A Festival Defines Itself: The CIFF Slowly Develops a Personality

The 4th Calgary International Film Festival

by Andrea Huck Volume 7, Issue 12 / December 2003 15 minutes (3744 words)

Festival Strands:

  • Canadian Film Works (CFW)
  • Contemporary World Cinema (CWC)
  • American Independent (AI)
  • Restored Classics (RC)
  • Films for Families (FF)
  • Youth Film Series (YFS)
  • Reality Reels (RR)
  • Off the Beaten Path (OBP)
  • Action: Sports Series (SS)

On the opening night of the 4th Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF), I decided to forgo the dubious glitz of the opening gala film presentation, The Cooler (Wayne Kramer), starring Alec Baldwin and William H. Macy, to which my media pass did not grant me access anyway, and opted to see a film I had read was having a hard time securing distribution. Feeling rather smug, I walked past the crowds on 6th Ave and into the Uptown cinema to see Errol Morris’ latest film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert McNamara (RR), which ended up being one of the overlooked films of the festival. It only had one screening that coincided with the two sold-out screenings of The Cooler, and received a cold shoulder from the documentary jury, which this year included, among others, Andrew Johnson of the CBC series “Rough Cuts,” Calgary producer Michelle Wong, and none other than Peter Wintonick.

Before seeing the film, I had never heard of Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defense who oversaw such conflicts as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam debacle, and the height of the Cold War. After watching only a few minutes of the film, I began to wonder how indeed I could ever have escaped the acquaintance of such a pivotal figure in late 20th century history. It would have been easy to vilify this man, but the beauty of the film is that Morris paints an incredibly human picture of person who authorized some incredibly inhumane decisions. On the one hand, McNamara talks matter-of-factly, and almost coldly about the need to “get the data” and “maximize efficiency” during times of war. The distance, the dissociation we feel for McNamara during these sequences is rhythmically intercut with moments when we feel an intense appreciation and sympathy for him. The film’s strong cautionary tone, indeed, does not belong entirely to Morris. McNamara comments specifically on the geopolitical climate early on in the film, stating, for example, that the US is too powerful a nation to engage in military conflict without the support of like-minded countries, asking if this is what we want in the 21st century.

Morris shot over twenty hours of interviews with McNamara, extracting some amazing material—the tight montage of which is almost eerie in its precision. The filmmaker also uses copious amounts of archival footage not only of the conflicts in which McNamara was involved, but of the man himself, illustrating his persona. There is no question that The Fog of War is a sophisticated and polished film carrying a strong anti-war message; there is one shot that stands out in my mind where archival footage of B-29 bombers is shown, but rather than dropping explosives they drop superimposed numbers of casualties during certain battles. Morris also frequently returns to the same shot of moving cogs and wheels, underscoring the ethos of productivity, of mechanical efficiency in killing that underlies most of McNamara’s discourse. I did not get the sense that Morris was trying to make a film which was both biography and historical doc, rather, it seemed to me that he wanted to relate the story of a man whose professional life happens to bracket off and crystallize the weight recent history has on the present moment.

The Fog of War is one of those films that hits the nail right on the zeitgeist, and it is disappointing to know that it is having a hard time finding an audience. Although I was frustrated that more people did not attend The Fog, I had to concede that a film like this is a tough sell in a city where ordinary people organized rallies in support of Bush’s war. I wondered if that night was going to be representative of the rest of the festival: were aesthetically and socially relevant films going to flop as crowds rushed off to see movies they’d be able to see next week? With these thoughts on my mind, and after some hemming and hawing, I decided to check out the gala reception (this year’s fest included no less than four galas) a few blocks away, held at the Eaton Center.

Even though I had attended, and actually volunteered for, the CIFF the previous year, I was still a little unsure about what passed for a “gala” in a city built on oil money, where people proudly affix “I love Alberta beef” bumper stickers to their pick ups. People in various states of up-dress circulated the downtown-shopping-center-come-lounge, armed with martinis and their best schmoozing faces. I felt ridiculously out of place, but insisted on staying in hopes of meeting William H. Macy, whose presence was to grace the little soirée. When the couple of people I (barely) knew finally showed up, they informed me that Macy’s father was ill and that the actor was sadly unable to attend. Our consolation prize was Ron Livingston, who also appeared in The Cooler, and who made the trip to Calgary in Macy’s place. I was rather thrilled by the substitution, being a fan of his work in Office Space, Swingers and the TV series Sex and the City. After a couple of martinis and a chance to chat with Livingston, Robert McNamara was the last thing on my mind. In spite of myself, I had a good time and met some interesting people. Yet every now and then I looked around the room full of corporate sponsors and socializers eager to look glamorous, wondering if anyone there actually cared about cinema. In an ideal world, the social aspects of the festival would allow cinephiles to mingle, but the gala did not appear to be planned that way. The CIFF is a very young festival, still defining its style and values—was this night evidence that it was becoming more of a social event than a film-based festival?

