The cliché that “Vancouver never plays itself” — popularized six years ago in a video essay by Tony Zhou that has close to 2 million views on YouTube — is difficult to dispute, especially when considering the innumerable examples of Vancouver standing in for places like Seattle, Chicago, or San Francisco. The Cinematheque’s series The Image Before Us: A Film History of British Columbia aims to challenge this narrative and celebrate, or perhaps simply identify, the province’s understated and too often overlooked cinematic identity. Founded in 2015 by Vancouver filmmaker and scholar Harry Killas, The Image Before Us is in its sixth season, returning after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. The current edition of the series includes a mix of contemporary films set in B.C., or works by B.C.-based filmmakers set elsewhere, in addition to a handful of older pictures produced in or centred around the province. Titles this season include Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Nettie Wild’s documentary Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (2002), and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (dirs. Elle- Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, 2019), among others.
The screening I attended, themed “The Human Spirit,” featured Soran Mardookhi’s Turbulence (2014) alongside introductions by Killas and Simon Fraser University Professor Emeritus Colin Browne, whose 1987 documentary short The Image Before Us inspired the programming series’ name. The evening also included a screening of the documentary short Good Stuff (dir. Matt Nie, 2003) and a post-screening Q&A with Mardookhi.
The connections between the two films felt somewhat tangential, but both were quite compelling. In all of eight minutes, Good Stuff introduces us to Ray Bethell, who spent years flying kites in Vanier Park, achieving awards and records around the Pacific Northwest. Nie overlays Bethell discussing his accomplishments, his craft, and the severity of his wife’s dementia atop brightly-coloured footage of his kites against blue skies. Killas and Browne introduced the film as being representative of the enormous body of student-produced cinema in B.C. Indeed, it would be remiss to ignore student films in a series like this — though one may be tempted — given the sheer number of high-calibre filmmaking programs within Vancouver.
Turbulence follows two Kurdish immigrants in Vancouver: a father, Sherzad (Kamal Yamolky), and his daughter Jina (Camillia Mahal). The two have coped with their relocation, and Jina’s trauma witnessing her mother and brother killed in the Iran-Iraq War, in dramatically different ways. Sherzad — a gifted electrical engineer — works to develop a prototype for a perpetual motion machine, emblematic of a utopic future that seems to remain out of grasp. Jina, meanwhile, experiences opioid addiction and lives largely as a drifter, in essence running from her past. The relationship between the two is moving, even if they share relatively few scenes. Yamolky’s performance as a cautious but determined father experiencing early symptoms of Alzheimer’s proved the highlight of the film, and I was shocked to learn that it was his acting debut.
During the Q&A, someone asked Mardookhi how he would approach the film differently if he were to make it today. I was rather struck by his answer to what, in all fairness, was a pretty obnoxious question: “I wouldn’t make it.” He elaborated, but only barely, mentioning how he, his interests and his sensibilities have dramatically changed in the last eight years. It was refreshing to hear a filmmaker be so honest about their relationship to past work, even if he was perhaps overly critical of what was in fact a pretty good film. At the same time, this sort of reflection resonated with the theme of the entire series — the notion that examining a history, or histories, requires us to reevaluate what we previously accepted or believed by considering new information and alternative perspectives; a reminder that our past individual experiences inform our collective future. — Alec Christensen