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Film buffs brave the storm

The Victoria Film Festival’s popularity was put to the ultimate test this year, thanks to last week’s ill-timed blast of ice, snow and freezing temperatures. The good news? It passed with flying colours.
Jeff Chiba Stearns and Sarah Shams attend the film festival gala at the Atrium last week.

The Victoria Film Festival’s popularity was put to the ultimate test this year, thanks to last week’s ill-timed blast of ice, snow and freezing temperatures. The good news? It passed with flying colours.

It was astonishing to discover that Vic Theatre was packed to capacity for My Scientology Movie on a miserable Monday night, for example, following a heavy snowfall that forced B.C. Transit to cancel 11 bus routes.

The big joke at the opening-night reception at the DoubleTree Hotel was whether the white stretch limousine that L.A. Limousines owner Ed Kahakauwila would use to shuttle guests around would be rendered invisible during a potential white-out. One wag remarked it would be particularly hard to see while heading toward Vancouver Island’s newest ski hill: Bear Mountain.

While attendance at the opening-gala feature Window Horses was relatively thin because of the inclement weather on Feb.3, business soon began to climb.

There was another full house Tuesday night, this time for the Italian comedy Like Crazy, introduced by festival director Kathy Kay and Consul General of Italy Massimiliano Iacchini.

Filmgoers sampled prosciutto and focaccia bread courtesy of the Italian Bakery before Iacchini sang the praises of the festival’s Italian films, including Franca: Chaos & Creation.

Iacchini, who later took some guests to Il Covo Trattoria in James Bay, took a moment to remember the film’s subject, the late Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, whom he described as “a real example of Italian creativity.”

Meanwhile, a few slippery blocks away, The Sun at Midnight played to a near-capacity crowd at Cineplex Odeon’s biggest theatre, the 400-seat No. 5 upstairs.

Against all odds, Kirsten Carthew’s northern drama set the festival’s all-time record for door sales, said Kay.

The film’s star, Duane Howard of The Revenant fame who turned 54 last Sunday, was taken by surprise when moviegoers spontaneously sang Happy Birthday to him in the lobby.

“I encourage you people to write your own story if you want to get into scriptwriting,” Howard told festivalgoers, recalling that even when he was in L.A. for the Oscars, it’s a subject he was often asked about.

“If you want to get into scriptwriting, educate yourself. We, indigenous and First Nations people, need to step up, and we need you to honour our stories and way of life. I ask you to open your arms up to us and let us tell our stories and be truthful.”

While Kay acknowledged weather did affect some door sales, there was an upside for filmgoers who hadn’t reserved tickets in advance for hot shows.

“There were people who didn’t turn up even though they had tickets,” she said.

“By the time it’s over, I think we’re going to have more sellouts this year. Last year we had 31.”

Sellouts included the Quebec and Down East & Out West short-film showcases, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s After the Storm, I Called Him Morgan and Voice From the Wilderness.

The second showing of Mixed Match, director Jeff Chiba Stearns’s documentary about the challenges facing mixed-race patients seeking bone-marrow donors, also did well.

“I think it’s because it really opens people’s minds,” Kay said. “He touched on a subject a lot of people don’t know much about.”

Theatre of Life, the National Film Board documentary about Italian master chef Massimo Bottura’s Refettorio Ambrosiano, the communal dining room in Milan where some of the world’s top chefs are seen preparing gourmet meals from discarded food for homeless people and refugees, also sold out quickly.

Saturday’s screening at the Vic marked the first time United Way Greater Victoria had sponsored a festival film, said its communications director Heather Skydt.

“It’s all about celebrating the community, so it was a really good fit for us, especially since we just moved into Nootka Court,” she said, noting it’s timed to coincide with February’s Raise the Red campaign.

It wasn’t just the stories being told on screen that captured our attention.

We were reminded on opening night, for instance, that Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe is friends with an Asian screen legend — Nancy Kwan of The World of Suzie Wong fame.

“I didn’t realize she was in this!” said Thornton-Joe, who recognized Kwan’s voice from the screen while watching Ann Marie Fleming’s animated feature Window Horses.

After the gala at the Atrium, she vowed to reconnect with the Hong Kong-born film star she brought to Victoria in 2010 for a Victoria Chinatown Lioness Society fundraiser.

We also learned about something on another city councillor’s bucket list.

Pam Madoff, marvelling at the sight and sounds of the Vic High R&B band at the opening gala, said: “I wanted to volunteer to be their house mother, take them dress shopping, travel with them or whatever.”

Madoff is such a fan of the musicians, whose 2005 pilgrimage to Detroit and mentorship by Motown diva Martha Reeves was profiled in Barbara Hager’s 2008 documentary Motown High, she’s pushing for a sequel.

“At the end of it, Barbara asked every musician she interviewed where they hoped to be in 10 years,” Madoff recalled.

“I’ve always hoped she’d go back, track them down and find out where they are now.”

Sheena Macdonald, Canadian Film Centre’s chief operating officer, also revealed a little-known-fact — that her skillset goes beyond making production deals and nurturing Canadian screen talent.

“My star turn was as an extra in The Red Violin,” said Macdonald, who played an elderly violinist’s companion whose big line was “Just sign it!” during an auction scene that also featured producers Larry Weinstein and Barbara Shrier.

“She was the best part of the movie,” quipped Don McKellar, who wrote the script for Francois Girard’s 1998 Canadian drama chronicling the history of a 16th-century violin.

And while it wasn’t surprising to find Movie Monday founder Bruce Saunders enjoying festival fare again, he expressed considerably less enthusiasm for La La Land.

Saunders felt the hit musical and Oscar contender was so over-hyped, he’s contemplating starting a support group for moviegoers who gave La La Land a thumbs-down.

“I feel like the little kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes,” he said.

Today’s highlights include Jammies & Toons, the pre-Family Day screening event at 11 a.m. at the Vic, where adults and kids get to wear pyjamas and eat cereal while watching New York Children’s International Film Festival highlights; and My Life as a Zucchini (4 p.m.), with the Consul General of Switzerland Pascal Bornoz in attendance.