop.
Roberta Grossman's Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action is possibly the strongest in the line-up of work tackling environmental issues. It explores some of the appaling environmental and human rights abuses the US perpetrated against Aboriginal people.
On a lighter note, Bombon El Perro is a drole comedy about an unemployed gas attendant in Argentina whose life finds meaning when he becomes owner of a big, ugly dog.
Finally, U.S. indie Keane has been creating a massive buzz on the festival circuit and sounds like one of those films where the less you know beforehand the more you will appreciate it.
The Vancouver International Film Festival runs 29 September-14 October.