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State of the Festival: Future//Present at VIFF 2019

This year’s snapshot of independent Canadian cinema at the Vancouver International Film Festival was the most diverse yet.
Tapeworm
Since its inception by critic-programmer Adam Cook in 2016, the Future//Present program of the Vancouver International Film Festival has provided an eight-feature snapshot of the year in independent Canadian cinema. The initial program description placed an emphasis on “emerging” directors—though that term has since been dropped, which perhaps highlights a lateral shift in programming mandate: This year’s slate showcases filmmakers that are by some measures established, having presented multiple films at festivals with far more international cachet than VIFF, to name but one possible criterion. While it’s too soon to comment on the value of this change, it does alter the ways a prospective audience might approach the films in question. As ever, the focus remains on younger independent Canadian filmmakers. But if there’s no longer the question of some directors “graduating” out of the program, then there’s a redoubled emphasis on the program's curatorial sensibility. And so, even if the fourth edition of F//P was not necessarily its strongest—that distinction goes to the 2017 set—there’s still much to commend in the lowercase-c catholicism of this year's offerings, which constituted the program's most diverse slate yet.
If there was an ideal film to start with, it was DANNY, a diaristic found-footage feature assembled from videotapes shot in Vancouver during the 1990s. Its eponymous subject is a man named Danny Ryder, who chronicles, with bracing confessional intimacy, his diagnosis with (and treatment for) leukemia, on a low-grade DV camcorder. As such, Ryder is credited as cinematographer—though the film itself was posthumously edited by co-directors Lewis Bennett and Aaron Zeghers, the latter of whom is Ryder’s nephew, and who was given the original VHS tapes by his father (i.e. Zeghers’s grandfather). None of these production details are directly referenced over the course of the film’s 50 minutes, but the moving experience of viewing it is inseparable from inevitable speculation regarding the project’s origins. The question of Ryder’s own intentions for the source footage, in particular, is not easily ignored—and it enriches the film in direct proportion to its irresolvability.
By Zeghers’s own admission, DANNY is not representative of his usual cinematic practice, as was made clear by his accompanying 10-minute short Memoirs, a fractured generational study that at one point presents old photographs of domestic spaces before revealing their present, altered states. The juxtapositional tendencies and perceptual plays seen therein likewise animated the program’s two other short films: Nikolay Michaylov’s Sofia and Lina Rodriguez’s Aquí y allá. The first sets purposefully banal shots of daily life in Sofia, Bulgaria against a recorded conversation between the Toronto-based filmmaker and his cousin, who expresses their generation's experience of the city, while the latter, whose title translates to “Here and there,” cycles through different shooting formats, as well as various locations across the town of Chipaque in Colombia. In terms of conceptual clarity, both films are unimpeachable—though their moment-to-moment construction leaves something more to be desired. In this regard, the films recalled for me Burak Çevik’s A Topography of Memory (2019), whose title aptly articulates both Michaylov and Rodriguez’s core concerns, but which also seems indicative of a tendency in art cinema to rely on a rigorous fundamental design to do the heavy lifting.
A film that actively resists its ostensible shape: Heather Young’s finely calibrated debut feature Murmur. Shan MacDonald stars as Donna, a middle-aged woman convicted for a DUI, who carries out her community service at an animal shelter, though she's merely one of a cast of non-professional actors playing variations of themselves as social workers, pet owners, or veterinarians. (In this, as well as its balance between character study and institutional exploration, the film bears comparison to the films of Toronto-based, F//P alum Antoine Bourges, specifically Fail to Appear [2017] and East Hastings Pharmacy [2012].) MacDonald effectively conveys her character’s isolation—she’s estranged from her daughter and has no established support network to start with—though Young’s direction frequently deflects from easy miserablism. Even when Donna swears off alcohol and attempts to assuage her solitude by adopting ailing, unwanted pets, the schematism of the setup is offset by the ample attention given to veterinary detail (animal surgery, pre- and post-op scenes, physical therapy), which furthers the Halifax-based director’s evident interest in civil systems and procedure.
Murmur
DANNY won the top prize in the Avant-Garde and Genre Competition at BAFICI, while Murmur took home the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize at TIFF. (Young also took home the Emerging Canadian Director award at VIFF.) Ramin Fahrenheit’s Killer Queen and Fabián Velasco and Miloš Mitrovič's Tapeworm on the other hand, were both world premieres. Shot on 8mm in the streets of Toronto, the former is the kind of grindhouse riff whose creative energies seem to have been exhausted on gesturing towards its genre antecedents—though it should be said that Norman Orenstein’s score does successfully imitate the sonic energies of classic John Carpenter. There’s more to recommend the latter, which might be considered a comically lethargic riff on an everything-is-connected scenario, populated by a loosely linked set of characters who are chronically incapable of breaking from the stasis of their own lives, much less turning the gears of some contrived narrative coincidence. The opening passage, which follows a middle-aged man as he relieves himself in the woods, finds blood in his stool, and comes across a young stoner couple fucking on a mattress near a shallow stream, sets an intriguing behavioral baseline: When he lies down next to the understandably bewildered pair, he tells them to continue—and they do. And for a while, the film merely drifts along, lackadaisical, neither accentuating the tragic tenor of its dead-end dramas, nor playing up its characters’ humiliations. By the end, though, it becomes clear that Velasco and Mitrovič aren't interested in much more than conveying the innumerable indignities of daily life, while also taking from it what humor they can.
