VIFF Capsule Reviews #2

The next Canadian film to grace the Vancouver International Film Festival was what I can only describe as an understated gem. Weirdos, directed by Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) and written by Daniel MacIvor (The Five Senses), tells the story of Kit, a teenager in the 1970s who decides to leave the small town where he lives with his dad and hitchhike with would-be girlfriend Val to the big city to live with his estranged mom.

Weirdos has a lot of pieces that feel like you’ve seen them before. Kit obsesses about Andy Warhol and so Andy Warhol himself repeatedly shows up to offer advice to his fan, and at one point a good-natured policeman drives up who is very close to a cliché, and even sort-of girlfriend Val is often not much more than a sounding board for Kit’s weird thoughts to bounce off of. But the thing is, in McDonald’s hands these various parts work to form a very laidback and easygoing whole. The main strength is in MacIvor’s screenplay. Kit is gay and has not yet come out, and his stress regarding this is the backbone of the film, even if we do not know it from the start. And the simplicity of how his coming out is handled, and the brevity of the confrontation with his father about it is just about perfect. It’s real in a way you don’t see in movies, much.

I was very excited when I realized that Zacharias Kunuk had a new film arriving. His breakout hit Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) remains one of my favourites, and I was eager to see what Kunuk would bring with a film he readily admits is an attempt to graft the classic The Searchers onto a traditional Inuit tale. His film Maliglutit (Searchers) is engrossing.

As with The Fast Runner, the description of Maliglutit is very brief: a man comes home from hunting caribou to find members of his family have been abducted, and must chase after them to bring his family back home. In Kunuk’s way, there are no subplots or filler; this is amazingly focused. And absolutely, there is an obvious parallel here to The Searchers. Kunuk throws in an homage to the famous shot of the doorway, only this time it is in an igloo, and the moment works.

Maliglutit is fascinating, as the Inuit world is still so foreign even to a fellow Canadian watching the film. The opening scenes feature the shadows of a couple of throat singers who establish a thematic shell for the story to fit into, that of violence inherent in Inuit men being part of life in the North, and the climax is riveting. If anything, as a fan, I just wish Kunuk would expand his ambition and tell even bigger tales. When Maliglutit ended it felt like it had scarcely begun.

One final Canadian film to mention is a solid documentary by Sebastien Rist and Aude Leroux-Levesque titled Living With Giants. It covers life in a northern native community, centered mostly on a young man named Paulusie. What makes this doc worth seeing is that it covers its subjects in a way that feels completely, refreshingly backwards.

Watching a documentary about the north of Canada, you carry certain expectations: that the struggles with alcohol and drugs will be front and center, or perhaps the lack of government support, or just simply the trials of living in such a secluded place. But Rist and Leroux-Levesque do the viewer the service of assuming that they already know about those things, and instead of trying to show footage of natives drinking and behaving badly, which can be exploitative, they concentrate on the thoughts of the residents when those things aren’t happening. That’s not to say that there are any rose-colored glasses here; a scene after a graduation ceremony clearly has some residents affected by alcohol, and one of the main subjects goes to prison for assaulting a man; it’s just that the filmmakers are more interested in what their subjects think… not what they do.

While we are covering documentaries, in 2014, on the day that the students of Hong Kong began protesting and the Umbrella Movement was born, a young man named Tze Woon Chan picked up his video camera and started filming. He stayed in the crowds of students for weeks, filming them, their actions, their thoughts and their worries, and turned it into a film called Yellowing. Much like the recent Maidan‘s encapsulation of the Ukrainian protests, Yellowing strives to capture a certain moment in time from the position of the actual protests, but unlike Maidan, Yellowing is in painful need of an editor. At almost three hours, the film is a bit of a chore to sit through. Apart from the actual violent clashes that highlighted the start of the protest, and the later attempts at crashing a government building, the rest of the film is devoted to footage of students talking about how they are upset with the situation. Only, there is nothing about one student versus another that lends any nuance to the overall story – each seems to say the same things – and so there is little here to justify the bloated length and the sagging middle section.

Much more tightly focused was Keith Maitland’s Tower, a rotoscoped look at Charles Whitman’s slaughter at the University of Texas in 1966 when he took a sniper rifle to the top of a tower and started killing people. Maitland mixes talking-head recollections from survivors with rotoscopic recreated memories with younger actors to establish in expert fashion how the day “went down.” We weave back and forth between multiple actors on the scene, from police to victims lying on the ground bleeding to scared students hiding behind bushes, and a wonderful sense of time and space is born of it. The terror of that day is easy to feel – this is occasionally pretty emotional stuff – and the mostly animated format works. Echoes of today’s America full of daily shootings cannot be missed, and this represents the documentary’s one flaw. A coda bluntly linking that awful day in 1966 to today is not only poorly handled and timed, but it is entirely unneeded; the impact of Whitman’s slaughter is all the viewer requires to make these connections to today… a bit of trust was needed, I think.