VIWFF – Female Films and Wonderful Women (with some Cultural Coolness)

It’s been proven women are great at everything they do. They’ve got clearer ideas on how to get things done, they invented many of the little conveniences in everyday life, and have proven their strength in marches and common media much like what was screened here. There’s been a lot of great screenings and panels at VIWFF this year, so let me get into the highlights. Excuse me, Shoutouts to Carolyn Combs and Ariana McGregor for keeping this event running, Sarah Khalil, along with the rest of the WIFTV board, Helen Yagi and Andrew Poon for helping coordinate events/interviews, everyone who submitted, presented, or even talked, and of course, all of the women in this film industry community of ours. Okay, now we can start.

Opening Night – Starting off the festivities of the festival was an opening night complete with a red carpet for photographs, and as per usual a chance to mingle with people you know and don’t know. Also, what is a film festival without films? The audience got treated to films of the First Nations variety. While those are certainly a big hit at Canadian film festivals (and I honestly wish I got more of these for review purposes), it sometimes feels like there aren’t enough. So to have a short film followed by a feature length being so similar and yet so different at the same time was a stroke of genius. Biidaaban is an interesting short film done completely in stop-motion. The story is about Biidaaban and her friend Sabe, who walk around the neighbourhood to collect sap from maple trees. Sadly, sap-gathering for syrup in the suburbs is shut out and spirits must save Biidaaban from a spell-bound snow fence that strangely senses stuff (Whoa, that’s a lot of S’s). Having taken over 2 years in production, and 6 months of post-production, it was nothing new for filmmaker Amanda Strong. This short film was really really good and ominous. Already it got me hooked and excited for what was next in store. What was next of course, was Warrior Women, a documentary a little over an hour long. Not much different from most indigenous films according to the filmmakers, but it does provide a good educational background on their culture. Featuring Madonna Thunder Hawk and her family as they talk about subjects including growing up in their community, building gardens, fighting serious cases including the pipeline issue, and a lot more content that showed the one side of indigenous people that the media doesn’t always show. “I think it’s incredibly inspiring, everybody matters, you should fight for social justice, and make the world a better place. Indigenous value systems are the things that might just save us.” said Director Elizabeth Castle. The documentary had lots of information mixed with a little bit of humour and I definitely feel this documentary will have more native stories expanding. The night concluded with a reception of free international types of food, and a great mixture of women.

Artist Talks – It seemed like screenings weren’t the only things happening even if they were the only things advertised. For anyone who had free time on the weekday mornings, there was a small amount of Artist talks with filmmakers in attendance, and industry professionals. The first artist talk featured professionals who talked about the premises of their documentaries. As such, these included a runaway kid, two women from Kenya, one a suffering maid and the other a widow, and a couple more. These fine folks also discussed their humble beginnings, the mixed feedback from many mentors, and the explanation of scripts needing to be not so convoluted in the case of complex writing. I only attended two of these and the second one only had 2 other attendees with me. The artists went into detail discussing short films in the program and then explaining how they connected with their subjects and actors.

VR Exhibits – There’s always one or two of those around at a film festival and they always make me dizzy. Biidaaban (not to be confused with the short film) brings the viewer on a strange journey into the possible future of Toronto, mixed with indigenous messages speaking out to them in the format of typefaces and ghost voices in the sky. Very trippy, and weird. There was a building ledge in that one and I kept feeling nervous at what would happen if I stepped over it. Thank goodness for boundaries/walls. Homestay was much more different, telling the story of a Japanese student living in Canada who committed suicide. The story as told by the filmmaker from her own experience was accompanied by paper-like models folding out and red leaves blowing throughout the area. Despite the disturbing story, the visuals were quite cool.

Script Reading – Probably for the first time (that I know of), VIWFF had a special segment featuring people reading excerpts from scripts by female writers/filmmakers. Since I can’t divulge too much content of what was read (confidentiality reasons), I will give some quick simple descriptions of the movies that had certain scenes read out. Cookies or Crack is the story of a girl named Angie as she struggles to keep her family under control. The biggest issue being her mother is addicted to all kinds of drugs. The script is funny until it starts to get chilling and even a bit inspirational. I think it’s a good thing I haven’t experienced something like this and hopefully won’t. Beyond is about another young girl except her name is Haily and is running away from the issues she’s run into over the years, and seemingly away from everyone. In the process, her family goes out to find her, hoping she’s okay. It seems to get darker as it progresses, but there is a glimmer of hope near the end (at least I think there is). In The Shadows takes place in the dystopian future (like almost all Netflix series) starring an evil doctor who abducts children and drugs them with experimental medications giving them extraordinary powers. It’s got a crazy plot that has a bit of a funny feeling to it. It just continuously gets more twisted. Burden in Blood definitely goes in with the dark and edgy side much like some of these other stories, focusing on the trippy sensation of drug influence and strange visions. Finally, Reminders of The People has a heartwarming plot of great family moments, good fun, only to get a change of pace. It’s a story about medicine that takes place through multiple worlds and a young lady must band together with friends to save their land against an evil force. A great session followed by a great reception, though I kind of wish there was more variety of food at the reception afterwards.

