VIFF 2021 Shorts Forum: Programme 3

I had already fulfilled one of my VIFF goals of seeing a segment of short films when I saw MODES 2. However I was hoping that for short films, I would see something less experimental and more in the lines of either documentaries or live-action storytelling. I had my opportunity when I saw the shorts segment entitled Programme 3. They were seven films by Canadian directors that were all unique in their films and their messages.

-Flower Boy (Canada – dir. Anya Chirkova): It’s summer. Nav is a musical dreamer. He plays music from piano to guitar to his analog synthesizer at parties. His girlfriend Sarah is a painter who has artistic dreams of her own. She even painted a portrait of Nav with a flower instead of a head. For summer income, Nav works at a laser tag ground where he does the typical duties and the co-workers talk of how much they hate the job and the boss. As the months pass, Nav grows further in love with Sarah, but knows summer will end and he will be heading to college in another province. Also during the job, the 60 year-old boss shows Nav that he had music dreams too, as a rock ‘n roll drummer. The boss shares with him his passion. As summer ends, he makes a decision that a surprise to all.

This is a nice picturesque story. The images do as much of the storytelling as the dialogue. The story is pretty much a celebration to any and all artistic dreamers. Even for those who eventually went on to pursue real jobs. Those who’ve had artistic dreams of their own when they were young can identify with this story of see themselves in some way somehow. This also works well for me because I had dreams of being an actor when I was younger and, well, I turn 50 next September. It’s a reminder of no matter how old you get or even how successful you are at your real job, the dream never dies. Even if it’s in an against-all-odds profession, it’s still worth it to chase the dream and never stop dreaming!

-Things We Feel But Do Not Say (Canada – dir. Lauren Grant): Genevieve is hurting, but does not make it obvious. Later we learn what’s been hurting her. The pregnancy that’s supposed to be, isn’t. It’s a miscarriage. She tries to keep it inside, even to her husband, but you know it’s going to come out. She goes with him to the doctor’s appointment and tries to keep a poker face about it, but you know it will come out. Then it does. She then returns back to her work, greeted warmly by her friend, and carries on with her day.

This isn’t just a story about a miscarriage and the hurt one feels. It’s also about trying to hide emotions and go about daily life, even though one is hurting inside. The body language actually does more telling about the story and Genevieve’s feelings than the dialogue. That’s what the film is for the most part. About unspoken feelings we hold deep inside.

-Tla-o-qui-aht Dugout Canoe (Canada – dir. Steven Davies): Joe martin is a 66 year-old man from the Tofino First Nation. His profession is making dugout canoes: canoes made from trees that are dug out from the trunk. He is skilled from teachings from his late father. The skills he uses to make the canoes, like the hand-carving and painting, are centuries-old traditions passed on from his people. The skills and canoes were scorned upon by the Canadian government decades ago who had a system to assimilate the Indigenous people, robbing them of their culture and language and sending them to Residential Schools where they were abused and neglected mercilessly. Joe is now free to make his canoes. His daughter Tsimka uses the canoes he made to take visitors on tours of Clayoquot Sound.

This is one of two documentaries that’s part of ‘indigiDOCS.’ This allows the canoe maker to tell his story of his craft and how it’s important to him and his people. At a time when Indigenous peoples are going through Truth And Reconciliation and working to take back what was stolen from them in the past, like their languages and cultural rites, this is an important documentary. You learn of the skill of how it’s important for the maker and his people and why it’s worth keeping alive and worth passing on to generations.

-News From Home (Canada – dir. Sara Wylie): It’s March 2020. A daughter makes a phone call to her mother. She has anxiety and she’s scared. She doesn’t know what to do. She wants to fly back to be with her mother, but her mother advises it’s not a smart idea. This breaks the daughter’s heart. She’s scared and frustrated to tears. She just doesn’t know what to do. Another phone call some days later. The daughter again calls the mother. The daughter doesn’t have the same frustration she had during the first phone call. She reassures her mother she’s calmed down, if imperfectly. The mother says things of reassurance. It ends with a friendly goodbye.

