VAFF Interview/Announcement – First Weekend In

VAFF has only started recently, but the first weekend was pretty fun. It was about time I got back into this after a couple years, and I was happy to do so by speaking to Susan Hanson and Regina Leung on what to expect. Before I dive into this interview, I’ll bring up some highlights from the first weekend.

It was quite a setup the first night, with other media types doing coverage, and it got pretty crowded, but being at Cineplex Odeon, there was a lot of space to hang around in. Susan Hanson, Barbara Lee, and even the Malaysian Counsel General gave speeches before the opening film, Raintown. Raintown was a great movie about family that talked about value, and the importance of solving issues with other people. The Q and A afterward with the director and cast invoked a lot of emotions, and the crew chose a happy ending to give hope to those struggling. Their biggest challenge was being bilingual though. The afterparty that followed had pretty loud music though, an interesting photo op with a 360 ring lite, and some great drinks too. I just wish people were a little less chatty during the important speeches that night.

Another great film from later on was Finding Her Beat. It focused on Taiko women and how unknown they were, especially in Japan. I enjoyed watching the performances in the documentary because the only other one I’ve ever seen involving Japanese women and drums was completely animated. Great concept for both a performance and documentary, and it showed some issues involving performers getting sick (the whole thing happened during times of COVID) but eventual success soon came to be.

As usual, VAFF also had short film showcases, like the West Coast Series. Starting that one off, was Sun, Moon, and Four Peaks which gave family feels and was a bit funny as it showed a Korean family reuniting after a troublesome divorce 10 years later. Afterwards, came the beautifully done film, Doh Jeh Mama/Thank You Grandma, a 3-minute short featuring a connection between a young man and his grandmother. Then there was the hilarious 100 Days, which focused on a family in an Asian restaurant and a baby celebrating its hundredth day of existence. This film made me hungry, but it satisfied my cravings for humour (though there was one particular actor I wish I could see more of). Water Roots was a sad but sweet film about a young Chinese woman trying to reconcile with her father after the death of her mother, then Miss China which was about a young lady who wanted to escape her family and move to China after being selected for a pageant. Interesting little film that you might see again soon. Might. Okuribi ended the night with a charming, cute, and calming vibe about young Mei and her father Tatsuya who celebrate a Japanese tradition while living in a condo together. 

There were some other short cases that I watched (with stuff I saw before), but I’d like to talk more about the centrepiece film, A Great Divide. A Korean family has recently moved to a house on a hill in Wyoming. The parents love this new place, but their son Benjamin doesn’t feel comfortable being there. To get into a good worthwhile school, Benjamin has to write an essay about his family roots but struggles to do so even with the help of his Grandmother’s ghost. Yes, this is a common thing in Asian films. The deceased appears in person at times. I saw it in a couple of different shorts as well. Benjamin doesn’t stay alone for long though, his best friend Elie stays for the summer and they get to exploring, only to run afoul of the resident bully Hunter, the local law enforcement, and a couple of racist old grouches such as Mr. McNather, who contributes money to a lot of the town businesses keeping them alive. The whole thing was funny, dramatic, and great. Now, let’s focus a little more on the general vibe of VAFF.

As you may have gathered from past events promotional posters and flyers, they always come up with a theme. This year, it’s called Creating Opportunities. The creative team of VAFF came up with that because they were thinking about how it’s an understanding that opportunities aren’t always readily available. For people to get out there, one has to create the opportunity themselves, no matter how small it may or may not be. I created the opportunity to cover this year’s since I didn’t get the chance to last year, and the opportunity to talk to both Susan Hanson and Regina Leung before opening night.

HNMAG: It’s a new format for the festival taking place over two weekends. Why did you decide to go with a new format?

Susan Hanson: Well, the number of submissions we’ve had over the years has been increasing. The other thing we have been noticing is that the films we would really like to showcase has always been increasing. A filmmaker’s desire is for the films to be shown on the big screen. We’re trying to accommodate that as much as possible. We thought this year, why not really try and make that a reality? In addition to our usual 4 days that we have in person at the beginning, on the 5th day we open up another auditorium in the afternoon to overlap for that day. The following Saturday at a different venue, Scotiabank Theatre, we have a full day of screening. In total, we have 22 in-person programs, and 13 virtual programs. In total, we are showcasing 131 films. We are excited about that, and as you probably know from the past 2 years, we’ve also had the in-person official awards ceremony that closes everything which will be on the 12th of November. 


HNMAG: And there’s different programs too. Which one are you most excited for?

Susan Hanson: Well, I’m excited for everything. We’ve worked really hard at maintaining the animation program and this year, we have two. A program of shorts put together and a feature, but in terms of what I’m really excited about that’s a really loaded question because I’m really excited about all the films because we have so many to offer and so much to offer. But to highlight a few things, our opening film Raintown is from Malaysia, for the first time we have a Malaysian film on the big screen. We have a film called Mali from India, another film called Dolphin from Korea, and a closing animation feature, Ghanta from Japan.