Thank You for the Rain – A documentary that takes place in a lot of places, but mainly focuses on Kenya with a little bit of Norway. Director Julia Dahr covers farmland and Kenyan farmer Kisilu, who intends to fight climate change and work out new methods to save the crops and sacred land from getting ruined. It’s your basic documentary covering one of the most important issues of today that so many seem ignorant to, and hopefully provides everyone with a meaningful perspective from someone who lives in a struggling country. It’s got some humour, tells quite a story, and gives a little bit of hope for the world even if there may be some hardships.

A Fighting Chance – It’s not just features that got showcased, but a fair amount of short films in small bundles too. Statistics and Are You My Mommy? provide educational messages such as how missing Indigenous women is a common occurrence and women should especially be taken more seriously in the film industry instead of being judged for their appearance. For scenic and exciting, Carving Landscapes showed quite an elaborate set of shots for a short documentary, and The True History of Billie The Kid is a good heart-wrenching film that really shows the bond between a father and his daughter even if the barrier is hard time in the big house. But my most personal favourite has to be Nisowak. Spanning at nearly 40 minutes, Nisowak tells the story of a young Indigenous woman with super powers. She must save herself and what’s left of her family from a mysterious whip-wielding assassin who looks like Ozzy Osbourne. At first I thought it was going to be cheap and simple, but then I got blown away as it went on. It had great music, visual effects, amazing shots, incredible plot, and perfect sound. I’ve never seen supernatural and Indigenous together as a film concept. It’s the most ingenious thing I’ve ever seen. 

A Perfect 14 – Most people don’t widely discuss the world of plus size models because almost everybody hates people who are plus-sized. But there’s more to it than anybody ever knows. This well made documentary focuses on people in the plus-sized section who discuss the advantages and disadvantages of being in the industry. Advantages include how they get instant success and meet great people while disadvantages include unexpected health issues and how earnings aren’t enough. Not only models get involved, but magazine editors also get interviews and anyone else who feels the need to shine a light on this subject which so many people are disgusted by. One model named Elly Mayday battles ovarian cancer while doing her modelling career and showing she can still model even without hair. While there’s lots of documentaries this year, this is the only one that focuses on this particular subject, and it’s very well made. Amazing work on this one.

Presentation – Hosted by Melanie, this presentation explained how to properly get digital originals up and going. Specifically comedy short series as that’s what seemed like the main focus. After all, those kind seem to be the most widely shared. She went into great detail on pitching, marketing, and getting things up and going. It was a great seminar for people who really wanted to get heir projects a going. It was even recommended that pitching to CBC is best when they’re next available, which is in June. At the same time, audience got treated to one short episode of An Awkward Girl Dates… and Say My Name as well as How Much For a Baby? All series were pretty good, but I’m a bit creeped out by the last one as the couple having baby making issues also have the same names as my parents. 

She is The Ocean – Swim to the ocean shore, fish in the sea. She is the story, the story is she. An inspiring documentary that focuses on stories about women around the world. Women that all have some connection with the ocean. These women range from surfers to scientists, have differing levels of age, but all of them share the same enthusiasm and connection with the ocean that is shown to be amazing. One of the greatest documentaries I’ve seen to focus on multiple subjects, I’ve learned about marine biology and waves just from watching this. Great subjects, stunning shots, perfect concept.

Evening Reception – Since Friday March 8th was in fact International Women’s Day, and the 30th anniversary of VIWFF (not at the same time, it was just arranged like that) the best way to celebrate was with two delicious kinds of cake (chocolate and coffee cake), and a big crowd. I only discovered a few individuals that I recognized, but the vibe was still fun anyways. Tea and other things were served as well. Plus, it was a good way to get people prepared for the short film screening right after. 

Perseverance Furthers – Another program that features short films, according to IMDB standards. Like A Fighting Chance, Perseverance Furthers has a fair amount of documentary shorts laced with it covering subjects such as music producers, sex workers, and even overweight people who go for hikes. The program also included short films with a fictional but real feeling such as Check which was a creepy way of showing a woman’s negative thoughts consuming her as the movie goes on a slow journey into creepiness, and EG (I) which is the interesting tale of a trans person on a journey for freedom of expression.

