The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess

September 24–October 3, 2004

Calgary is easily Canada’s most contrarian city. It is the fastest growing city in Canada and goes to almost absurdist lengths to promote its white collar, suburban professional class. Yet Calgary is also deeply reactionary. Its isolationism so intense that its rivalry with Edmonton in Northern Alberta, seems as heated as its distaste for big government epitomised by Toronto–Montreal–Ottawa. The exponential growth of the Calgary International Film Festival since its modest start in 2000 as a six-day affair screening 33 films to 2004’s 307 films is astonishing given this context. The CIFF has seen both its audience and corporate sponsorship increase during that period at a rate that would be the envy of more established festivals of equal size.

A few years ago, the idea of Calgary running a successful world-class film festival was remote. During the 1988 Winter Olympics, the city hosted a festival in conjunction with the arts component of the games. Alan Franey, who has been closely associated with the Vancouver International Film Festival, oversaw the programming. Due to the rather schizophrenic cultural climate of the city, attempts to create a more grassroots festival after this one-off failed. In 1991 and ’92, a not terribly cineliterate group created the Canadian Film Celebration. Despite a well-intentioned mandate focusing exclusively on Canadian film, the organisation, especially in the second year, was a mess. The line-up of films was press ganged into a multiplex over one weekend on such short notice that the staff at the cinema had barely any idea that the exhibitor had agreed to the festival. The exhibitor in turn had forgot to pull its regular newspaper ads creating the embarrassing situation of volunteers trying to persuade confused theatre goers that these strange unadvertised Canadian films were as good as the new Harrison Ford they had thought they were showing up for.

New festivals have survived similar disasters, but the debacle of the Canadian Film Celebration dampened enthusiasm for several years. Between 1992 and 2001, a loose collective emerged from three repertory/arthouse cinemas, a video store manager, an independent film co-op, general arts volunteers, and film professionals looking for something more exciting to do than wait for the next American movie-of-the-week or studio feature to pass through town.

The Hired Hand

Organisation was a little shaky during the first CIFF in 2000, but the variety of films screened struck a chord among a young, upwardly-mobile audience looking for something beyond the anonymous malls and office towers that define Calgary’s urban identity. Unlike their predecessors, the fledgling executive realised the need for continuity and rather quickly learnt the value of one-off events to keep the CIFF in the public eye. For example, in the summer of 2003, they organised a special gala screening of Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971) with the actor/director enthusiastically helping to promote the film and the festival.

The CIFF has also done its best given its size, its scheduling between Toronto and Vancouver’s mega-fests, and, to be charitable, the limitations of the local media (The Calgary Herald, the city’s major daily, has refused to hire a local film critic for several years) to draw attention to films that get lost at other festivals. It has also been assisted in recent years by the emergence of filmmakers with strong connections to Calgary such as Gary Burns (The Problem With Fear, waydowntown), Corey Lee (Defining Edward), John Fawcett (Ginger Snaps) and Wayne Kramer (The Cooler). All of these filmmakers have kindly supported the CIFF through gala screenings.

The expansion of the CIFF has placed chief programmer Andrew Eyck in both an enviable and difficult position. If it is almost impossible to compete with Toronto’s festival of festivals, second only to Cannes in prestige and market importance, can Calgary distinguish itself in the way that Vancouver has? The months of August through November are stuffed with festivals galore and there are only so many films that one can claim to have “discovered”. So while the Calgary festival has achieved the goal of bringing many films to the city that would not even have reached its three vibrant art houses, can it become a festival comparable to Edinburgh or Telluride in launching the next Todd Haynes or shedding light on a heretofore-neglected area of international cinema?

This year, Eyck and his programming team gamely tried to deliver a little bit of everything for everyone. The evening galas mixed up the likes of Being Julia (Istvàn Szabò, 2004), Mondovino (Jonathan Nossiter, 2004) and Clean (Olivier Assayas, 2004) with Western Canadian productions such as Crazy Canucks (Randy Bradshaw, 2004), a straightforward docudrama about the maverick downhill skiers Ken Read, Steve Podborksi and company, and The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess (2004), Bruce McDonald’s psychedelic biopic about the Vancouver juror who fell in love with a convicted murderer in 1994. The Canadian film strand was particularly strong and included the crowd-pleasing comedy, Phil The Alien (Rob Stefaniuk, 2004), experimental features like Echo (Kalpesh Patel, 2004) and Blood (Jerry Ciccoritti, 2004), and the cross-cultural love story, A Silent Love (Federico Hidalgo, 2003). The Hong Kong Cinema Spotlight was a good idea in theory, but the lack of extra screenings doomed the titles to a smaller audience. There was also similar confusion in the programming of the reissues. It was great to see La dolce vita and The Battle of Algiers on the big screen, but why include a mini-film noir strand and then only show a handful of films that could barely be called representative. By contrast, the numerous shorts from around the world were programmed into thematic blocks that were well attended and enthusiastically received. Perhaps the finest moment of the festival was the near rapturous response given to Mr. Reaper’s Bad Morning (2004) by local animators Kevin Kurytnik and Carol Beecher. The simple concept of the grim reaper waiting for his morning bus to work was pushed to an almost ecstatic limit. Although only 16 minutes long, this short was packed with the kind of dense comic imagery that would make talent scouts from Pixar or Dreamworks salivate.