By now it is a platitude to say that there is an underdeveloped arts scene in Calgary, so I won’t belabor this point more than necessary. This bit of day-old news partly explains why Calgary was slow to come up with a broad-interest festival. With the festivals of Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto well into their twenties, the four-year-old CIFF still sounds like a bit of an experiment. Of course it bears mentioning that Calgary is a much smaller city (we are just about to crack the 1 million mark), and so when festival creators David Marrelli and Andrew Eyck began planning this festival years ago, there were some concerns about whether or not Calgary could support a full-blown film festival. But worries have been quelled; this year the festival expanded from its original 6 days to 10, and included 258 films, quite a jump from its first year where it only screened 33. Attendance was 8,000 that first year, 17,000 the next, and 25,000 in its third year. In 2003, 38,000 tickets were sold. Clearly, Calgary can and will support a festival, so the next questions for CIFF organizers will be ones of fine-tuning. To what sort of film do Calgary audiences respond well? What scheduling works best? What venues do they prefer?

Once the festival kicked into high-gear, I was surprised by this staunchly conservative little city. Calgarians certainly did not live up to their reputation when a full house warmly applauded The Barbarian Invasions, which ultimately won the AGF People’s Choice Award. Speaking of corporate sponsorship, coming in close second to Denys Arcand’s film was The Corporation (Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott), a three-hour unabashed reproof of (what else?) the modern corporation in all its deleterious glory. It’s clear that The Corporation is the result of an intimidating amount of work, so complete is its coverage of this multifaceted problem. Comments from an impressive array of cultural pundits like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, alongside more camera-friendly personalities such as Michael Moore, are punctuated by an automaton narrator dispensing copious amounts of disturbing information. It wasn’t difficult to see why it garnered the NFB award for Best Canadian Documentary, no doubt a feather in the cap of the filmmakers, who were denied funding by that venerable institution. One of the filmmakers, Marc Achbar, was in attendance and endearingly asked audience members to fill out viewer feedback sheets, which they dutifully completed .

The fact that a bona fide art film and an activist documentary were the two main audience favorites registered as a surprise to me. But then again, getting surprised is one of the benefits of the guess-and-test approach to festival planning, which is perhaps the only approach there really is. Still, the idea behind having 258 films in 10 days, most which had only one screening, seemed to be to have a smorgasbord of films for people to sample, where organizers could stand back and observe what went over well. Despite the fact that many films were only shown once, most of the films I really wanted to see did not conflict with one another. On weekends I would see between three and four films a day, and two or three on weekdays. I also found that most of what I was interested in seeing was playing either at The Uptown or at The Globe, two of Calgary’s indie/art cinemas that are directly across the street from one another, which proved to be very convenient for most other festival-goers that I spoke with. For festival week, a bar/lounge is opened up at The Uptown, which ended up becoming a meeting point for filmmakers and festival-goers, and festival staff.

Festival organizers commented that some surprise favorites were the Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (CWC: Jae-young Kwak), the skater documentary Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (RR: Helen Stickler), and My Student Loan (RR), a documentary by recent Trent U graduate Mike Johnston about the hilarity and absurdity of being unemployed with a huge debt. Another surprise hit was One Man’s Island (SS: Peter Riddihough), a documentary about the world’s largest motorcycle race, held each year on the Isle of Man. At least a few of these films seem to have attracted a demographic with a strong interest in the subject matter of the film (skaters, bikers), but judging from some of the audience nattering I observed, the films also attracted non-partisan viewers as well. Another one of the most talked-about documentaries was Whole (OBP), a film about people who have spent their lives fantasizing about amputating a limb, many of whom have succeeded. I had read about this phenomenon a couple of years ago, but did not realize the extent to which people will go to achieve the desired end. I admit a certain freak show appeal got me to EMMedia, the artist collective that hosted the Off the Beaten Path (i.e. weird and/or non-commercial) series, which incidentally proved to be a far more convenient facility than the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers screening room which was used last year. I oscillated between a morbid fascination with the four or five subjects, all of whom were eager to voice their stories and the legitimacy of the condition, and a bodily repulsion at the idea of intentionally doing oneself (what I consider to be) harm.

