Film Stripped

by Zarah Cheng

In almost every Hollywood movie that I watch, I can recognize at least one actor—if not by name, then from a previous movie that I had seen them in. If I’m really on point, I can name co-stars and what upcoming project they’ll be involved in within the next year. When I watch films at the Vancouver International Film Festival, I recognize virtually no one. For me, this is the most refreshing film experience that I could ask for.

Founded in 1982, VIFF has become one of the largest film festivals in North America, screening films from 80 different countries. At this year’s event (running September 29 to October 14) a cinematic opus of sorts is prepared to provoke, endear and shock audiences. From the Sundance favourite Circumstance, directed by first time feature filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, to The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, an unsettling documentary about a couple striving for “pandrogynous perfection through plastic surgery aimed to make each other look like the other,” this year’s festival is bound to make even your humourless, balding great Uncle Harold giddy.

With the menacing shadow of fall term courses looming over campus, I graciously welcomed the chance to procrastinate for the sake of journalism. Having screened several of the movies before the fest even began, these are but a few whose showtimes are worth scrawling down in your genuine leather moleskin notebook.

The Family Jams is a documentary by Kevin Barker chronicling a 2004 U.S. tour featuring folk acts Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Vetiver. In it, Barker explores the surreal experience of finding family among friends. This topic becomes such a strong overarching theme in this film that you can’t help but to look at your own relationships in order to search for your own meaning. The stories shared by the artists involved are quirky, humorous and sometimes pointless, but always nostalgic in the warmest of senses.

The title, The Family Jams, is inspired by a ritual that the troupe partakes in at the end of each show. Banhart likes to round up his friends (or, really, his musical family) onto a stage with him as they collectively “jam.” Grandmothers with tambourines are most definitely invited. It’s not about creating refined or perfect music, it’s about creating something raw and heartfelt with friends and family. Banhart et al. create whimsically folksy music that makes you feel quite simply, good, and The Family Jams will do just the same.

Before watching The Girls in the Band, the extent of my jazz history didn’t go beyond the fact that my friend Kim once painted a canvas of Miles Davis. After watching Judy Chaikin’s documentary, I found myself tapping my feet to the music of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and was mesmerized by the talent of jazz legends like Mary Ann McPartland and Lil Hardin Armstrong. This film is not just an intricate look into the struggle that women faced in a world of music predominantly occupied by men, but it is also an empowering story of how a group of strong-willed females dared to defy conventions and surpass expectations. The Girls in the Band showcases the lives of women that defined “girl power” well before the Supremes even knew how to stop in the name of love.

Most musicians make the decision to focus on one instrument, with the odd vocalist taking up guitar or grand piano. Andrew Bird, skillfully layering harmonies of violin, guitar, and vocals simultaneously, is not one of these musicians. Director Xan Aranda’s Andrew Bird: Fever Year follows (surprise!) Bird and his fearless band on an incredibly successful, though grueling, year-long tour. This film has the longest clips of performance footage that I have ever seen in a feature film. But really, watching Bird undertake instrument changes during his often impromptu looped compositions is at the core of his ability to mystify. Fever Year delves into the musician’s creative process as he writes hauntingly beautiful violin melodies and continuously strives to recreate the feeling of a song in its most malleable state: when it’s on the “edge of existence.” Bird is on a search for imperfection in a world fixated on perfection, and his results are extraordinary. Aranda’s piece is commendable for its honest portrayal of an artist with a relentless work ethic and an impeccable eye for detail.

With the wide array of films screening at VIFF this year, the overwhelming task of deciding which ones to watch may seem daunting. But amid the fictional plots of betrayal, exploitation and greed vying for your attention, a warm-hearted documentary tinged with musical history might just be the necessary recess that you need. The Family Jams, The Girls in the Band, and Andrew Bird: Fever Year are all phenomenal projects that may exist under the radar of your typical film festival features. Nevertheless, their unparalleled visions into a secret world of music will have you whistling and humming as you exit those theatre doors.