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5 Centimeters Per Second, anime mother and daughter in field

Films to Watch at Vancouver's VIFF Centre in March

March 2024 | Reel Talk

Image: 5 Centimeters Per Second, © Makoto Shinkai/CoMix Wave Films; Beyond Ghibli at VIFF Centre

In the March edition of Reel Talk, we catch up with VIFF Centre Year-Round Programmer Tom Charity to get his take on the month in film.

What films are you most excited about in March?

I’ll start with a film that’s not up for an Academy Award, but in my opinion, should have been: About Dry Grasses, which is by one of the supreme masters of world cinema, the Turkish film maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. He won the director prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. His career goes back to the 1990s and he only makes masterpieces in my opinion.

About Dry Grasses film image; girl with snow in hair

About Dry Grasses at VIFF Centre

About Dry Grasses follows a teacher in a remote high school in Turkey. Once he’s served four years at the school, he will be reassigned to a city school and he can’t wait. He really resents having to be stuck in this provincial outpost. He thinks he’s better than it and he fancies himself as an artist, as a photographer. Nuri Bilge Ceylan comes from this area in Anatolia and is a photographer as well, so it could be taken as a self-portrait. That said if it is, it’s a deeply unflattering one because the guy’s pretentious, he’s arrogant, and — not to give too much away — gets embroiled in a couple of very messy relationships.

It’s written with such depth of character and nuance, it reminds me of the plays of Chekhov. It’s one of the best films I saw last year.

The Monk and the Gun film image; monk with a gun

The Monk and the Gun at VIFF Centre

Another of my favorite films of last year also played at the festival in the fall: The Monk and the Gun. It’s a comedic film from Bhutan. A Buddhist monk, a venerable wise old man sends one of his disciples out to fetch him a gun, and we have no idea what he has in mind. At the same time an American smuggler is trying to get hold of an antique rifle that was used in the Civil War. These two parallel plotlines cross.

Meanwhile, Bhutan is on the verge of having their first ever democratic elections (the film is set in 2006). The authorities are organizing a kind of dress rehearsal for the election process, because none of the citizens in the remote mountainous Himalayan areas have any idea what an election would look like or how you would go about holding one. So the film becomes a satire contrasting modern Western values with traditional spiritual Buddhist values. It’s quite dry, very amusing, and endearingly odd.

It’s the second feature by Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose first film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom we showed a couple of years ago. It was Bhutan’s first ever film nominated for an Academy Award for Best International feature. I have a feeling that this film will really resonate with a lot of people in Vancouver. I know there’s a lot of people interested in Buddhism. And aside from its kind of dramatic virtues, the film is also a ravishing portrait of that part of the world.

Beyond Ghibli series collage

Beyond Ghibli, Spring Break at VIFF Centre

During spring break we’re presenting a program of anime films called Beyond Ghibli. It will include Japanese animated features from the last five or six years of exceptional quality that perhaps people who have caught on to the joys of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli won’t yet know about.

Are there any in particular that stand out to you?

I’d say there’s films for all ages here. I think Makoto Shinkai, who made Your Name and Weathering With You, is probably the biggest contender to take over from Miyazaki once he stops making films (I hope he doesn’t). We’re showing Suzume from him.

I think as a whole the half dozen films we’re showing in the program give a good sense of how wide a spectrum anime can cover. There are some excellent American animated features, no doubt, but I think Japanese anime is much freer. It’s less tied to juvenile storylines, and it’s much more likely to go into something that’s genuinely surreal and bizarre.

Also from Japan is a documentary about elite composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, Opus. About ten years ago, we had the privilege of hosting Sakamoto at the VIFF Centre. Seeing the excitement that his presence caused here made it a memorable night. He was a very gracious guest and it’s sad that he’s passed away so young, so I’m glad to get the chance to show this documentary.

Talking of documentaries, Nicolas Philibert’s film On the Adamant, which won the main prize at the Berlin Film Festival this time last year, screens this month. This is another film that showed at VIFF 2023.

Suzume film image

Suzume, Beyond Ghibli

We’re also showing a Canadian documentary called Stolen Time by Helene Klodawsky. This is a film about a lawyer campaigning for reform against private seniors homes, which have a miserable record of understaffing their facilities. It’s not against the caregivers and the staff, it’s more about how in order to drive up profits, the private companies that run these places look to minimize costs and their biggest cost is staffing. The results are predictable. If somebody calls in sick one night then you can have staff each looking after up to two dozen patients, and it’s not enough. The film makes a compelling case, but also shows just how difficult it is to tackle these fundamental institutional problems through law courts. The film takes place before, during, and after the pandemic, and the case continues [today]. We will be having a special panel discussion of experts with the first screening of that film on March 21.

What other special events are coming up this month?

We’re bringing VIFF Live, a signature strand of our festival programming, to the year-round. This will kick off with a series of three silent films in March, then in April and then in June, each with a brand new specially commissioned score performed live at the VIFF Centre. On March 17 we’re showing The Crowd which is a 1926 film by King Vidor. For many critics, this is the greatest American dramatic silent film.

The Crowd film image; goofy group of people sitting on floor

The Crowd, VIFF Live

The Crowd was incredibly influential and yet at the same time, it’s something of a one off. A couple of years earlier, this director had a big hit with a film called The Big Parade. It was so successful that he was in a position where he do whatever he wanted. A famous MGM producer Irving Thalberg said, “What do you want to do next?”

And Vidor said, “I want to tell the story of an ordinary American man, because it’s seems to me like life in itself, it’s a battle.” And that’s what he proceeds to do. It’s the story of a guy called Johnson who’s born on the 4th of July 1900. He goes to New York intent on making a name for himself. He winds up in an office, where he’s working anonymously with hundreds of coworkers, gets married, has kids. He’s got all the trappings of the American dream, but he’s just one of the crowd and then tragedy strikes. I don’t want to give away too much…

The film gets right to the heart of the paradox that is the American dream where everybody dreams of becoming somebody. And of course, everybody cannot be somebody. The Crowd shows the incredible level of sophistication that had been learned by movie makers over the decade or so that they’d been making dramatic features. It’s a separate art form from a talking picture.

We’ve commissioned a local jazz keyboard player called Chris Gestrin to improvise a soundtrack with his jazz trio. Chris has nine Juno Awards and performed on over 400 records with an incredible array of artists in the jazz world, but also in mainstream pop and rock like Nickelback. So he’s an incredibly impressive musician in his own right, and I’m really excited to hear what he comes up with for this event.

Finally, can you tell us about the film studies series, Screwball Express?

Twentieth Century film image; black and white glamour shot of woman in fur coat

Twentieth Century, Film Studies: Screwball Express

It’s almost like an adult education course. Michael van den Bos will be leading us through one of my favorite genres of filmmaking, the screwball comedies of the 1930s. These are films of superlative wit. They’re kind of sex comedies but at a time where you weren’t allowed to show sex on screen. So that’s displaced into innuendo and dialogue. That challenge brings out the best in some of the finest writers and directors of the era and a chance to enjoy the glamour and poise of actors like Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck.

Each lecture will be about 25 minutes. Then we will show one of these classic films and then there’ll be a talkback, so a similar format to our Pantheon series. They’re Mondays at 10:30 am. And if you sign up for all six, you get a great deal with a series pass — with discounts for VIFF+ Members. I think it’d be a glorious way to kick off the week. I might be found skipping meetings to check out this series myself…

Thanks, Tom!