This is a film that consists of recorded phone calls, home movies, and the images of the rooms inside the hose where the calls took place. No actors or people present. One thing we should not forget is it’s in March 2020 when the COVID pandemic hit Canada and all these social restrictions and isolations started taking place. There was a lot of fear among people about what would be next. I too anticipated this could be the next Influenza. This film captures the moment. Even reminds us of our own first moments of dread when this all started. However it also shows the moment of relief and reassurance over time. It even shows the close bond of family. It’s that bond with someone who reminds us things will be fine that we all need.

-Indigenous Dads (Canada – dir. Peter Brass): The film is a documentary. It’s an interview of four Indigenous fathers from across Canada and of various Indigenous Nations including Brass himself. Two are fathers of two, one is a father of four, and one is a father of one. All of them share their feelings of what it was like when they became a father for the first time, both positive and negative. All four talk about how fatherhood made them grow and change as men. All talk of their love for their children. They also all talk of how they teach their children of what it is to be Indigenous and how they even remind them of the racism they can face. They also all talk about their hopes and dreams for their futures and what they want their children to grow us to be.

This is an important documentary short. It’s very inciteful. This shows a side of being both a father and being Indigenous that we rarely see. It’s an eye opener to this subject. It reminds you of the immense responsibilities these men have to face and are willing to face head-on, despite how hard it is. They speak their hopes, their joys and their fears. There are times of great emotion as well. I’m really glad I saw this.

-Srikandi (Indonesia/Canada – dir. Andrea Nirmala Widjajanto): Anjani, a young girl in Indonesia, is about to start college. This comes in the aftermath of the death of her father and as her mother is about to sell the house. Something her daughter is out protesting over. Soon, her daughter discovers something. She comes across her father’s puppet studio. Her father’s profession was the traditional Indonesian puppetry of Srikandi. She discovers she has been taught the skills of Srikandi by her father, even though Srikandi is traditionally forbidden o females. Anjani makes a decision about her career path to her mother. Her mother is not happy with it as it won’t guarantee a steady income, but Anjani is firm in her decision as he is days from leaving for Jakarta.

This is a student film from a Vancouver Film School student. Andrea Widjajanto is born and raised in Indonesia and came to Vancouver to study film. This is another film about artistic passions burning inside one’s self. This is also as she faces the heartache of the death of her father and the time in one’s life where she’s reached the college age and now preparing for a path she is to pursue for the rest of her life. This is a good film as it involves an artistic puppetry few people from outside Indonesia know about. It also reminds you that this desire to pursue your dream with the pressure from others to pursue something more bankable and steady is universal. It transcends cultures and borders. The dream to pursue one’s dream is universal. Despite the story taking place half a world away, one can relate to the story.

-Together (South Korea/Canada – dir. Albert Shin): It’s a seaside motel in South Korea. Two strangers who met online with fake names, a young-adult female who goes by the name Happy Virus and a middle-aged male who goes by Rabbit Doll X, are there. They are here for one reason: a suicide pact. Both have a cooking element and chemicals ready to do the job. During the time there, they talk about their lives and what they’ve been through. They take an interest in each other and even laugh and have a mini-party of just the two of them. It gets to the point the woman feels she can’t go through with this.

This is a story by Korean-Canadian director Albert Shin that treads on a serious subject matter. It’s of a common thing in South Korea of the type of suicide pact where two strangers with suicidal feelings meet online to commit their suicide together. Shin taps into human feelings as well as ethics and morals. In the end, he delivers a story that goes from potentially tragic to life-affirming in the end.

Overall these seven shorts have their differences, but they share a lot in common. All are from either Canadian directors or students in Canada. Some are documentaries or docudramas, while some are live-action. Most are in English while two are in different languages. All speak a message about the human spirit and human feeling.

Each of the seven films of the VIFF Shorts Segment Programme 3 either contain an aspect of life that we can all relate to or they will open our eyes. All of them are valuable to watch. I’m glad I had the chance.

