What: 26th Annual Victoria Film Festival
Where: The Vic Theatre (808 Douglas St.), Cineplex Odeon (780 Yates St.), Capitol 6 (805 Yates St.), and SilverCity(3130 Tillicum Rd.) among others
When: Feb. 7 through Feb. 16
Ticket information: VictoriaFilmFestival.com
As with seemingly everything else that has roots in the city, the Victoria Film Festival is known for being a community-bred entity: different from its big-city competition, but pound-for-pound just as strong.
Originality has been a hallmark of the popular 10-day event, which enters its 26th year this week. With a lineup of 82 feature films and 20 shorts spread over eight participating venues, the VFF is expected to attract 28,000 filmgoers during its run.
Victoria audiences love seeing arthouse features in commercial theatres such as SilverCity and Cineplex Odeon during the festival, just one of the attractions of this homegrown hit.
“We bring in so many films,” said Kathy Kay, who took over as festival director in 1998. “And we have events with guest stars and an industry event, so it all adds up to being something significant for the community.”
The VFF will screen 12 Canadian premières and one world première this year, complemented by films from as far away as Palestine, Pakistan, Tunisia and Thailand, along with the U.S., the U.K., China and other countries.
Despite its modest beginnings, it’s clear thast the VFF punches well above it weight, with programming for families and showcases for local filmmakers.
Kay isn’t focused only on audience totals when it comes to assessing the VFF, however. “I do look at the financial side, but the best moments are when a film starts on time and people start laughing right away at what’s on screen. It puts me on cloud nine, because I want people to enjoy the films and see things they wouldn’t normally get a chance to see.”
British actor Bill Nighy of Love Actually and The Pirates of the Caribbean fame is the star attraction this year, with two sold-out appearances set for Saturday — a 7:45 p.m. talk at the Victoria Conference Centre, followed by an 8 p.m. screening of his film Hope Gap at the Vic Theatre.
Kay has felt the buzz over Nighy’s pending appearance, but is happy to recommend other options for those who missed out on tickets. “Hope Gap is going to be big, because of the hype surrounding it and the fact Bill Nighy is coming, but there’s some really lovely films in the festival,” she said.
Those include the Canadian première of Vagenda Stories, director Natascha Beller’s contemporary Swiss comedy (Tuesday at the Cineplex Odeon) about women navigating the social pressures that come with having — or not having — children. “That is one that I just love. It’s the kind of film you want to grab your female friends and go.”
She’s also fond of Two of Us (Saturday, Feb. 15, at The Vic Theatre), a compelling Dutch drama from Filippo Meneghetti about two women whose hidden romantic relationship becomes public later in life.
The VFF is never going to be home to big-budget, Marvel Universe films — territorial film distributors make sure of that — so it’s more difficult to predict what type of film will catch on with audiences, Kay said. “We’ll find movies that we just love, and they may not have the high-concept thing that makes people go: ‘Oh, I must see this!’ It is odd, sometimes, what captures people’s attention.”
Case in point: The Vic Theatre, which is run year-round by the VFF, has recently been showing the quirky documentary Fantastic Fungi, which has been filling the theatre since it opened. “It’s gone crazy,” Kay said. “And we were like: ‘Really?’ It’s about mushrooms!’ We can still get caught by surprise.”
Highlights at this year’s VFF include: Nicolas Bedos’s romantic comedy La Belle Époque; Werner Herzog’s documentary Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin; Xavier Dolan’s Cannes selection Mattjia & Maxime; Alejandro Amenábar’s drama While at War; D.W. Young’s documentary Booksellers; and Ken Loach’s surefire audience favourite Sorry We Missed You.
Programming streams were altered for the 26th instalment and steered away from grouping films of specific nationalities.
“We had done that by country in the past, and that was kind of an outdated way of doing it,” Kay said.
This time, the films are organized thematically, to give audiences a sense of what the film is about. “It will help them decide what they want to see, because there are so many films to pick from.”
Kay said head programmer Kinga Binkowska has hit it out of the park this year, even though it’s her first year in the position. Binkowska joined the festival in 2017 as communications co-ordinator, rising quickly to her new position with skills from past positions at the Zurich Film Festival and Queen of the Square arthouse cinema in Stratford, Ont.
Binkowska joins Kay, operations manager Jenna Savage and communications co-ordinator Leyland Bradley as women in key positions at the festival, something not often seen at film festivals in Canada.
“More women than ever are in the industry, but it’s still such a guy’s game,” Kay said. “You don’t always see yourself with a place in the field.”
The programming team at the VFF has put together a varied roster of films that range from a cluster of Quebec films to a series of Indigenous films directed mostly by women. It never gets easier, operating from a corner of the world not fully on the mainstream moviemaking map, but Kay is always pleased with the results.
“It is always a juggling act. Whether we see movies at film festivals or they have been submitted to us, timing-wise, we just have to keep pushing. There is a lot of playing games and juggling, seeing what we can get.”