Where the festival stood out for me was in its selection of international cinema and documentaries. Arthouse sure things like Clean, Bad Education, Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004), and The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003) received their local premieres but, as is often the case, it is the films with more modest publicity that linger in the mind.

The Orphan of Anyang (Wang Chao, 2001) from China and James’ Journey To Jerusalem (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, 2003) from Israel were both exemplary tales of poor people struggling with the uncaring conditions of the society around them. The two films shared a capacity to get to the heart of the matter using the simplest camera set-ups. While less profound, I was also intrigued by the documentary essay, Gunnar Goes Comfortable (2003), in which Norwegian filmmaker Gunnar Hall Jensen travels to India to find himself. Jensen bravely documents his shift from a thirty-something alcoholic narcissist incapable of settling down to a forty-something family man through a deftly edited montage of photos, Super-8 footage, and video. Despite his flaws, Jensen’s struggle to find the key to stop being a Type A asshole is both amusing and moving to watch.

Kontrol

Nimrod Antal’s Kontrol (2003), which possesses the same kind of “fuck you” energy as Trainspotting and Fight Club, wowed crowds with its black as night tale of ticket inspectors on the Budapest metro. Another Hungarian film, Hukkle (2002), by György Pálfi was a less accessible, but no less intriguing account of a series of poisonings in a small village. Focusing on ambient sound, the film contains no dialogue and its narrative is driven solely by an accumulation of elliptical glimpses of villagers going about their routine. Both Kontrol and Hukkle make one very curious about what is going on in Hungary these days.

The Shield (2004), the feature film debut by writer/director Fréderic Provost of France, was a well-crafted and gritty tale of a young criminal dragged back into a very nasty underworld in order to reunite a gangster’s wife with her young son. Shot Dogme style in Paris and Marseilles, The Shield contains enough violent scenes of retribution to make one reconsider retiring to the Côte D’Azur. More Michael Mann than Quentin Tarantino, the film doesn’t revel in the violence, but you do wish Provost were a little less specific in his depiction of it. This is a film where by the climax you find it hard to tell the “nice” bloodthirsty antiheroes from the “bad” bloodthirsty antiheroes, and you realise you don’t care anymore. The Shield is an efficient thriller, but not in the final analysis, a particularly insightful one.

Drawing Out The Demons (2004) by David Vaisbord ably demonstrated how digital filmmaking could free a documentarian from the economic constraints of following a subject for a long period of time. Shot over a period of five years and making original use of older footage, Vaisbord’s film follows the ups and extreme downs of Attila Richard Lukacs, one of Canada’s painting superstars. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was almost impossible not to be aware of Lukacs, thanks to lavish media coverage of his controversial work, which combined images that were both sacred and profane. A figurative artist of great skill, Lukacs mixed up button pushing images from gay pornography or fascism with complex references to Rembrandt and Cezanne. His personal odyssey took him from Calgary and Emily Carr College in Vancouver to Berlin and New York. Yet Lukacs did not handle success well. The cutthroat world of New York art deals made him cynical about his work and he became more dependent on drugs. Lukacs appears to have turned his life around following a period of recovery in Hawaii and now spends much of his time with his family in Calgary. His work is entering a more subtle and contemplative phase. Vaisbord’s incisive close-up of an artist negotiating the less romantic aspects of a life manages to avoid being harrowing thanks in large part to Lukacs’ inner core of self-preservation.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley, Donnacha O’Briain, 2003), a documentary about the failed attempt to topple Cesar Chavez in Venezuela, is a gripping document of a populist leader battling with the country’s ruling class and an US Administration with a unique working interpretation of “democracy”. It was hard not to watch the film in Calgary and not think dark thoughts about Alberta’s over-reliance on oil and its subservience to American multinationals.

Arakimentari

Arakimentari (2004), a documentary by Travis Klose, peeks into the life and controversial photography of Japan’s Nobuyoshi Araki. Araki is best known in the West for his erotica thanks to the canny marketing of Taschen. I was expecting one of those have-your-cake-and-eat-it cheapo docs on the porn industry that have become a staple of UK TV programming in recent years. Instead I was introduced to a genial workaholic who has produced around 350 books containing photographs of everything from flowers and rock stars like Björk to high fashion and poetic meditations on death. A significant part of the film is devoted to his wife, who died at a young age in the 1980s. A good documentary should shake up your preconceptions a little, if not a lot, and Arakimentari did just that.

