What: Victoria Film Festival
When: Feb. 5-14
Tickets: $8 per film; $79 for a festival pass
Kinga Binkowska stepped into the role of head programmer ahead of last year’s Victoria Film Festival, which took place in February, and thus managed to avoid being shut down by COVID-19 by a matter of weeks.
When planning for the 2021 edition got underway in April, there were no assurances there would even be a festival 10 months down the road.
“No one really knew how it was going to go, so we made the decision in November to go just online,” Binkowska said. “To do it online and in-person, it would have been like running two festivals.”
The virtual “doors” to the festival’s 27th edition will open at 12 p.m. on Friday. There are no scheduled times for screenings; ticket holders can watch the films at their leisure from their homes via computer or TV with the Elevent app (instructions are in the FAQ section of victoriafilmfestival.com.)
That means no big screens, no opening night gala, no “Have you seen this?” buzz among moviegoers. With that in mind, Binkowska wanted to ensure that the 50 feature films chosen for the festival could stand on their own, without the need for additional hype and press to sell tickets.
Though it will be strange for some to take in the festival without stepping inside a local theatre, Binkowska sees the ease of access as a positive.
“It’s kind of fun. I think people will be able to watch even more films, because they don’t have to wait in line. We usually have shows that are sold out. This year you can watch whatever you want.”
A record 1,100 features and short films were submitted for inclusion, from which Binkowska, festival director Kathy Kay and several section programmers chose 73. Highlights abound, from All-in Madonna, the first full-length film from Victoria director and former Times Colonist photographer Arnold Lim, to the Canadian première of The Secret Garden starring Oscar winner Colin Firth.
The Metamorphosis of Birds, the feature-length debut from Portuguese filmmaker Catarina Vasconcelos, was one of Binkowska’s discoveries. It chronicles the director’s family history in a hybrid documentary format, with both actors and non-actors — including her own family — taking roles in the film. It has won several film-festival awards, and could be a candidate for some end-of-festival awards when the Victoria Film Festival wraps on Feb. 14.
“It’s so exciting to book a film from a first-time director, because you know their future films will be amazing,” Binkowska said. “Films from first-time directors are like finding hidden gems.”
Binkowska says she’s partial to French and Nordic films, but will admit to only one outright bias. “I’m Polish, so I always try and sneak in one Polish film,” she said with a laugh. “It makes my grandma very happy.”
This year, she snuck in two from her homeland: I Never Cry and Magic Mountains.
Binkowska said the festival has always had a mandate of booking risky films as well as commercial sure-things. China’s first big-budget disaster film, Skyfire, which is in competition this year, covers both bases. “It’s definitely not a typical film-festival film for us,” she said. “Why not? This is the year to do it.”
Skyfire director Simon West, whose two biggest films, Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, made over $500 million worldwide, will join actor Jason Isaacs — who played Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film franchise — in a Q&A session following the screening of his film, one of roughly 30 Q&As with actors and directors during the 10-day festival.
Assassins director Ryan White, who earned a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for The Keepers, his 2017 docu-series on Netflix, is another high-profile participant who has signed up for a Q&A session — the majority of which would have been cost-prohibitive had the festival gone with an in-person model.
Binkowska will take the small victories where she can get them in 2021.
“I miss going to the theatre, that’s not even a question. But it was a great learning experience. The future will be different, even when we are allowed to show films in theatres, which is not bad. We all miss going to the theatre, but why not have both?”