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Around Town: Film festival’s opening night

Although the first day of spring is still six weeks away, that didn’t stop cinephiles from prematurely getting into the spirit of the season during Victoria Film Festival’s opening gala Friday night.

Although the first day of spring is still six weeks away, that didn’t stop cinephiles from prematurely getting into the spirit of the season during Victoria Film Festival’s opening gala Friday night.

You’d think festival director Kathy Kay had a crystal ball to inspire her choice of a springtime theme. It couldn’t have been better timed given Friday’s unwelcome snow flurries.

The weather made a city better known for February cherry blossoms seem decidedly wintry before Vancouver filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming’s opening night feature Window Horses even got started at Cineplex Odeon.

Belting out its signature tune Celebration, Vic High R & B band wasted no time getting 300 festival-goers and guests warmed up and dancing, fuelled by libations and food from Spinnakers and de Vine Wines and Spirits. Several guests wore brightly coloured costumes -- including flaming orange pants, pink shirts, floral dresses and polka-dot jackets -- to reflect their sunny dispositions.

Guests included Duane Howard, the Revenant star who has grown accustomed to answering “What was it like working with Leo?” questions; Don McKellar, who voices an arrogant German poet in Window Horses; Riverhead’s Newfoundland-born director Justin Oakey, and Jeff Chiba-Stearns, whose mixed-race organ transplant documentary Mixed Match plays at 6:30 tonight at Capitol 6.

Before McKellar met Oakey Friday night, he didn’t realize they had something in common, other than that McKellar’s last film, The Grand Seduction, was also set in Newfoundland.

“We shared Lawrence Barry,” said Oakey, referring to the actor who plays a vengeful widower in Oakey’s gritty drama inspired by the actor’s life.

Barry also played the small Newfoundland town’s mayor in McKellar’s lighthearted La Grande Seduction remake.

“I hadn’t seen The Grand Seduction until they told me he was in it so I checked it out at the Atlantic Film Festival.”

Despite having risen at 3 a.m. Friday, Richard Crouse, the Toronto-based CTV film critic whose connecting flight from Vancouver was cancelled, was in good spirits when he finally arrived at 9:45 p.m. It was an hour after Crouse was scheduled to begin a Q & A with McKellar.

“There’s an inch of snow in Vancouver. It shut down everything so we had a planes, trains, automobiles and ferry trip to get here,” said Crouse.

“The ferry was fantastic. I’d never done it before so it was an adventure.”

Veteran media producer Pat Ferns stepped in to interview McKellar, as well as Window Horses composer Taymaz Saba and Iranian animator Sadaf Amini, whose remarks prompted applause.

“We have a multitude of films from all around the world and filmmakers who celebrate our diversity, and I think this is a wonderful way for us to start this festival,” said Ferns.

Fleming, who had hoped to attend, was unable to since she recently had a concussion that prevented her from flying, said McKellar.

“It’s sadly ironic because when she first had a concussion years ago, she created this alter-ego stick figure which represented the way she was feeling, and now she’s had another. It’s a strange circle.”

Patricia Sims (When Elephants Were Young) reunited with fellow local producers Barbara Hager (1491) and Sarah Robertson (Sea Blind) 10 months after having their last martini together at Empress Hotel’s Bengal Room.

“The theme of the festival is springtime, and so for me it’s springtime in Russia,” quipped Sims, explaining why she was inspired to wear her fashionable faux-fur hat.

One of the night’s more sombre conversation topics at a patrons reception at the DoubleTree was the tragic death of Rob Stewart, who showcased his 2006 conservation film Sharkwater at the festival years ago.

The 37-year-old filmmaker and marine biologist’s body was recovered last week off the Florida Keys, where he had gone deep sea scuba diving while filming footage for a sequel.

“He died doing what he loved to do,” said Sims. “He’s with the sea, which he loved more than anything. There’s something circular about it because that’s what was driving him and all the work he was doing.”

And if anyone was wondering why Mark Leiren-Young was smiling, it’s because of what London’s Daily Mail said about his Moby Doll book The Killer Whale Who Changed the World in its rave review.

“I’ve now been reviewed in the U.K. and Singapore,” beamed the affable playwright and filmmaker who woke up Friday morning to see the “lovely” review published in the Daily Mail and later the Singapore News.

“They said the book ‘is absorbing and often touching,’” he said. “That is pretty darned cool.”

Harold Gronenthal, executive vice-president of programming and operations for AMC/Sundance Channel Global, flew in from New York, with a pit stop in Toronto for a Canadian Film Centre board meeting.

He was here long enough to do some networking at the gala, participate in Springboard on Saturday and praise the festival he has attended for 14 years before boarding a flight to Lisbon yesterday afternoon.

“I think it’s a great, under-appreciated festival,” he said. “The only problem is that [time-wise] it’s stuck between Sundance and Berlin, and those are huge festivals.”


> Film reviews, C9

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