VIFF 2018 Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can Ever Forgive
Melissa McCarthy plays author-turned-forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Most of the time I like going to the VIFF to check out the out-of-the-ordinary cinema. However when a film with a lot of Oscar buzz hits the VIFF, I admit I’m tempted to see that. I was lucky to have my chance with Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The story begins in 1991 with 51 year-old Lee Israel at her customer services job. She obviously hates her job because she has a bad attitude and gets a lot of ‘old’ comments from the younger workers. She shows up at work with a glass of scotch in her hand, curses at her co-workers and then curses at her boss. That’s it. She’s fired. After being fired, she just simply downs the rest of her scotch.

The thing is Lee Israel was born to write. She wrote for Esquire magazine for many years and published biographies of Talullah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. However her status as a successful writer ended years earlier after her biography of Lauder flopped. On top of that, she’s trying to publish a biography of Fanny Brice, but her agent says it’s not going to be a hit. Her lack of commercial success in writing couldn’t come at a worse time. She has expenses up to her eyeballs with a cat who’s sick and needs new medicine, outstanding veterinary bills form past visits, overdue rent from a landlord, and an old typewriter that keeps breaking down. Whatever money she can get, it comes from typed original letters of famous authors. She doesn’t get much money from the bookstore; one where the young author isn’t afraid to run into Lee what a has-been author she is.

One day she goes for her usual drink of scotch at her local bar. Also getting a drink is a washed-up stage actor named Jack Hock. Hock himself had a downfall after irreverent behavior at a party while drunk: peeing in a closet! This is a chance to rekindle a past friendship. They have a lot of catching up to do. This comes around the same time Lee is continuing research for her book about Fanny Brice. One day at a library while doing research on Brice, she comes across an original typewritten letter written by her. She takes it home and notices the font on the letter matches the font on Lee’s own typewriter. That gives Lee an idea to add in a juicy P.S. sentence about Fanny’s ‘love’ for a woman. She takes it to a bookstore that buys original letters from authors and they buy it for good money. However she’s told that letters with juicier detail get bigger money.

That gives Lee an new idea for success: making fake letters of renowned deceased authors. Her next subject is Noel Coward. Here she tries to get information on the type of letterhead Coward typed his letters on, the typewriter used and the subjects Coward normally talked about. Her letters are of Coward talking about his homosexuality. Israel also gets practice of forging signatures. She goes to a bookstore that buys letters for bigger money and it works! Lee can afford to pay off the vet, buy medicine for her ailing cat, pay off her landlord and even go out on a first-class night with Jack Hock to a drag cabaret performance. Soon she goes to a memorabilia show with Jack and learns all about authenticators. That just makes her more determine to succeed. She picks more deceased authors like Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks and Ernest Hemingway,¬† buys the right typewriters, bakes the letters and envelopes to make the right aging, does the right forgery on the signatures. The work pays off. The authenticators fall for it and Lee gets paid good money! Lee’s also good at making phone calls disguising herself as director Nora Ephron. Lee also makes friends with a bookshop owner named Anna.

However reality does catch up. Lee is told by one of the bookowners that he senses a forgery as a friend of his who knew Noel Coward wouldn’t be so public about his homosexuality. Within time, all bookstore owners are given a fax from the FBI alerting them of Lee and her alleged fraud. Even an unscrupulous bookdealer threatens to report her to the FBI unless she pays him $5000. Does that stop her? No, as long as she has Jack. Jack is the one making the sales with the bookstore owners on the juicy forged letters. She even goes to libraries with access to archives and steals letters to cash in on. Jack brings her the money, but starts getting suspicious of whether he’s trying to steal from her. FBI agents threaten her with interrogation, but she garbages all her typewriters to avoid being caught.

One time she goes away for a three-day trip of ‘consulting’ archives and leaves Jack to take care of her cat, which includes giving him medicine. Lee steals more letters, and even meets up with her ex-girlfriend. The ex tells her of how distant she became after the flop of her Estee Lauder book. Meanwhile Jack gives the cat the wrong medicine and even gets his new boyfriend to stay overnight at her place. It’s when she returns that it all falls apart. She finds Jack making love to a man in her place, she finds her cat dead, and she soon finds herself arrested for her forgery. After much talking from her lawyer, she’s told she will most likely be found guilty and her persona and alcoholism could works against her for her sentence. She confesses her wrongdoings in court despite having no regrets. Her sentence is six months house arrest, to repay the booksellers she ripped off and to attend AA meetings.