Gender and Inclusion: Seeking Solutions – Time for an important discussion regarding how women need to be more involved in the film industry, and how to break down the many barriers that forbid them from doing so. Hosted by Amanda Coles, she started out by explaining how mostly men are in charge of everything. You know, directing, movie reviewing, almost everything. I can agree with these statement given this site is nothing but guys except for the occasional guest article. Even the Women in Broadcasting panel at CRTC has men in the highest ranks. One good thing however, is that women are strongly represented in film schools. Coles covered other big issues like financial sources for women, how super nice guys can actually be risky leading to sexual harassment cases, and the fact that there’s not enough women working in this industry. The panel consisted of guests like Susan Brinton, Helen Granquist, Sharon McGowan, and many more. There were two panels, with the second one being referred to as the Thunder panel, which gave reports of projects they worked on, future plans, and working with partners. I gotta say, this was the most inspiring forum I’ve ever witnessed. Especially with the audience questions/concerns at the end.

This Changes Everything – I hope that it will. Further dwelling on the subject of how not many women are hired or taken seriously in the industry, DGC hosted a special screening of a documentary that showcased subjects of many of the greatest women involved in the film industry, explaining their stories, what it was like in the industry, and is still like. At the same time, part of the documentary also focuses on the TV station FX where it’s revealed that it had the lowest number of female writers from other cultures. The CEO chose to take care of this problem by hiring more female writers and it was shown that the TV shows progressed amazingly. Of course, there are still other issues that have had the light shone on them like how lots of movie characters are men, but after this documentary, I hope to see a lot more of these issues disappear. While it was directed by Tom Donahue who obviously isn’t a lady, he explained in the panel afterwards, that men should help with serving the women and solving problems, and the interesting facts of unions and set respect. Great Screening and I can’t wait to see what other 1st world problems Tom tackles in future documentaries.

The Day I Lost My Shadow – An extremely ominous story that takes place in Syria during a few years ago, when winter comes. When a young lady heads out to get more gasoline to keep her household warm and up to date. But with gas prices rising along with even worse problems, her simple errand turns into a long quest. She and her friends get taken out of their area and into a more dangerous zone. There they come across deadly obstacles. Given the 1st world issues that Tom tackled in the previous segment, I can see 3rd world issues being an even bigger problem. This film really shows the experience of that, putting you on edge and making you feel nervous for the residents living out there. Following that screening was a Storyhive short called Tayybeh, which described the lives of Syrian female refugees who cook their native food for the community of Vancouver. It shows some hardships, but it’s a very interesting short film to show a little more into the lives of these people. The panel afterwards even brought in the ladies who were documentary subjects, and it was quite a heartbreaking and long Q&A session. You really feel for these people when you learn more about them. Right after that was a reception where people could actually enjoy Syrian food from those talented lovely ladies. It was quite appetizing.

Dreams and Unveilings – Later for the evening was another short film showcase where it seemed like a majority of the short films were about family. Some of them didn’t have a whole lot but there were some interesting ones like Wild, which had the creepy story of a little girl named Ida who discovers a strange creature in the cornfield of her Uncle’s farm. The Egg and The Thieving Pie was a UK based short about a police officer who investigates the theft of an egg and talks to residents of a strange building. I don’t know, that one just seemed silly but I enjoyed the surrealism in it. Some of these other films just seemed to be on the dark disturbing side, and the final one was something I already seen. I don’t need to echo the Bunny man, do I? Bring on the dancing horses. Sorry, that was uncalled for. 

Swords and Sceptre: The Rani of Jhansi – The last film of the Festival, and probably the best one I’ve ever seen. Telling an ancient Indian story from 1850 that few have heard about, this movie details the ongoing battle of the Rani as she fights against invading British forces, proving herself one of the greatest fighters in all of history, and now more people are going to learn about her. She fights harder and harder as the British get more stronger. This film was exciting, professionally made, and had quite a lot of story, spanning for about 2 hours. When I spoke to Director Swati Bhise about the film, she explained that she was originally an Indian dancer who had carried this ancient story with her for years until she finally had to get it made. Bhise got her daughter to star in it, as she has a lot of amazing traits and acting skills that she got to put to good use. However, during the shoot Bhise got sick with a couple diseases and is currently recovering.

Closing Night – Now for the real end of VIWFF, the final evening which presented the awards for the many films submitted. In between awards, The Matrix Winning Award Shorts were screened throughout. The Matrix Award Winning Shorts were Good Girls Don’t, Ochiskwacho, and Biidaaban. They were all very interesting. There was quite a wide range of awards that night, and so many different films won so many different awards. But the two that won the most awards (two awards each) were Marziyeh, and The Day I Lost My Shadow. Both of them did certainly seem to have quite some feeling to them. Afterwards, everybody met in the lobby afterwards to enjoy Syrian food from Tayybeh (the restaurant) once more.

And that’s it. Another year of celebrating women. But it also seemed to be celebrating indigenous people as well. Which is not a bad thing. Carolyn Combs has said that the festival has grown more over the years and she feels like it has become a filmmaker’s festival. She told me “It’s become a great place for filmmakers and audiences to engage with each other.” VIWFF certainly seemed to be the best for this year and I’m already waiting to see what happens next year. But since it’s a year away, I’ll probably be checking the next WIF event coming up in July, The Annual Spotlight Awards Gala. Keep up the good work, ladies.

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