The Vancouver International Film Festival continues to stake its claim as a destination on the festival circuit with its 2023 edition. VIFF returns this year with a robust offering of favourites from the festival circuit, along with a number of notable Canadian premieres. (You can find the schedule here.) The documentary slate includes several films already covered in the pages of POV, including the audience favourites Mr. Dress-up: The Magic of Make Believe and Someone Lives Here, which won the audience awards at TIFF and Hot Docs, respectively. There’s also multi-prize winner Caiti Blues, genre-bending Orlando My Political Biography, Sundance standout The Tuba Thieves, Deepa Mehta’s collaborative doc I Am Sirat, and the ultimate cat movie, Lynx Man, to get audiences purring. Beyond festival favourites, though, VIFF includes some notable world premieres on the Canadian front, as well as big gets that should have audiences across the country envious.
Here are, in alphabetical order, are ten documentary highlights from this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
Screens: Oct. 6; Oct. 8 | North American Premiere
VIFF makes an impressive coup by scoring the North American premiere of Wim Wenders’ acclaimed documentary Anselm. The film offers a portrait of artist Anselm Kiefer, the European master with a grand sense for scale. Wenders appropriately harnesses this aspect of Anselm’s oeuvre and shoots his artworks in epic 3D. Considering how Wenders helped revolutionize the use of 3D in documentary, and film more broadly, with his artful presentation of dance in Pina, Anselm offers must-see cinema for the big screen. “Like Kiefer’s art, the film is both unsettling and deeply beautiful, a paradoxical combination that generates contradictory emotions,” wrote Jason Gorber while reviewing Anselm at Cannes. “This is the magic of both Kiefer and Wenders, and by immersing oneself into both process and product, showcase and cinematic splendour, we’re treated to a film that itself seems to be as integral to the deeper understanding of Kiefer as the artworks themselves.
Call Me Dancer
Screens: Sept. 29; Oct. 8
Manish Chauhan’s father and grandfather steered taxis for a living, but this young man in Mumbai, India wants to chart another path with his own two feet: by dancing. Call Me Dancer follows Chauhan as he tries to make a living in the performing arts. The self-taught dancer finds a taskmaster dance coach and is willing to push himself to the limits in pursuit of his passion, but the challenge of making dreams a reality hits hard when Chauhan finds himself faced with a world that puts too little value in the arts despite the joy that live performances brings to the lives of others. A triple prize-winner at Documentary Edge Festival, New York Indian Film Festival, and the Berkshire International Film Festival, Call Me Dancer has charmed audiences worldwide.
A Cooler Climate
Screens: Sept. 28; Oct. 2 | Canadian premiere
Over fifty years before he won an overdue Oscar for Call Me By Your Name and decades before he helmed period pieces like Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day, James Ivory was making a documentary. A Cooler Climate sees the veteran filmmaker reflect on his days capturing images in Afghanistan for a doc that was ultimately never finished. Reels from this ghost movie rise up from Ivory’s cluttered table and bring images of a pre-Taliban nation to the screen. At the same time, Ivory looks back on the ghosts of his own past, including his youth in Oregon, growing up as a gay man with few outlets to express himself, and finding a long-time personal and creative partner with the late Ismail Merchant. A Cooler Climate, directed with Giles Gardner, offers a unique glimpse into the private life of a pioneer of independent cinema, but also the long history of stories that often go untold.
I’m Just Here for the Riot
Screens: Oct. 5; Oct. 8
Okay, Vancouver – get ready for a tough look in the mirror. Directors Kat Jayme and Asia Youngman look at the fallout from the 2011 Vancouver riots that shocked Canada and the world. I’m Just Here for the Riot, which premiered at Hot Docs earlier this year, revisits the zany footage depicting Vancouverites brazenly taking to the streets after their beloved Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in Game 7. The case proved especially bizarre as a turning point for social media, since the mob of hockey hosers extensively documented the carnage, which led to the arrests of some rioters and trials in the court of public opinion for others. The film turns the question of the mob back on itself as people who were identified from the footage reflect upon their actions, but also the consequences of a momentary mistake that now lives online forever. Read more in Susan G. Cole’s review of the film.