Searching for the One-Eyed Jesus (Andrew Douglas, 2003), produced for BBC’s beleaguered Arena arts documentary strand, is a highly stylised tour of the American South as seen through the eyes of alt-country rockers like Jim White, Johnny Dowd and others. The music in the film is highly evocative. In fact, it does the job the rest of the film frustratingly fails to do. With the exception of novelist Harry Crews, the Southern hipsters like White seem to be “slumming it” through the dingy roadside cafes, county jails, trailer parks and junk lots. The South gets painted with a very broad brush of downmarket romanticism and we are never specifically told what state we are in. Florida is quite different from Texas, Tennessee from Georgia, and so on. There are obvious similarities between the states, but a good documentary should go beyond the obvious. Unsurprisingly, the truest moments in the film, apart from the music, are when the locals are allowed to talk without the cooler-than-thou mediation of our tour guides. The inmates in an overcrowded jail, for example, summed up their lives with more precision, humility, and unblinking candour than the musicians, who can always leave the “South” and play a groovy club in Amsterdam.

The CIFF has intriguingly made an effort to highlight US films that have been neglected by the hype at Sundance. So while one could enjoy the justly acclaimed low budget wonder of Primer (Shane Carruth, 2003), there was also the surprise of Nobody Needs To Know (2003) by New York filmmaker (and son of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs) Azazel Jacobs. The film’s technical limitations were made up by its radical juxtaposition of the travails of a young black man who has not let his setbacks disillusion him, and the trials and tribulations of an aspiring actress. Although Jacobs’ intentions are not immediately clear, his film rewards one’s patience with an accumulation of cutting vignettes about the absurdity of trying to live up to the distorted expectations of celebrity culture. And any low budget indie film that features a surprise cameo by the delightful Emily Mortimer is okay in my book.

All festivals have their share of high profile duds and the CIFF was big enough to contain a few inexplicable stinkers, Easy (Jane Weinstock, 2003) was an all too typical Sundance dramedy about a young woman’s search for the right man. It was the cinematic equivalent of a Seals and Croft marathon. Enlivened only by the presence of capable actors – Marguerite Moreau, Emily Deschanel, Caroline Goodall, Naveen Andrews and others – making the best of a soporific premise, Easy made the average episode of Sex and The City resemble Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002).

Similarly as disposable as tissue was Sugar Orange (2003), a German feature by Andreas Struck, about two young men estranged from each other because of a childhood accident. The film was immaculately photographed yet the homoerotic tension between the characters is depicted clumsily and lacks emotional weight. It was one of those “who cares” stories an earnest director may feel is of enormous importance, but that the audience finds merely opaque or inconsequential.

Mods (2002), a mercifully brief short feature by France’s Serge Bozon revolved around two stuffy brothers on leave from the Army who try to cheer up their brother who has been rendered catatonic by a break-up with a fellow university student. Think Jean-Luc Godard filtered through Hal Hartley but with none of the rigour or fun. When the characters break into dancing La La La Human Steps-style to The Seeds, the choreography looked clumsy instead of providing a rapturous counterpoint to the sub-existential utterances of the students.

Hooligans (2003), by Calgarians Mike and Kevin Scullion, was an obvious labour of love. Alas, love is not always enough. Shot in Ireland on digital video, the film is a shaggy dog story about an East End criminal taking over a small-town pub as part of an elaborate scheme to rip off his boss back in London. The script is a compendium of gags better told in films like Trainspotting, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Van. While I had no doubt that the Scullions are as proud of their Irish roots as I am, I could barely recognise the world they were filming. Cliché-wise, the Scullion brothers left barely a blarney stone unturned. When denizens of the town where the action unfolds aren’t fighting, they are drinking and vice versa. I can forgive a lot of tasteless indiscretions in a film if I am made to laugh a lot, but the Scullions are no Farrelly Brothers. As much as it pains me to dis the good intentions and hard work of local filmmakers, Hooligans just isn’t a particularly original or well-made film.

For the most part, the 2004 CIFF was a success. The glitches were ones common to larger events – missing prints, the odd rescheduled screening, brief sound problems, etc. It was encouraging to see and meet other marginal types – writers, actors, filmmakers, etc. – in lineups, between screenings, or at one of the parties or in the festival bar set up in The Uptown theatre. There were also lots of civilians willing to line up to see films that probably never get screened outside of festivals and may never even surface on DVD. If you give people a healthy alternative to Hollywood product and make a half-decent effort to publicise the films, they will come in droves.

However, there are issues that need to be addressed. The CIFF needs to fine-tune its programming and to also make more effective use of its corporate sponsors. Daytime screenings during the working week were sparsely scheduled forcing pass holders to miss the few repeat screenings available. The CIFF website could have been updated with more consistency. And, most importantly, with so many films being screened, it seems high time to expand the festival beyond the three art houses and videotheque and invite one of the chains to donate a screen. Given that most of the city lives in the suburbs, the CIFF could truly appeal to all Calgarians by taking over one of the shiny film palaces in the city’s malls.

In its fifth year, the CIFF has joined Wordfest and the One Yellow Rabbit Theatre’s High Performance Rodeo as an important cultural alternative to the traditional corporate sponsored menu of classical music, opera, and mainstream theatre productions. The small, but talented group of independent filmmakers in the city and province has a place to launch their work. The city’s filmgoers can look forward to an annual feast of cinema without having to fly to Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto. Now the CIFF must look at ways it can innovate. As Telluride and the New York Film Festival prove, big is not necessarily better and small is no impediment to being great.