Victoria Film Festival: Thousands gear up for huge selection of shows

What: 25th Annual Victoria Film Festival
Where: Various venues, including the Victoria Conference Centre (720 Douglas St.), The Vic Theatre (808 Douglas St.) and Parkside Hotel (810 Humboldt St.), among others
When: Feb. 1 through Feb. 10
Information: VictoriaFilmFestival.com

The early days of the Victoria Film Festival were like those of any startup festival — short on content but long on enthusiasm.

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Once limited to a handful of features and shorts, with audience totals in the hundreds, it has since grown into a massive 10-day event spread over eight participating venues. The festival, which enters its 25th season this week, is now expected to draw 25,000 people over the course of its run.

“It feels more controlled this year, less ‘Eek!’ moments,” festival director Kathy Kay said with a laugh.

“There’s more staff who have been here a bit longer, so we all know what’s coming. We have a better handle on things.”

Kay took over the festival in its fourth year. She has watched from a front-row seat as the event outgrew its boutique, regional identity and became a well-curated showcase for films from dozens of countries. More than 1,000 filmmakers applied to have their work screened at this year’s festival, Kay said. In the end, only 156 films made the cut. That put programming pressure on a festival team that includes several full-time staff, an advisory panel, a selection committee and 10 section programmers catering to films from Europe, the United Kingdom and Asia, among other countries.

“We have access to broader films, more desirable films — we get to be choosier about what we’re selecting,” Kay said. “We can afford to send some people to other festivals, and hire programmers who are really experienced, so they can bring better films into the festival.”

The festival opens Friday with a full slate, including Sink or Swim, the B.C. première of the French film from director Gilles Lellouche. The film is being shown during the festival-opening gala at the Victoria Conference Centre Theatre, and will be followed by an anniversary-themed disco party at 747 Fort St. The festival’s opening-night bash has grown in size commensurate with the festival itself, and Kay likes the fun-loving identity that has been forged.

“I hope that it’s a festival that attracts all ages. That’s really important to me. I went to the Sudbury Film Festival once and it was right across the spectrum, every economic group, every age group, and they were all watching the same film. We have some films that do the same thing, that are so universal.”

That Higher Level (from director John Bolton) will have its world première at The Vic Theatre on Feb. 9. The documentary, which chronicles the 100 musicians who make up the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, follows the cast of musicians between the ages of 16 and 28 over a two-month period of training and touring, and is expected to be one of the hits of the festival. That Higher Level is joined on the must-see list by Canadian content from Don McKellar (Through Black Spruce) and Corey Stanton (Robbery), but films of international scope loom equally large.

Italy’s Dogman — which stars Marcello Fonte in the role that won him the best actor award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival — is expected to compete with Asako I & II (Japan), The Raft (Denmark), Arctic (Iceland), Granny Project (Hungary), Evelyn (UK), Dead Pigs (China) and Non-Fiction (France) for the festival’s end-of-fest awards.

Representatives from several of the aforementioned films will be in attendance during screenings. Guests appearing at the festival include a variety of directors (Bolton, McKellar, Charles Officer of Invisible Essence: The Little Prince), actors (JJ Feild, Etruscan Smile; Nolan Hupp, Encore) and screenwriters (Gwaai Edenshaw, Edge of the Knife; Merry Colchester, Granny Project; Shifi Aloni, Unorthodox), among others. It’s an aspect of the festival that often produces some of the biggest surprises, Kay said.

Cuban director Lorenzo DeStefano attended the festival for a screening of his 2002 documentary, Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time, and audiences were carried away. “He told the best stories, nobody would leave the theatre. We ran late, because people were having such a good time.”

Expectations are high for In Conversation With Smoke Signals, which joins the 25th Anniversary Exhibition (Feb. 2-10 at the Atrium) in paying tribute to the festival on its silver anniversary.

At the Feb. 3 event, CTV film critic Richard Crouse will lead a panel featuring Smoke Signals stars Tantoo Cardinal and Evan Adams and director Chris Eyre in a discussion that will be preceded by a screening of the movie at the Victoria Conference Centre.

Smoke Signals marked a significant moment in the maturation of the Victoria Film Festival. The indie hit, which now resides in the U.S. National Film Registry, had its Canadian première at the Victoria festival in 1998, shortly after its star-making debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where it was named audience favourite. “It had just screened at Sundance, which ends the week before we open,” Kay said.

“We had heard of it, and wanted to get it, but it was quite tough. At first we were told that we were going to get it, then we were told no. But they eventually gave it to us, so it was by the seat of our pants.”

Smoke Signals posted the best audience totals of any film at the festival that year, and effectively paved the way for the festival’s annual Indigenous Perspective programming. “That’s a really important role to play as a film festival, to bring work in for under-served audiences,” Kay said.

Though it has become a festival heavy with work by acclaimed actors and rising stars, Kay still relishes the small-scale moments.

She uses those as her measure of success; when supporters lined up to purchase their tickets years ago, Kay said she would always marvel at the range in ages. “I’d look up and there would be somebody in line with a skateboard, right behind somebody who is retired. I really like that part. I think that is what makes me the happiest.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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