Films examining man, the land, and cultural identity at Vancouver Film Festival touch on themes close to home in this West Coast city.The Vancouver International Film Festival gets under way this week. Of the films that I've had a chance to preview, one theme that is cropping up is the land and the way that our culture and identity feeds off it. This isn't an official festival strand but it's an appropriate theme in a place reinventing itself so quickly that it has become distinguished as much by its forests of high-priced highrises as its parks thick with conifers. The West Coast province of British Columbia, of which Vancouver is the biggest city, also has more unsettled land claims with the native people than any other province in Canada.
The documentary Homeland - Four Portraits of Native Action (5 Oct, 9.45pm, Vancity Theatre; 6 Oct, 2.30pm, Vancity Theatre; 9 October, 10am, Pacific Cinematheque) picks up this theme, but in the USA. Homeland focuses on four native Americans, struggling to protect their homelands against government-sanctioned, environmental exploitation. The treatment of the subject is first class, combining high end production values (it was shot on HD) with the intimacy of a "point of view" documentary style. In each of the four featurettes, individual native activists talk about their attachment to the land, community and the struggle to hold out against corporate plunderers. Landscapes are captured in evocative cinematography and archive footage is well chosen. A Northern Cheyenne negotiater explains how her people could be millionnaires "overnight" by signing over resource rights to their lands. Instead for the last 30 years the impoverished community has chosen to fight big coal and methane gas interests clammering at the edge of their reservation. A young chief from the Gwich'in nation in Alaska, where the Porcupine caribou herd is threatened by drilling in the Alaskan wildlife reserve (a situation captured well in the gutsy Being Caribou) spells out his situation succinctly: "Their survival is our survival."
Resource exploitation and Vancouver go hand in hand. Out there in the pretty landscape, forests are being clearcut, rocks being dug up, and an army of tiny Vancouver-based, resource companies are scouring the earth hungrily for more stuff to dig out of the ground. So the film The Devil's Miners (7 Oct, 7.15pm, GR2; 13 Oct, 10.30pm, GR5), which portrays the life of teenage miners in Bolivia should have an extra piquancy here.
Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (8 Oct, 1.30pm, VISA Screening Room; 11 Oct, 9.30pm, The Ridge), set on the rugged Tibetan plateau of Kekexili, combines breathtaking cinematography with a tense storyline about a group of volunteer game wardens vying with poachers to protect the chinu, a Tibetan antelope, from being driven to extinction. The film, set in a harsh unforgiving landscape, at nose-bleed altitude, is based on a true story. It seems to pick up awards wherever it goes and it's easy to see why.
Angry Monk (4 Oct, 10am, Pacific Cinematheque; 12 Oct, 7pm, Ridge Theatre; 14 Oct, 1pm, Granville 7) is a profile of Gendun Cheophel a rebellious Tibetan monk and brilliant scholar who after 30 years in a monstery decided he'd had enough of monastic life and wanted to experience the outside world. The documentary works as a historical travelogue of Tibet and India, covering the years leading up to the occupation of Tibet, and challenging stereotypical notions of Tibet. It's ultimately a little anti-climatic, but writer-director Luc Schaedler does offer the encouraging observation that Tibetans are experiencing a renaissance and new found confidence in their culture in spite of the Chinese occupation, as the rediscovery of this worldly monk who, according to one of his friends, "smoked, drank and screwed women," illustrates.
Gen X author and Vancouverite Douglas Coupland provides a very personal, scrap-book style musing on national identity in Souvenir of Canada (2 Oct, 9.30pm; 4 Oct, 12.30pm; 11 Oct, 9.45pm, all at Granville 7). The film focuses in particular on Copeland's Canada House project. Copeland turned a CMHA (think bland) bungalow in Vancouver, built in the Fifties, into an art installation populated with his Canadiana, before it was bulldozed. Watching the doc is an entertaining, albeit ephemeral experience, leaving you wishing Copeland would probe deeper into Canada's national psyche.
And a few more
On the comedy side, is the strange Czech film Skritek (8 Oct, 10pm, Granville 7; 13 Oct, 7.15pm, Granville 7). A modern burlesque focussing on a dysfunctional nuclear family, the film pays tribute to the silent movie era, with no dialogue (people grunt and make noises) and the motion speeded up. At times hilarious, the film blends fantasy, with Czech stoner culture and slaughterhouse humour. The strange thing is that such a wild combo works.
Quite different is Why We Fight. Eugene Jarecki's celebrated documentary on the US "military-industrial complex" (2 Oct, 1pm and 5 Oct, 9.30pm, Granville 7), is one of the must-see films of the festival.
A common euphemism you hear for sub-par films at the fest are "it had its moments." File under that So Much Rice, a drawn-out, flat and directionless DV drama. When a bag of rice arrived an hour into the film and sat against the wall, it was a moment.
South Korean drama This Charming Girl is better, but still tries the patience. It's shot well, even stylishly, but the plaudit-winning portrait of a young woman's troubled psychological state is laboured. One excellent scene, where the undercurrent of tension bubbles to the surface, didn't balance out the dreary pace of the rest of the film.