It’s harder to say what SXSW premiere Tito actually accomplishes—though director Grace Glowicki’s stated intention of "re-appropriating the experience of women-as-prey as the male creation, and male problem" seems clear enough. Glowicki plays the eponymous role, a cis-male shut-in who’s at once befriended and terrified by his solicitous, smarmy next-door neighbor (Ben Petrie), while the film as a whole is distinguished by its formal aggressiveness and a tenor of restless anxiety, conveyed mainly through all manner of shock cuts, and a percussive, atonal soundscape that brought to mind the domestic unease of Trey Edward Shults’s Krisha (2015). The result is singular, in its way, though also abrasive in the extreme, which is arguably the point. But whether the film ultimately works or not, it operates in a manner that seems closer to performance art than anything else in the program.
Certainly, it shares little with Winnipeg-born director Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, an inventive chronicle of the life and times of one Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (played with magnificent callowness by Daniel Beirne) that would be difficult to conceive of in any other medium. While much of the film’s humor stems from its irreverent reimagining of turn-of-the-century Canadian history, its pleasures are, foremost, visual: Rankin’s boldly colored 16mm images aspire to 2-D flatness, and his imaginative renderings of cinematic space are entirely divorced from what might be considered a salable commercial aesthetic. For this, as well as the presence of actors such as Louis Negin, The Twentieth Century recalls the febrile fantasies of fellow Winnipeg director Guy Maddin—an absurd political competition here echoes a scene in The Forbidden Room (2015)—and though the comparison is imperfect, it does underscore the relative strain of Rankin’s more mannered methods. The film is the Montreal-based director's debut feature, following the impressively charged The Tesla World Light (2017), which suggests that a change in approach might be required to better convey his considerable technical facility at feature length.
A selection of TIFF’s Midnight Madness slate, Rankin’s feature was one of the F//P program’s most high-profile titles, alongside which one might point to Deragh Campbell and Sofia Bohdanowicz’s MS Slavic 7 and Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft., both of which have already been ably covered by the Notebook upon their premieres in the Berlinale Forum and TIFF’s Platform competition, respectively. The former, which marks Bohdanowicz’s fourth straight F//P selection, extends the de facto project she began with Never Eat Alone (2016) and further elaborated with the short Veslemøy's Song (2018), both of which star Campbell as Audrey Benac, a young woman exploring fragments of family history. Like Ted Fendt’s Classical Period (2018), the film is steeped in the world of scholarly inquiry, and though it doesn’t quite convince in its narrative construction or the directness of its conceptual monologues, it nonetheless impresses with its evident, earnest desire to explore and expand. And it provides one truly memorable, emblematic image (which also graced the cover of Cinema Scope 78): of Campbell’s Audrey slumbering in a hotel room bed beneath a pile of papers. It’s unlikely that we’ve seen the last of Audrey—and that is all to the good.
As for Radwanski’s film, which likewise stars Campbell, much more will no doubt be written, as it's already been picked up for U.S. release by Cinema Guild. Following Campbell’s Anne, a daycare worker who suffers from an unspecified mental health issues—the symptoms suggest bipolar disorder—the film presents scenes of discomfiting, unsocialized behavior and neediness along the lines of something like Maren Ade’s Forest for the Trees (2003). A film that impressed me on first contact, it’s proven somewhat more troublesome in retrospect: Although Radwanski’s camera style superficially resembles the handheld realism of the Dardennes (the film is almost entirely handheld medium close-ups), his editing patterns have a touch of sensationalism about them. The frequent elisions and scene transitions are less a matter of stripping away narrative excess (as they often are in the Belgian brothers’ features), than of amplifying the surprise or terror of any given interaction involving Anne, further intensified by the film's claustrophobic visual style. (Sofia director Michaylov served as DP on Anne, as well as on the aforementioned Fail to Appear.) Still, the film is a force to be reckoned with—the experience of it is nothing if not visceral—not least because of Campbell’s performance, which is as committed as her character is unpredictable. Anne at 13,000 ft. ends as it begins, with Campbell in freefall—the terror and exhilaration of a skydive—chasing an ecstatic, adrenaline-fueled high. It's a fitting image in a program that, even at the risk of failure, remains committed to searching for comparable cinematic pleasures.

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