Director Melody Gilbert uses a more or less unobtrusive camera, creating a window into the homes and lives of the subjects and their baffling obsession, which is not recognized in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Gilbert treats the characters with sensitivity, allowing them to go on at length in a confessional-style discourse about their need to be rid of a limb, and the sense of fulfillment they achieved once the limb was amputated. Interestingly, these people do not have a general desire to be an amputee, but an amazingly specific idea where the limb must be severed. The film seemed to take the position that medicalizing the issue is a necessary step in saving people’s lives, arguing that recognition of the disorder will lead to doctor-performed amputations over the hazardous do-it-yourself schemes that people have died whilst attempting. Yet the director, who was in attendance, admits that her mind is not made up on the issue. Gilbert was overwhelmed with questions following the screening, demonstrating that the film was more of a jumping off point than a definitive treatment of unessential amputation.

Another doc that lays bare an underground community is The Gift (OBP: Louise Hogarth), an equally engrossing film about members of the gay community who want to receive the “gift” of HIV. The film depicts this phenomenon as belonging to the younger set of the gay community, anchoring its point in a young man who regrets his decision to accept the gift. Hogarth uses his emotional testimony in conjunction with scenes from an informal discussion group composed of some older members of the gay community who unintentionally contracted the virus, looking at the practice in disbelief and frustration. She also offers the other side of the fence, a second young man who seems to live solely for fuck parties where condoms are in scant supply and discussing one’s “status” will get you kicked out. In fact, he manages a website advertising gift-giving parties across the world.

Once regarded as a death sentence, AIDS is now considered a manageable disease, so in one sense willingly contracting HIV is not exactly tantamount to suicide. Still, if you’re wondering why anyone would want the myriad of health problems associated with the virus and subsequent disease, don’t think this doc will provide you with any easy answers. The film does illustrate that some men see HIV as a kind of bond, something that physically sutures them to their community. Without trying to sound trite, it almost seems like a badge of honor in the way that some will tattoo POS on their arm, or NEG with a line drawn through it once they contract HIV. Although it gives such issues weight and consideration, ultimately the film reveals the practice of gift-giving to be as nonsensical as it sounds, but deserves kudos for avoiding any heavy-handed didactic tendencies.

It was difficult to watch The Gift without thinking of a film I saw just a couple of days before, The Event, the latest endeavor from Canadian filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald. Although I’m not familiar with much of his other work, his directorial debut The Hanging Garden is a favorite of mine. Fitztgerald was in attendance to answer questions about his film, and mentioned that he doesn’t think of The Event as an AIDS film, but I couldn’t help but feel differently. Don McKellar plays Matt, an AIDS sufferer who decides to throw a party (an “event,” as they are known) after which he will take his own life, preferring to die with dignity rather than succumb to the wasting disease. The film explores family, friendship and the nature of compassion, and is held together by a brave performance from Olympia Dukakis, who plays Matt’s mother. Fitzgerald reasons that it could have been the same film if Matt had been dying from any other degenerative disease, but after having seen The Gift, I’m not so sure that any other disease carries so much subtext as AIDS, or that cancer has the same implications of avoidable tragedy.

Also on the theme of loss was the excellent Le Fils (CWC), directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. The film is about Olivier, who teaches carpentry to disadvantaged teenage boys, and who accepts a new student who has recently been released from juvenile detention. The significance of his decision is slowly revealed when we learn that Olivier’s similarly aged son was killed by another boy, and eventually, that his killer is the new pupil. The way in which the narrative unfolds governs the viewer’s knowledge in just such a way that allows Olivier Gourmet’s restrained performance to emerge as the pivotal feature of this film. Yes, it’s an intense story with the significance of a parable, but the story never overwhelms him as he embodies the intense emotions that threaten to overcome him at any moment. The film is shot almost entirely in a close up, handheld aesthetic, creating a point-of-view structure that effectively puts across Olivier’s intensity and lack of perspective.

Not everything I enjoyed was so mirthless. The Cuckoo (CWC: Alexander Rogozhkin), a Russian film set in the final days of WW II, is about two soldiers: one Russian, one Finnish, as they find themselves in the home of a Saami woman. None of the characters understand each other’s language, but that doesn’t stop them from prattling on at each other in some hilarious dialogue. One gets the sense that even if there was some common linguistic ground, these people still wouldn’t listen to each other. It works very well as an unselfconscious commentary on the absurdity of war. My only gripe was a weird out of body/near death experience sequence where one of the characters is brought back to life with folkloric magic, which only bothered me because it seemed thematically parachuted in out of nowhere.