The story ends on a positive note. She rekindles her friendship with Jack, who’s dying of AIDS. She buys a new cat and does her writing from a computer. One day, she even passes a bookseller who has the ‘Can you ever forgive me’ letter where Lee forged Dorothy Parker’s likeness. Lee sends an appropriate response. It’s up for you to see what the response was. And the response from the store owner.

When one does a story about a person in the past doing all these actions, it’s always a question on whether the film is relevant for the present. Would a film about a washed-up author forging letters about deceased celebrities and authors most of today’s generation don’t have a clue about be relevant? I can see relevance in it as it is a reflection of our present. Firstly we live in a time of celebrity worship as lots of people go to Instagram or Twitter to check out the latest dirt from their celebrity. Gossip pages get huge hits because people love shoving their nose in others’ dirty laundry. It’s easy to see why these fake letters about these celebrities’ personal lives would spark a lot of interest and make Lee Israel rich.

The interesting thing is that it sheds a light on the literary industry as well. I know we live in a culture where we’re encouraged to appreciate authors for their literary efforts, but all too often we forget that authors are subject to the same cruel industry that musicians face in the movie industry and actors face in businesses like Hollywood. The New York Times Bestseller list is the Bestseller list to end all Bestseller lists that decides the happening writers and the wash-ups. It’s no wonder Lee felt the frustration of this. You could understand why despite Lee’s success in forgery, she still wanted to be known as an author.

The film is not just about the act of crime and the difficulties of being an author. It’s also about Lee herself. Basically overall it showcased her biggest weakness: her attitude. She blamed her loss of her customer service job on ageism, but she swore at her bosses and drank gin on her last day. Her attitude cost her relationship with her ex-girlfriend. It also almost cost her friendship with Jack. It may even had to do with why she wasn’t getting writing jobs. A bad attitude can be costly. Lee would have to face the music of her wrongdoing. The biggest statement was when Lee was too afraid to face Anne in the store just as she was about to get sentenced.

Marielle Heller directs a very clever comedy about a writer starving for success, even if it’s illicit. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty took on Lee’s memoirs and deliver a script that tells the story and more. Nicole provided the edge of a 50-something woman just trying to make something of herself. Whitty provided the backdrop of the difficulties of Lee and jack being LGBT in New York in 1991. The script not only tells the story but tells a lot more too.

Also what adds to the film is¬†Melissa McCarthy playing Lee Israel. Hard to believe the first pick for the role was Julianne Moore. Melissa caught moviegoers’ attention when she played the feisty Megan Price in Bridesmaids. It’s been success ever since and she’s one of the most happening things in big-screen comedies right now. However most of her comedy roles in popcorn comedies have been over-the-top performances. Here, McCarthy takes on a role of a literary figure with humor and makes it three-dimensional. Possibly her best performance since Bridesmaids. Stealing the show from Melissa is Richard E. Grant. He makes the film as much Jack’s as it is Lee’s. He played Lee’s partner in crime well and the two had good chemistry. Jane Curtin was also good, and unnoticeable, as the literary agent. Dolly Wells was also good as Anne: the lonely shop keeper.

Can You ever Forgive Me? makes for a smart and entertaining comedy. So entertaining, you just might want to buy one of Lee Israel’s forged Dorothy Parker letters soon after.

VIFF 2015 Review: Hadwin’s Judgement

Hadwin's Judgement is about Grant Hadwin and why he committed his act of what some would call 'ecoterrorism.'
Hadwin’s Judgement is about Grant Hadwin and why he committed his act of what some would call ‘ecoterrorism.’