Screens: Sept. 30; Oct. 2
Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, the award winning filmmakers behind docs like Boys State, The Overnighters, and Mayor Pete, return for another provocative character study. The Mission tells the story of another man of faith, John Chau, who made the challenging (and illegal) trek to the remote North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal with an eye for a single mission: to convert the Indigenous Sentinelese population to Christianity. There’s just one hiccup in his story: the Sentinelese are fiercely isolationist and defend their island by force. Using a mix of re-enactments of Chau’s mission, along with interviews with his friends and fellow members of the faithful, The Mission considers the impulse that compelled Chau to visit a foreign land where he would ultimately lose his life. Whether this story is a Grizzly Man fable, a cautionary tale about colonial practices in the 21st century, or a stirring parable of faith is up to viewers.
On the Adamant
Screens: Oct. 5; Oct. 7
Winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, On the Adamant is an observational work that brings audiences to a unique psychotherapy centre. Floating on the Seine in central Paris, is The Adamant. It’s a barge. But it’s also a floating hub for art therapy. French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert emphasizes character as his camera takes in the patients who harness the healing power of art and the therapists who guide them toward healthy self-expression. “‘Art therapy’ is perhaps an overused term, but in On the Adamant it actually seems to work,” wrote Jordan Mintzer at The Hollywood Reporter. “Not because the patients are necessarily cured — some of them have serious conditions that require medication and occasional hospitalization — but because art helps them not only to live with their handicaps, but to harness them for creation.”
Physician, Heal Thyself
Screens: Oct. 5; Oct. 6 | World Premiere
Dr. Gabor Maté is a resident talking head of Canadian documentary. He’s weighed in about addiction, trauma, stress, and childhood development in documentaries such as Dosed: The Trip of a Lifetime, Drunk on Too Much Life, Hurt, and many other works in which characters meet with the physician, or Maté offers expert advice as an interviewee. He’s also an influential writer, having authored a half-dozen books that provide therapeutic advice to readers looking to heal themselves. Now, Maté is the subject of his own documentary with the appropriately titled Physician, Heal Thyself. Director Asher Penn chronicles Maté’s personal journey that shaped his worldview and signature compassionate approach to therapy, highlighting the practices the make him such an influential thinker.
Screens: Oct. 1; Oct. 4
A highlight from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, POV is pleased to co-present the VIFF premiere of Swan Song. This gorgeously shot documentary directed by Chelsea McMullan (Ever Deadly) chronicles ballerina and artistic director Karen Kain’s farewell to the National Ballet of Canada. Everything is on the line here for Kain after five decades with the company as she decides to bid adieu by making her feature directorial debut with a production of Swan Lake. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride for Kain, but any backstage drama simply provides thrilling fuel for Swan Song as McMullan and company get all eyes on the production, offering a truly immersive portrait of the sheer scale entailed within mounting a ballet. Everything hinges on Kain’s lifetime of experience: Can she pull it off? Read more about Swan Song in our cover story and review of the film. (Toronto audiences can catch the film as it opens at TIFF Lightbox this weekend.)
Screens: Oct. 1; Oct. 4 | World Premiere
The traumas and resilience of residential school survivors fuel this personal NFB documentary by Dr. Jules Arita Koostachin. WaaPaKe (Tomorrow) sees Koostachin explore intergenerational trauma and ask how pain is passed down from one generation to the next. The director draws upon her experience as the child of a residential school survivor, incorporating her mother’s voice into the film and drawing upon the lessons of oral storytelling she learned from her Cree grandparents. WaaPaKe promises an intimate study in healing and moving forward, but also a frank opportunity to have conversations about the impact of settler colonialism and the new forms that violence takes in the present. The film is already drawing acclaim ahead of its world premiere at VIFF with a nomination for the Allan King Award for Excellence in Documentary from the Directors’ Guild of Canada. WaaPaKe also screens in Toronto at imagineNATIVE in October.
Screens: Oct. 2, Oct. 4, Oct. 7
The Canadian offering in VIFF’s spotlight on Black cinema is the World Premiere of Union Street. Directed by Jamila Pomeroy, Union Street confronts the erasure of Black history in Vancouver. By drawing upon the perspectives of contemporary Vancouverites, as well as a wealth of archival footage that shares snippets of Black life that often don’t make the official historical records, the film looks at the city’s history of racism, but also the ways in which Black Canadians created a sense of community in Vancouver when Black neighbourhoods like Hogan’s Alley were destroyed, scattering neighbours and forcing them to create new gathering spaces in a movement to bring people together. Fans of the recent docs like Unarchived or Dear Jackie will want to catch this portrait of community and representation.
The 2023 Vancouver International Film Festival runs Sept. 28 to Oct. 8.