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Victoria film fest — from dead poets to live elephants

Festival features appearances by Patricia Rozema, Gabrielle Rose

What: Victoria Film Festival
When: Feb. 5-14
Where: Cineplex Odeon, Vic Theatre, Star Cinema, Parkside Victoria
Tickets: $10.50 for features, short film programs
Film festival membership: $2 (mandatory one-time fee)
Multiple film/event passes available, $50-$519 (platinum pass)
Family Day films: $7
Springboard Talk & Panel: $20
Springboard Industry Pass: $99
Sidney Pass: $109 (covers all Sidney screenings)
Free admission to art exhibits, ConVerge street party
Opening gala: $69, all-inclusive
ConVerge: $20 (11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.); $30 (2-5 p.m., including after-party)
In Conversation With ...: $20


You don’t have to dig too deep to realize resurrection and homecoming are common themes during the 22nd annual Victoria Film Festival.

You’ll find the spirit of Al Purdy alive and well, for instance, in Al Purdy Was Here, Maclean’s film critic Brian D. Johnson’s fine debut documentary about the pioneering Canadian poet.

Fittingly, the first of its two festival screenings will be on Saturday night at the Star Cinema, not far from where Purdy died at his home near Sidney in the spring of 2000.

Reincarnation figures prominently in at least two of the 160 features, shorts, animated films and documentaries being shown during the 10-day festival, which begins Friday with the annual Springboard industry programs.

In Victoria filmmaker Connor Gaston’s crisis-of-faith drama The Devout, a distraught father believes his cancer-stricken young daughter is the reincarnation of an astronaut.

The topic is also touched upon in The Heart of Mrs. Sabali, Quebec filmmaker Ryan McKenna’s surreal drama in which a teenager believes a heart-transplant recipient is the reincarnation of his late mother.

Gaston, who will attend his feature debut’s première Thursday night with stars Gabrielle Rose and David Nykl and first-time actor Olivia Martin, is just one of several guests with local connections.

Patricia Sims, the local director and World Elephant Day co-founder, and cinematographer Michael Clark will attend the hometown première of When Elephants Were Young, their remarkable documentary narrated by William Shatner. The film, which explores the plight of endangered elephants through the story of a Bangkok street beggar and his young elephant, made its world première at Whistler Film Festival.

It screens at 7 p.m. Monday at the Star, and at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Cineplex Odeon, the festival’s principal venue.
Victoria-based filmmaker Andrew Marchand-Boddy and Canadian-raised graffiti-artist Fonki will attend Monday night’s screening of The Roots Remain, co-directed with Jean-Sebastien Francoeur. The documentary chronicles Fonki’s return to Cambodia to paint murals commemorating the loss of his family to the Khmer Rouge regime.

Andrew Currie, the Victoria-raised filmmaker whose zombie satire Fido created a splash years ago, will also be back, this time with The Steps, his new ensemble comedy-drama, and one of its stars, Benjamin Arthur.

A significant local showcase is Sunday night’s CineVic retrospective, since it coincides with the 25th anniversary of the collective founded by local filmmakers in need of production and exhibition resources.

The late Victoria-born silent screen star Nell Shipman will be resurrected in Grubstake Remix, director Daniel Janke’s reimagination, a hybrid of film and theatre, of her 1923 melodrama The Grubstake.

Local filmmakers represented in the shorts programs include Jeremy Lutter (Gord’s Brother), back with his new film Reset, which features a female android who develops human feelings. Kate Green will showcase Not A Stranger, which focuses on a unique project launched by Colin Easton, a social-media buff she worked with at Belfry Theatre. After being diagnosed with clinical depression, Easton fulfilled his mission to change public perception about talking to strangers by meeting and talking to a person he doesn’t know each day.

Two  features filmed on Vancouver Island are also in the festival spotlight. Patricia Rozema’s survival drama Into the Forest focuses on the bond between two sisters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) in the Pacific Northwest wilderness during an apparent apocalypse. The Girl in the Photographs, which director Nick Simon shot here last year, was the last film executive-produced by the late horror icon Wes Craven.