British Columbia, especially Greater Vancouver, is known for people using radical and even destructive methods to make their statement heard on an issue. One such person who’s lesser known in Grant Hadwin who cut down a beloved tree on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1997. The documentary Hadwin’s Judgement traces Hadwin’s path from logger to radical to his mysterious disappearance.

The film is almost like a biography of Grant Hadwin and the moments in his life that changed him forever. Grant Hadwin was born in West Vancouver. He came from a logging family and eventually found himself working on the Queen Charlotte Islands. However he soon developed an anger when he saw how much forest was being cut down from the island and how fast with the modern cutting methods. He writes letters of complaints to businesses. He even tries to start his own business which makes products out of decayed wood or wood long cut down but it doesn’t succeed.

Doug Chjapman plays Grant Hadwin in re-enactments with no dialogue but says it all with his mind.
Doug Chapman plays Grant Hadwin in re-enactments with no dialogue but says it all with his mind.

The deforestation of the area along with his mental instability takes his toll on him and he cuts down the sacred tree of the island– the 1000 year-old Kiidk’yaas (The Golden Spruce)— to send his message. He awaited trial with many a person angry at him. However Grant pursues a kayaking trip up the Boeing Strait. He is never seen again although his broken kayak, letter in lamination and tools have been found intact. He has still never been found dead or alive.

The film is mostly a documentary featuring people who mostly knew Grant during his lifetime. It features co-workers to friends to a local photographer who photographed him swimming just before his disappearance to John Vaillant who wrote an award-winning book on him. It also interviews people of the Haida Gwaii who knew the tree. The Haida Gwaii consider trees to be sacred so it’s no wonder the chopping of that tree would hurt them deeply.

However the film doesn’t just present people interviewed. It also provides people first-hand knowledge of the Haida Gwaii people, their legends and their beliefs. It provides insight to Grant’s feelings around the time and includes narration of the letters he wrote in his protests. It even includes moments in Grant’s life re-enacted by actor Doug Chapman playing Grant. Doug never utters a word of dialogue in his acting but it’s like you’re reading Grant’s mind just with the looks on his face. You could see why Grant would lose his patience with what was happening and do what he did. It still remains a question. Was it Grant’s attitude to the deforestation of the area? Or was it a mental imbalance? Or both? Even I myself wondered if he valued trees so much why would he cut the sacred Golden Spruce down? I later assumed Grant did it possibly to say to all those logging companies: “You want wood so bad? Here’s your wood, bastards!” That’s my belief to why he did it. People snap.

Despite the storytelling, narration and re-enacting of Grant’s moments, the best attribute of the documentary has to be the cinematography. Right from the start, you see images of the rain forest, an aerial view of Queen Charlotte Island and a panoramic shot of the forest. Already images of beauty that tell what this island is all about and why the island’s natural features are important. It’s not just beautiful images like those that make the film but the uglier images too. The film includes footage of the tree cutting mechanisms through all angles. You can see just how they can cut down a whole tree in seconds. You can see why through such mechanisms looms the threat of deforestation. So much cutting in so little time. The film also shows the ugly aftermaths of all the trees cut down. There’s one panoramic view that not only shows a wide forest but of a cut-down area. That’s one of the many eyesores. Other eyesores include closer shots of land that used to be forests, images of piles of dry dead wood and the biggest of all: the Golden Spruce down on the ground with its leaves soaking in the river. Even single images like that of a freighter full of logs tells the story of the land and why Grant Hadwin was compelled to make such a judgement. Shots that included Grant also provided for the storytelling including the site of his broken kayak.

Sasha Snow did a great job in creating a documentary that gives people’s opinions of Grant through all angles and even re-enacts some of his key moments. Sasha not only includes those that know him but the local Haida Gwaii and author Vaillant. Sasha made a lot of smart choices in telling the story such as having an actor act out Grant’s moments instead of showing photographs. In fact we only see one photograph of Grant in the film right at the very end.

Hadwin’s Judgement is more than a documentary. It takes you inside the person, the land, the people of the land and the economic pressures of the times. I don’t know if the film completely supports Hadwin’s decision but it provides the reasons why he did it.