Season in the Sun

NZIFF Director Bill Gosden reports back from the queues at Vancouver and looks at the difference with NZ audience.

When you organise a film festival in a city where even the most glorious summer runs a little short, you hope that the bad weather’s going to set in well before opening night. I know the horror of waking to brilliant sunshine on an NZIFF Sunday that’s been pre-packed with cinematic splendours, so my sympathies were with the organisers of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival this October. Day after day dawned bright and clear in that magnificently outdoorsy city, the maples flamboyantly autumnal, and the healthy population rudely mindful of the months of incessant rain ahead.

And yet… how pleasant to feel the sun on your face as you line up for a movie on Granville Street, declining the appeals  of the world’s most aggressively well-mannered  pan-handlers and dispensing unsolicited tips to fellow filmgoers.  “See No”, I could say with confidence, or “I reckon you’ll like Angels’s Share," though I hesitated to recommend NZIFF hit The Hunt which I still have not seen. It eventually took VIFF’s audience award.

I picked up on a few tips myself, which is how I heard about the festival’s Japanese hit, Key of Life, a Trading Places comedy in which a hapless young actor looking for a regular life steals the identity of an amnesiac accident victim - who turns out to have been a murderous underworld fixer. Or maybe not. The twists are frequent, daring and funny and the actors keep joyous pace with an accelerating succession of game changers.

The retired population who make up a large proportion of any festival’s weekday daytime audience are an especially game bunch in Vancouver. After so many years of attending this excellent festival I should have remembered this when I turned up a minute before show time and expected to find a prime seat for a matinee screening of Ulrich Seidl’s alarming Paradise: Love. Already well-known (to the dismay of all patriotic Austrians) for his full frontal portraits of suburban dissolution [Dog Days NZIFF2001], he’s working on his own Eat, Pray, Love trilogy; a trio of dramas in which Austrian women look for fulfilment. Paradise: Faith, about a Christian missionary, debuted in Venice and the forthcoming diet camp saga is rumoured for Berlin.

Paradise: Love, which headed up the series at Cannes, is about an Austrian woman of a certain age who takes time out at a beach resort in Kenya. A fellow tourist encourages her to play “Sugar Mamma” to one or more of the young men aggressively pan-handling on the beach. Assisted by a cast of big white women and svelte black men, all undaunted by frequent nudity, Seidl squarely confronts the mess of exploitation, racism, opportunism, objectification and longing that ensues when his lonely protagonist takes the bait. Seidl’s picture of social disintegration is severely personal, as always, but much more rounded and poignant in this instance than I had ever expected. The daytime audience was abuzz as they re-entered the milder sunshine of downtown Vancouver. If they were shocked, I didn’t hear any of them protesting that the unwholesome vision into which they had been inducted was a gratuitous one.

As with the older audience in Vancouver, so with the young. At VIFF you can expect to encounter large groups of senior students at many a screening. I have yet to overcome the audience envy I experienced some years back seeing Vancouver school groups happily gob-smacked by a gay 17-year-old’s battle with his single mother in Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother (M violence, offensive language, drug use, sex scenes: enough teen reality to get a Kiwi school teacher into the Sunday papers,  I suspect.) 

This year I found myself surrounded by school parties at Kinshasa Kids, a jagged hybrid of documentary and fiction in which the eponymous street kids, demonised as witches, scramble for food and shelter. They also rap and moonwalk and put on a show. The film’s first half delivers a fervid account of urban survival, so red in tooth and claw that it makes City of God look like Sesame Street. The ferocity with which the children perform their moves for the camera is lacerating. I doubt that the Canadian kids with their customised backpacks, smart phones and great hair were any more persuaded than I was that show business would be saving lives in Kinshasa. They were much quieter leaving the screening than they had been arriving. Two Little Boys was also amongst the films identified as suitable for youthful (14 and over) consumption. The call of the Asian indies that form a large part of VIFF’s raison d’etre kept me from observing the impact of Kiwi social disintegration on such civilised young moviegoers.

After a week in Vancouver the time arrived, as it infrequently does, to take a break from movies. As I rolled out the clouds rolled in. I hope it rained for the next week on the lovely hospitable VIFF crew and their splendidly congenial event.