Call it the Michael Moore factor, or if you like the George Dubya phenomenon, but it seems like there's never been a greater hunger for hard-hitting political documentary than there is now.
As Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 takes off into the box office stratosphere (it has grossed $117.5m in the US alone at the time of writing), other documentary features have been coming to the fore, like Control Room, which looks at the Iraq War through the prism of Arab television station Al Jazeera, or Outfoxed, the "op-ed" lambasting Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel. The latter doc has been in such demand that it is making the unusual move into mainstream US theatres after its DVD release. Usually it's the other way round.
Alan Franey, artistic director of the Vancouver International Film Festival, is clearly encouraged by the trend as he girds himself for the city's annual movie marathon running 23 September to 8 October. As well as its familiar strands of Asian, Canadian, French and international drama, VIFF will carry 97 feature and mid-length documentaries, almost a third of the total festival program.
Documentary has long been a staple of VIFF, and non-fiction filmmaking has always been well received by Vancouver audiences. Michael Moore was a virtual unknown back in 1989 when VIFF-goers voted his first documentary Roger and Me Most Popular Film (it won the equivalent award at the Toronto International Film Festival in the same year reflecting a greater appetite for docs among Canadians in general), and documentaries have topped the popularity charts at Vancouver's film fest for years.
"We want to further grow that part of the festival," says Franey, who this year brings a strand of activist documentaries under the banner "Changing the World" on topics as diverse as Iraq, genetic engineering, terrorism, globalization and the environment.
"There is such an obvious, urgent need for people to get a handle on the issues of today," explains Franey. "There's a growing sense of alarm at our direction and we are hearing more pessimism from people on all sides of the political fence and parts of the world. So I think that very much our zeitgeist is a sense, a need to know and connect the dots, I believe, in a very different way than say during the Sixties."
Among films that Franey is particularly excited about is the international premiere of The World According to Bush (Le Monde Selon Bush) by French director William Karel, which features original interviews with among others author Norman Mailer, weapons inspector Hans Blix, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Pentagon advisor Richard Perle. The film didn't premiere at the Cannes Film Festival because festival artistic director Thierry FrÃ©maux didn't want to appear anti-Bush by showing it alongside Fahrenheit 9/11. Franey says that the two films are very different, although both are highly critical.
"This is more scholarly, investigative journalism that packs a punch whereas Michael Moore is inventing a form that is kind of activist, in-yer-face, gadfly, filmmaking," says Franey.
Salaam Pax - aka "The Baghdad Blogger" - will be bringing his video reports from Iraq to the fest in the Canadian West. Salaam Pax rose to fame with his weblogs from the Iraqi capital throughout the coalition's offensive. He now writes for The Guardian newspaper and provides video segments to the BBC. "He didn't get a lot of attention in North America, it was mostly a British phenomenon," says Franey. "He's going to be presenting all the clips that he broadcast plus some new pieces that haven't been broadcast yet."
The Canadian images section of the festival kicks off with Scared Sacred, a documentary by a local filmmaker Velcrow Ripper. "Ripper" embarks on a personal journey to some of the world's "Ground Zeros" - New York, Bhopal, Israel and Palestine - in search of the transformative power of tragedy.
Among a slate of National Film Board of Canada sponsored docs is Being Caribou in which newlyweds Leanne Allison and Karsten Heuer follow these migratory animals across Canada's frozen North, to highlight the threat to the herds' existence posed by U.S. oil drilling.
The Middle East also continues to be a focal point for filmmakers with a new documentary on the Israeli Palestine wall, called Wall. "It's one of the most cinematic films on the conflict in the Middle East. A real kind of immersive documentary where you really feel the physical, geographical, psychological barrier created by the wall. And it is very smart at folding points of view together for maximum irony," says Franey.
Other docs he singles out for attention are Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir's Checkpoint, which presents both the Israeli soldiers and Palestinians as victims of the decades long conflict, and Emmanuel Hamon's "excellent" Selves And Others: A Portrait of Edward Said, where the late Palestinian-American intellectual offers fresh perspectives on the conflict between Arab and Jew.
Franey notes that although festivals such as VIFF are finding it difficult to access "commercial" documentaries there is still a groundswell of work coming through, with hundreds of documentaries premiering at film festivals across Canada.
"Few of these documentaries will get theatrical release," says Franey, adding that watching these films should be a different experience from watching the evening news or even reading good journalism. "For an extended period of time you are allowed a higher order of insight."
Tickets and info available at VIFF web site. VISA Charge-by-Phone line at 604-685-8297, open noon to 7pm. Cash sales begin September 11. Advance ticket outlets, the Pacific Centre Kiosk (Granville and Georgia) and City Square Mall (Cambie and 12th, mezzanine level). Festival information, 604-683-FILM (3456), 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.