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Victoria Film Festival selection top notch

Al Purdy, Men and Chicken, The Lobster, Five Nights in Maine, The Devout, When Elephants Were Young
The Devout stars Ali Liebert, left, Olivia Martin and Charlie Carrick.

All Things Must Pass is a fantastic album by George Harrison, likely inspired by the inevitable close of 2016’s Victoria Film Festival. He really was a visionary.

Much like Georgie, I too am sad to see the end of what has been another great gathering of films from near and far for the viewing pleasure of Victorians. Docs, shorts, indies … we’ve seen ‘em all. There’s a few I’d like to discuss. Follow me.

Much like the ignorant youth interviewed early on in Al Purdy was Here, I didn’t know who Al Purdy was, despite a degree in literature. Blame the system. But I know who he is now, and I want to know him better, which I assume is the desired effect of the documentary on cultural ignorance like my own.

This is a sharp, engaging, inventive documentary, something far more than biography or critical appreciation, with an eye to capturing what Al Purdy has meant to so many people in so many ways, whether it’s through the direct lineage of poetry, or a Twitter account from a Purdy statue no one seems to ever notice. For instance, bringing in musical acts shows the widespread influence of the literary figure and also provides a strong spine to this collection of poems, interviews, home movies, interview clips and reminiscences.

The documentary does a magnificent job of capturing Purdy’s influence, his style, his tone and the Venn diagram of his public and private life, his persona and his person.

Men and Chicken is a strange, strange movie, one which will either click with your sense of humour, or simply will not. I spent most of my time with it simply baffled. Between Mads Mikkelson’s chronic masturbation, and the appearance of chickens with human feet, the film left me behind. Mikkelson’s presence makes it even stranger, with him playing a character that makes Hannibal the Cannibal a more appealing person to spend time with.

It has a certain Pythonesque lunacy to it I think I understand the appeal of, and its Frankenstein-like tale of science gone terribly wrong could be a solid basis for comedy. For some. Let’s put it this way, if a film touching on God and philosophy that also has jokes about people being beaten with a stuffed beaver sounds appealing to you, have at it.

I found my own particular brand of bizarre comedy with The Lobster, a wonderfully odd film about love and loneliness with a deep darkness to its humour. Taking place who knows where, who knows when, the movie follows David (Colin Farrell) as he signs up for a matchmaking resort where you either find love or get turned into an animal of your choice. His: a lobster. But the strangeness only starts there, as the movie turns into a tale of revolution, forbidden love, tranquilizer darts and John C. Reilly (if only you could have seen my face light up when John C. Reilly made his first appearance. That man is a treasure).

Much as Men and Chicken left me cold, The Lobster won’t be for everyone, and I heard equal amounts of grumbling and laughter as I left the screening on Thursday. But if you take your humour black and want to see a fabulous cast (which also includes Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux) take being not very serious very seriously, this is a highly recommended movie.

Another small film with a seriously impressive cast is Maris Curran’s Five Nights in Maine, a tale of loss and grief with David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest and Rosie Perez. This intimate, emotional movie follows a husband’s grieving process after he loses his wife in a car crash. He travels to Maine to spend time with his late wife’s mother, who is also dying and has been a constant source of conflict in the family.

Curran is a talent we will be seeing more of, she so deftly handles this difficult material and comes through in this, her first feature film, with a distinct, confident style that serves her story and its emotions well, never looking for cheap payoffs or simple solutions.

This was my second time seeing local filmmaker Connor Gaston’s first feature The Devout after seeing it for the Vancouver International Film Festival last fall, and I must say its impressiveness holds up. I’ve written before how much I enjoyed the film’s balance of its supernatural leanings and family drama. This viewing I was struck even more so by Gaston’s patience in telling his tale. First time directors often reach for every trick in the cinematic book, trying to announce their arrival with great fanfare. Not Gaston, whose trust in his actors and steadiness with slow-burn storytelling shows patience beyond his years.

When Elephants Were Young, the new documentary from Victoria-based director Patricia Sims, takes a well-balanced approach to its often heartbreaking material and has as much compassion for the impoverished human owners as it does for its titular captive animals. This is a losing situation for everyone, seemingly encouraged by lax law enforcement and a constant stream of tourists and locals alike willing to shell out good money to support this dubious industry. Sim captures it all with a steady but sympathetic eye and shows honest respect and understanding for her subjects. My only complaint is I could have done without the long stretches set to vocalized music; the film is emotive enough without them.

With its tale of a “loose woman” causing havoc in the lives of her lovers, I couldn’t shake the sense Demimonde is built around some old school sexism. But I must admit, it’s well-crafted sexism all the same. From the director of last year’s popular The Ambassador to Bern, Attila Szász, Demimonde is a step up in terms of craft and perhaps a step back in terms of subject matter. Still, it features a pair of captivating performances from its two lead actresses and a somber religious tone to its story of lust and greed.

I might give you a different answer tomorrow, but if asked which film was my favourite of the festival, I might say Summertime, from French director Caroline Corsini. Beautifully filmed, with strong performances, this story of two feminist activists falling in love in 1970s Paris is a pitch-perfect look at a time, a place, and also the universal struggle of finding your future while negotiating your past.

It’s not a great film simply because it’s about lesbians and therefore somehow edgy (although any movies with such complex and humanized women leads are always welcome), it’s great because it’s a wonderfully told love story, capturing all the heartbreak and ecstasy that comes with meeting someone you truly connect with. Corsini lets her story unfold with such a clear and honest understanding of her characters, their backgrounds, the places they live, the decisions they must make, that she avoids manipulation and leads with the simple truth of what it means to love.

As always, there isn’t enough time to write about everything I saw. Other films I throughouly enjoyed include The Brand New Testament, A Month of Sundays and Sky. He Hated Pigeons, featuring a live score from local band Morning Show, provided one of the most unique and rewarding screenings of the festival.  Even the Family Day film Oddball hit me right in the cockles of my heart. I mean, come on, a dog saving tiny penguins from foxes? Try not to get misty.

I also give kudos for the fantastic Indigenous Program, which included the violent but captivating Mekko and the heartbreaking Fire Song, both brutally honest films capturing the First Nations experience in North America, which we don’t see nearly enough of in popular culture.

And that’s only what I managed to fit in during a 10-day festival that also featured guest speakers, short film programs, special events and a great party or two. I hope you all found your personal favourite films and events, and had fun searching for them. See you next year.

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