International entries generating buzz include Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen’s dysfunctional-family black comedy Men & Chicken, Icelandic filmmaker Dagur Kari’s Virgin Mountain, Fabienne Berthaud’s Sky, and Speed Sisters, a documentary about an all-female race-car team in the Palestinian West Bank.

Other best bets include Valley of Love, reuniting Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert as a divorced couple who reluctantly meet in Death Valley to fulfil their late son’s dying wish; and Five Nights in Maine, director Maris Curran’s meditation on grief starring Dianne Wiest and Selma’s David Oyelowo.

Also worth checking out is Demimonde, Hungarian director Attila Szasz’s drama recounting the lifestyle of an intriguing courtesan in Budapest in 1914; and Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister, about three sisters whose lives in Japan are profoundly affected by their new half-sister.

“There’s a lot of great international films, but we try to have as much local content as we can every year,” said festival director Kathy Kay, who is also resurrecting ConVerge — where films are screened in pop-up cinemas — for the first time since 2011.

“We always wanted to bring it back, but we needed significant funding,” said Kay.

This year’s ConVerge, which kicks off Feb. 12 with a Broad Street block party, is being produced by Theatre SKAM’s Matthew Payne and features 30 miniature venues, including Victoria City Hall’s clock tower.

When the festival itself begins Friday, Kay promises it will be with another whiz-bang gala party following the screening of Philippe Falardeau’s My Internship in Canada at the Cineplex Odeon.

The gala will take place at 1008 Government St., the elaborately decorated vacant building that was transformed into the faux nightclub Noir for last year’s shindig featuring the Naden Band.

This year features a Freudian dream-themed affair, with areas designated for sweet dreams, naughty dreams and nightmares.

“I always try to come up with something fun and playful,” said Kay.

The 11-piece R&B band New Groovement will supply the music this year, with Camosun College Cooks Program students
preparing dishes, including breakfast-themed fare.

This year’s extensive guest list includes In Conversation With ... subjects Semi Chellas, the Emmy-nominated Mad Men executive producer and writer who will share tips on writing for film and television, and Larry Weinstein, the prolific documentarian whose new film The Devil’s Horn explores the history of the saxophone. Richard Crouse, the Canada AM film critic and author, returns to host these events.

Rozema is flying in for Into the Forest and Irdens Exantus, who plays the Haitian intern in My Internship in Canada, will also attend the opening gala and screenings.

Other notable guests include directors Janke, Johnson and McKenna; Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson (Rams/Hrutar); and Chloe Sosa-Sims and Jake Chirico, co-directors of Dan and Margot, the documentary about a young woman with schizophrenia.

Filmmaker Drew Taylor, last here with the late former Canadian ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor to showcase Our Man in Tehran, will also be back. This time he’ll present Ron Taylor: Dr. Baseball, his short documentary about his father, the major-league baseball pitcher who became team doctor for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Also in attendance: directors Stacey Ashworth (No Breath Play), Anne Émond (Our Loved Ones), Lewis Bennett (The Sandwich Nazi) and Ingrid Veninger, whose film He Hated Pigeons will be live-scored by local band Morning Show at the Vic Theatre next Tuesday. Chinese documentary filmmaker Zhou Chengyu (Hermits) is also coming, along with Bill Porter (a.k.a. Red Pine), the American author featured in the film.

Kay said she’s particularly excited about the world première of The Grand Song on Family Day at Cineplex Odeon, where a grand piano will be set up for a special musical event featuring a child prodigy.

Director Chouchou Ou is flying in with a contingent from China for a unique celebration surrounding the première of the drama, which relates a love story between members of the Dong ethnic minority.

“[Ou is] developing a real track record in China, so the fact we got the world première is pretty cool,” Kay said.

Other notable highlights are the return of three new features introduced last year — the Indigenous, French Canadian Wave and Asian Program.

Don’t expect to see that film-themed double-decker bus parked outside the Odeon this year, however. The VIP lounge has relocated to the lobby of the Dominion Rocket.

“The bus was a great marketing tool, but I discovered no matter how much you plead, you cannot get a liquor licence for a bus,” said Kay with a laugh.

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