For years I’ve listened to people rave about the Vancouver International Film Festival. Several Seattle-based film critic friends swear by it, attending every year; and I understand it’s the absolute personal favorite festival of a certain stellar pair of film scholars who catch a lot of these around the globe. Somehow, I’ve never quite made it there, except for what may have been a VIFF event a couple of decades back, when Jeanne Moreau and Lillian Gish were onstage to introduce the younger screen legend’s film portrait of her elder colleague. But this autumn we finally got it together, secured accreditation, and booked a pleasant, not-too-costly motel room within a few minutes walk of festival HQ and most of the venues.
Of course, even this year circumstances conspired to shortchange me a bit. What had been planned as a sojourn of a week or so at the fest’s beginning got reduced to five days in midfest for Kathleen Murphy and two-days-and-one-day for me (with an interruption to drive back to Seattle for a postfilm talk about Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear in the Seattle Art Museum film noir series). I ended up seeing only six films—eight if we separate Dreileben into its three feature-length parts. It was a bummer to learn that the tickets to Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre had “been gone for weeks,” and a delay at the border made me late for an intended midday show of something else. Still, I’m more than satisfied.
VIFF runs for 14 days, which makes it a few days longer than its younger but bigger sister festival in Toronto, and a week-and-a-half shorter than the May-June leviathan to the south. A postfestival press release notes that the 2011 edition—the 30th anniversary, as it happens—offered 240 feature films, 20 featurettes, and a few dozen shorts. The majority of them played at a seven-screen Empire multiplex on Granville Street, which certainly made things handy. The several other venues, including Vancouver’s venerable Cinematheque, were either catercorner across the street or a couple of blocks away.
During my too-brief visit(s), I didn’t see a frame of film out of focus or dimly projected, and with one entirely pardonable exception, every show started at its announced time. I didn’t encounter a single ticket issuer, ticket taker, or other staffperson who was impolite, uninformed, or afflicted with a zombielike fixity of expression. The festival program book and especially its intelligently designed screenings calendar are exemplary. And the Vancouverites who queue patiently for screening after screening appear to be as enthusiastic and affable as their counterparts at the Toronto fest (which I attended for 18 of the past 22 years).
The one movie that got off to a slightly late start was the Iranian A Separation, among some half-dozen pictures being shown in Vancouver within days of their appearance in the prestigious New York Film Festival. A Separation was playing at the Vogue, a capacious showplace—two-tiered balcony, big screen—that I gather had only recently reopened after a renovation. The place was packed, or in the process of becoming so; Kathleen and I ended up watching the movie about as far separated as we could get—she on a folding chair in an improvised front row of the orchestra, I up under the roof at the very top of the balcony aisle (nothing in my sightline and lotsa leg room!). I’m told Vancouver has a sizable Iranian or Iranian-Canadian population; there couldn’t have been many of them absent from the Vogue that evening, and they were in for a triumph.
Asghar Farhadi’s film has been wowing festival audiences everywhere—starting with a record number of awards at Berlin, including ensemble Best Actor and Best Actress, fully merited. It opens with one of those patient, plain-as-day compositions that just accrete power as they go along: a wife (Leila Hatami) and husband (Peyman Moaddi) sitting before an unseen judge and explaining why, even though they have the highest regard for each other, they must be divorced. She aims to leave the country, where she doesn’t want their daughter, age 10, growing up “in the present circumstances.” (How’d that line get past the powers-that-be?) Fine, she can go—but not the daughter unless the husband agrees, which of course he doesn’t. The separation begins, but the husband, Naader, hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), lost to dementia. The woman is a good and conscientious soul, but life is complicated—a small daughter of her own, an out-of-work husband, a pregnancy nearing term—and one day there is a terrible misunderstanding that results in the whole lot of them being swept up in the justice system. Someone writing about the film has invoked Jean Renoir’s line about “everyone having their reasons, everyone being right,” and A Separation is worthy of the allusion.
So, a great night at the Vogue. And it began at a high peak, with festival director Alan Franey welcoming the capacity crowd with the announcement that, although initially there had not been plans to distribute A Separation in Canada, on the strength of the demonstrable interest on the part of the VIFF audience, that decision had been reversed. Which is as good a testimonial to the value and power of film festivals as I’ve encountered.
Originally published in Straight Shooting, October 31, 2011
Copyright 2011 Richard T. Jameson