Regina Leung: Also the exciting part is the two animation programs, both of them are rated G, which means parents can bring their young children to come and enjoy the screenings. We’re excited about showcasing this to let more demographics and families enjoy our festival. A lot of our virtual programmings is quite in heavy subject matters. In the past, we haven’t seen that many related to stories about mental health. We have two or three programs related to that subject, which is quite interesting. Of course, other than that, I’m also looking forward to the all-day industry initiatives. Besides parties, we also have workshops, case study, fireside chat, so November 4th and 5th is quite focused on our pre-productions so we showcase the events for how to pitch and do a practice pitch and get feedback at one of the workshops. On November 11th, we have a full day of industry events, one of the exciting workshops we have is a law firm coming in to talk about licensing, distributions, and clean runs. When we’re ready to bring out products to the market, and how they can handle the legal expenses. This is something new we’ve never done before. There’s another one that focuses on animations and cartoons. We also have industry parties, and celebration of our Canadian Asian filmmakers. Now I’ll pass it back to Susie to talk to one of the biggest parties which is the official awards. 

Susan Hanson: Thank you, Regina. We have so much going on and so many things happening, we encourage everyone to come out and join us. In terms of the big events, we have the opening gala which is a crowd-pleaser AND a crowd-drawing event. But the one that I’m really passionate about and proud of is our ovation awards night. It’s to highlight and showcase the filmmakers and talents, and to give them acknowledgment and present them with an award that is very worthy of the achievements that they’ve achieved. That is happening on the 12th. This year we’re holding it at the Beaumont Theatre.


HNMAG: There’s a lot for this year. Have you started accepting new content to be submitted then?

Susan Hanson: Absolutely. We are 100% non-profit volunteer run. Everyone’s passionated about it but we’re very limited for funding. We have to seek out grants and sponsorships, and that really prevents our platform from growing the way we like. Asia is very broad, there’s so many different counties that fall into that. We’ve had to limit it because we don’t have the platform capacity to host everybody. But this year, we managed to start opening the doors a little bit, and for the first time we have accepted submissions from West-Asian Canadians. We do have a lot of films coming from overseas as well. We’re hoping that this will grow and accept more countries in Asia.


HNMAG: Also interesting how the closing screening is on the 11th. Was it difficult to adjust a change like that?

Susan Hanson: We just wanted to test it out and see how well it’s received by everybody. Then the Ovation awards night has changed for the past 3 years and that’s largely due to our funding.



HNMAG: What else can everyone expect from this year?

Susan Hanson: All the emerging talents, we have so many West-coast filmmakers that are being showcased this year and keep your eyes out for them. It’s so exciting to see them grow from some of these stuff and they’ve gone from little shorts in MAMM to a short film of their own and then to a feature.  Our films go through a rigorous process and we go through several different rounds and not everybody gets to see everything because we want to obtain objectivity. If you’ve been involved in pre-screener round 1 you don’t get to be involved in round 2. If you’ve seen a film once, you don’t get to see it again. We want to give the fairness to everything.


HNMAG: Was there anything you really would’ve liked to include this year but may have to wait until next year?

Susan Hanson: We would’ve loved to have a feature West-Asian film, but unfortunately due to timing and programming, we just couldn’t secure one. Ideally, we would love to have the West-Asian community more involved with VAFF. This festival is for everyone, and the community around us so we’d like everyone to come join us and celebrate, see the talent available. 


HNMAG: With all the things going on in so many places, how does one choose where to go and what to attend?

Susan Hanson: (laughs) Good question and very loaded. If you visit VAFF.org, we have our full lineup of films being screened, the programs, timeslots, and everything else. All of our screenings this weekend will be at the International Village, it’s just a matter of which ones you want to show on. For Saturday and Sunday we’re doing screenings from 11AM to Midnight, so if you’re a real movie buff just stay for all the films. Then we have the industry-related things as well. You can pick and choose what may be of interest to you. If you want to get more involved, there’s volunteer opportunities at VAFF.

Regina Leung: We do have a curative interpretation from our marketing team, where anyone can figure out where to watch the kind of films they like. We also have documentary features, in different types of subjects related to documentary. The entire virtual programming is on a different subject, so it’s kind of in a way to help anyone with VAFFing. (laughs) Follow along our newsletter, and our social media.


HNMAG: Will there be more kinds of screenings for next year along with more events taking place over more days?

Susan Hanson: If we could have EVERYTHING in person, that would be amazing. This year, we have a stellar number of filmmakers, not just local, but a filmmaker from Japan and his film is being shown virtually but he’s still coming, and so are filmmakers across the US, Toronto, and everything. We are just so thrilled and excited about this, just where we go from here. I want VAFF to be known more than TIFF or VIFF. 


There’s still some more VAFF to see. Don’t forget it’s also virtual, so take a gander at the online content, it’s all worth watching. Buy some tickets while you can, attendance ought to be full for all screeners. 

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