Sep 23, 2015

VIFF and the Local Cinema: A Filmmaker's Perspective

by Will Ross

A couple months ago, my close friend and codirector Devan Scott came to me and said “Our short got into VIFF.” I felt myself light up; those words brought a lot of excitement, gratitude, and relief. They ought to. The Vancouver International Film Festival is a major fest, with terrific, diverse programming from all over the world (especially its Asian section), plenty of exposure, and a good number of panels and events that make a free festival pass worth salivating over.

Yet when I take off my business hat and put on my artist’s hat, my feelings mix. The Canadian programming at VIFF doesn’t do much to inspire pride in me as a filmmaker, because VIFF doesn’t seem to do much to support a challenging local or national cinema. For a long time now, VIFF has seemed to judge regional films by the perceived amount of money that was poured into them, and by how closely they mimic Hollywood films. “Production value” has become a tradition of quality.

That’s not an aberration in these parts. In the BC film industry, the focus is on marketable content first, artistry second. There needn’t be a dichotomy between the two, but it’s clear where priorities lie (an exception last year: the structurally ambitious Violent taking the fest’s top prize over a lackluster field). This centralization of finance over aesthetics isn’t even a dirty little secret in this city — it’s touted openly, even proudly, by major figures in the local cinema scene. Take, for instance, local producer Shawn Williamson’s rationale for his preference of VIFF’s BC rival, the Whistler Film Festival:

“I love the Vancouver [International] Film Festival and they're awesome, but they don't really matter to the film industry….At the end of the day, all that really matters is that we finance things that people are going to buy….We can try to make all we want and I've made many, many films that nobody will see. But at the end of the day, it's a business….Art is awesome but if no one sees it, it doesn't matter."

Anyone, of course, can sympathize with the economic pressures in film. Movies are expensive to produce and expensive to distribute. But the profit motive always seems to supersede the artistic one in BC cinema. In my five years in Vancouver I’ve seen industry clout and marketability dominate and define discussions about local success more often than not. This city’s obsession with proving its relevance to the industry at large has put it in a closed loop, one inaccessible to fresh filmmakers and novel ideas. (I often think about 2012’s “Save BC Film” campaign, which lobbied tax credits for US productions to “save” the local film industry. How much of BC’s film did we actually save?)

There most telling sign of BC and Vancouver’s wilful resistance to distinctive local talents: despite being one of the largest film production hubs in North America, BC can’t boast a single homegrown cinematic talent who is recognized and lauded on an international scale, be their movies “arthouse” or otherwise. I don’t expect everything to come out of BC to be great, but we generally have a low ceiling on quality, because our local perception of “quality” is an imitation of American cinema funded by Canadian (i.e. less) money. A friend put it this way: ours is a colonized cinema, a cinema that allows itself to be defined and governed by the needs and terms of outsiders. Specifically, outsiders looking for a tax credit.

Why does VIFF, which touts itself as cinephile-friendly, have an Industry component that is so irrelevant to the kinds of films that cinephiles patronize (a major VIFF event like Arabian Nights would never be lauded by its mindset, Where Content Means Business)? Why doesn’t VIFF program critically-buzzed, up-and-coming Canadians like Isiah Medina or Kazik Radwanski? Why does Vancouver’s most famous and attended film school, VFS, define its output not by their critical success or even awards, but by the fact that VFS alumni had credits on films that earned $18 billion in 2013 and 2014? (The overwhelming majority of those credits, I promise you, were not for creative roles.) Vancouver is a service city, Transaction Town, and if you’ve got something to say, you ought to keep your head down unless it’s got dollars and cents at its center.

I urge VIFF not to measure its homegrown talent on these terms. VIFF is the hub of film culture in this city, and that gives it a responsibility to foster local filmmakers, not by teaching them the rules of the gatekeepers’ game, but by encouraging them to write their own rules, and rewarding them for it. TIFF doesn’t get to do things like Wavelengths because it’s a relevant festival. It gets to be a relevant festival because it does things like Wavelengths. Nobody’s plugging that hole west of Toronto, and VIFF has an obligation to do it. That doesn’t just mean programming the biggest successes from Cannes, it means VIFF taking risks all its own.

I admit that this is a little bit personal. I’m a young filmmaker. I know that if I’m going to get any traction making art on my own terms I’ll have to work hard and long. Sometimes I’ll have to make compromises. But there’s a difference between paying your dues and selling your soul, and this industry only gives me and a lot of other passionate filmmakers the latter option. Excited film students learn about the 90s wave of Vancouver filmmakers like Bruce Sweeney, Mina Shum, and Lynne Stopkewich, and then they’re unleashed on a culture that couldn’t care less about all that. Today those filmmakers make movies for less money than ever. We haven’t had a significant global presence since their heyday.

Our local industry needs a major shift in tone. VIFF’s Canadian programming has an opportunity to provide that vision, take risks, and help make Vancouver’s local cinema something that commands the whole world’s attention. It’s high time to make it something we can be proud of.

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