Very charming was Bon Voyage (CWC: Jean Paul Rappeneau), a visually stylish film that takes place just as Germany made its move on France in 1940. A packed theatre enjoyed this tightly paced, plot-driven film, which succeeds in telling three disparate but ultimately connected stories about murder, political intrigue, and love. Films are sometimes unsuccessful in using a light tone set in a grave period, but Bon Voyage easily negotiates this difficulty. Although one could enjoy it simply for its involving narrative or elegant style, a droll class-critique also wallpapers this film. Beautifully dressed Parisians flee to Bordeaux from the imminent German invasion, yet the only thing on their minds is who gets the best hotel suite.

Utopia: Nobody is Perfect in the Perfect Country (CWC: Martin Aspaug et al.) was another favorite of mine. I went to the screening based on a cursory recommendation. Not having read the synopsis in the program, I didn’t know it was a collaborative effort amongst nine filmmakers who got together to make eight shorts inspired by the eight Norwegian political parties. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that each short works well on its own, but the stories are related enough so that together they form a feature length vignette-style film. I never would have guessed the films were inspired by political parties, I’m guessing that’s because I’m not familiar with Norway and its cultural/political references. Nevertheless, I think the film works well as a set of meditations on the funny and crappy things that happen in life. For example, two blind kids set up a “lottery” at a gas station to raise money for other blind children in developing countries. Naturally the heartwarming scene inspires quite a few people to participate, not really concerned with the likelihood that there is no winning ticket. The kids make quite a bundle, but instead of sending their earnings to Africa as promised, they spend their earnings on candy at the gas station. The gas station attendant, who observes their scheme, questions them on the morality of the matter, but the sly kids seem to have an answer for everything. Then, almost overnight, the attendant’s eyesight begins to wane before he finally goes blind himself.

Other highlights for me were the existential love story El Kotbia (CWC: Nawfel Saheb Ettaba), about a charged, mature love between an older widow and the young man hired to work in her family’s bookstore. I also appreciated At Five in the Afternoon (CWC: Samira Makhmalbaf) on a cerebral if not superficial level. This first film made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban is about a young woman who dreams of becoming President of the Republic. It proved to be as emotionally draining and moving as one would imagine.

If it seems that I have spoken at length about documentary and world cinema, it is because these have been the two most beefed-up strands of the festival, with the Youth series coming in a close third. To give some indication, last year 500 students attended the festival, this year 3,000, with hopes that the CIFF is grooming a generation of festival goers. Another feature of the CIFF which bears mentioning is the support it shows to local productions. For one, The Cooler was produced by a Calgarian by the name of Michael Pierce, and The Incredible Mrs. Richie (Paul Johansson) starring Gena Rowlands and James Caan was shot on location in Calgary. Festival Oganizers chose A Problem With Fear, the latest movie from Calgary’s film darling, Gary Burns as the closing gala presentation. Although the sold-out crowd was with Burns, the audience was not particularly enthused with this newest effort, which was shot mainly in Calgary except for the subway scenes, which were done in Montreal’s métro. Burns was in attendance for the Calgary debut, which coincided with a retrospective of sorts hosted by the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers, which included The Suburbanators, Kitchen Party, and waydowntown.

On the topic of visiting directors, I was impressed with the number of filmmakers who agreed to attend the festival, even if the Q&A sessions in which they participated did not always yield any stirring discussion. I’m sure that will come with time as CIFF audiences mature. Although I admit I did not take advantage of the Film Talks, the topics ranged from “Funding Your Documentary” to “2001: The Myth Behind Our Reality,” which was held in conjunction with the screening of the restored print of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Elements such as these demonstrate that the CIFF is shaping up to be a festival centered around cinema and cinema-talk—an opportunity for Calgary’s budding film community to enjoy the type of film they are not always able to see, as well as the accompanying festival atmosphere. Even though I still think four galas in ten days is a little much, I have no business complaining about the schmoozy side of the festival. After all, my photo of Ron Livingston is tacked right above my computer.

Ron Livingston with Schmoozy Author

Volume 7, Issue 12 / December 2003 Festival Reports   canadian cinema   country_canada   documentary