Category Archives: Reviews of film and video

Women’s voices dominate film festival’s Indigenous program

Trick or Treaty?

Director: Alanis Obamsawin

My Legacy

Director: by Helen Haig-Brown

Bihttos (Rebel)

Director: Elle-Maija Tailfeathers

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Four out of the five films comprising the first-ever Indigenous Film Program presented by the Victoria Film Festival this year were made by women. While highly unusual in the film industry as a whole, this eye-opening statistic is not surprising in the world of indigenous filmmaking, according to Michelle Latimer, curator of the Indigenous Program.

“About 60 percent of submissions to ImagiNATIVE Film Festival (in Toronto), the largest indigenous film festival in the world, are submissions by women,” Latimer said.

Latimer, an indigenous filmmaker in her own right, culled the five included in VFF’s program from 300-plus films she has seen through her work as a curator with other festivals. I managed to see two of the features plus one short.

The “master” – I use this term advisedly as Trick or Treaty? premiered as part of the Masters Program at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 – is Alanis Obamsawin. Obamsawin has been making films for the Canadian National Film Board since the 1960s and is currently working on her fiftieth film. I became a fan when I saw Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which she made in 1993 about the Oka crisis.

Like Kanehsatake, Trick or Treaty? blends past and present in an effort to link history with current events and cause with effect. The treaty of the title is Treaty No. 9, also known as the “James Bay Treaty”, which was signed by Cree tribal leaders from Northern Ontario and Ojibways from Manitoba in 1905. A recent book, Treaty No. 9, by John S. Long, examined the journal of government commissioner Daniel George MacMartin and confirmed First Nations’ oral accounts of the Treaty’s contents. The film includes clips of the author discussing his findings with current First Nations leaders. MacMartin’s journal supports the contention that government negotiators misled tribal leaders by misrepresenting what was in the written document. Leaders signed based on those oral representations and didn’t discover the actual content – which deprived First Nations of land ownership and rights to natural resources — until a translation of the treaty was provided to them 25 years after the fact.

When the Canadian Government introduced Bills C-38 and C-45 in 2012 pursuant to the purported authority given by the treaty, First Nations resentment flared, leading to renewed activism. The film documents the hunger strike by Cree Chief Teresa Spence, the beginning of the Idle No More movement, and the 1,600 kilometre walk to the Canadian Parliament by then 16-year-old David Kawapit, who was joined along the way by a growing company of First Nations youth.

While Obamsawin’s film captures the anger of people deceived and cheated of their heritage and seeks to educate the general public, both The Legacy, directed by Helen Haig-Brown and Bitthos (Rebel), by Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, turn inward to reveal their own personal stories about the emotional “suppression” visited on them as a result of being raised by parents traumatized by government programs. Generations younger than the octogenarian Obamsawin, these directors focus their films on healing and forging a personal path for moving forward.

Haig-Brown, a Tsilhqot’in from the Cariboo-Chilcotin area, said at an audience Q&A after the showing of her film on Feb. 7 that she wanted to learn to put her “heart” into her films. In My Legacy, she does just that; one revealing scene shows her bare-breasted while a tiny flower bud superimposed over her heart grows to cover her chest with bloom — a metaphor for her growing capacity to feel love. My Legacy won the Alanis Obamsawin award for Best Feature Documentary at ImagiNATIVE Film Festival in 2014.

Tailfeathers, the progeny of a Blackfoot mother from Kainai First Nation and a Sami father from Norway who met at a World Council of Indigenous Peoples, recounts the story of her father’s chronic depression which eventually resulted in the dissolution of her parent’s marriage. The film documents her growing understanding and empathy for her father. Although this film focuses on healing, activism is in Tailfeathers’ genes. As a UBC graduate, she made Bloodland, a film about hydraulic fracturing on her reserve and promptly got arrested while taking part in a demonstration.

The last film in VFF’s Indigenous Program, Drunktown’s Finest, had its British Columbia premiere on Feb. 10 at the Vic Theatre. This film, first shown at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, received the Jury Award at Outfest L.A.

The Victoria Film Festival continues through Feb. 15.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright. 

Girls’ stories linger in mind

Girl Rising
Directed by Richard E. Robbins
Vancouver Island premiere, The Caprice, Langford

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Canada Day is all but over as I write this, but I’m still saying a heartfelt thank you to the Canadians who joined forces to bring Girl Rising to a theatre near me.

I first heard about this movie from a friend in Los Angeles. One of the benefits, I thought gloomily, of living in a metropolis is having access to unique documentaries that never quite make it into the commercial theatre circuit.

But—guess what! My friend in Los Angeles has still not succeeded in seeing this film, while I have had that pleasure, thanks to two women associated with Dwight School Canada, an independent boarding school for local and international students. Danielle Donovan, a teacher, and Christine Bader, communications and outreach coordinator, joined forces to gain the school’s sponsorship for the film and arrange a one-night-only showing.

Proceeds went to Because I am a Girl, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to empowering women and girls worldwide by promoting gender equality and girls rights, but Donovan stressed that “getting the word out” was more important than fundraising, so admission was by donation.

In this case, the “word” was about the struggles of nine girls from as many underdeveloped countries to rise above poverty and the limited opportunities for women in their countries. Each girl’s story was unique, but also stood for the stories of many others.

My personal favourite was Wadley from Haiti, whose thousand-watt smile remained undimmed in the aftermath of the earthquake that left her and her mother in a tent-camp with thousands of others. Wadley, a bright student, suddenly found she could no longer attend school because her mother’s source of income disappeared with the earthquake. In Haiti, as in many developing countries, school is not free, but Wadley wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. “If you send me away,” she told the teacher, “I will come back every day until you let me stay.” Eventually, the teacher relented.

Each girl was paired with a writer from her own country who helped her tell her story.  Wadley was paired with writer Edwidge Denticat who emigrated from Haiti to New York as a child and whose novel, Brother, I’m Dying won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

More than one story exemplified the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls in their cultures. Yasmin (not her real name), from Egypt, was sexually assaulted but insisted on calling herself a “superhero” because she fought back against her attacker. The stories were supplemented by cleverly staged sound bites of facts, for example, in Yasmin’s case, the information that, in Egypt, 50 per cent of all sexual assaults are on girls under 15.

The film, however, provided a balanced presentation on men. I found it heartwarming that the girls were often aided in their struggles by brothers and fathers. Marriage often ends a girl’s education at an early age in many countries, but Azmera in Ethiopia found the courage to say “no” to an arranged marriage when her brother voiced his support.  And Senna in Peru was named after Xena, warrior princess, by her father, a miner, who insisted that she go to school.

The film asks the question: “What changes when these girls get an education?” The answer: “Everything!”

If you missed this film, don’t give up.  Get together with friends and bring it back. International Day of the Girl is coming in October. Check out the website:

Joy Fisher recently completed her BFA in Writing.


Film reminds: Pride is a global movement

Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride
Directed by Bob Christie
Reel Queer Film Festival, Vic Theatre, Victoria
June 30, 2013

Reviewed by Andrea Routley

It was a quiet evening at the Vic Theatre, not surprising for a Sunday night in Victoria. Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride was the final screening at the first Reel Queer Film Festival, organised by the Victoria Film Festival. I almost didn’t go because I was sucked into a TV series on DVD. But I thought, “Do I want to watch HBO actors call women cunts all night, or deepen my understanding and appreciation of a global human rights movement that has secured my legislative freedoms?” Yeah. I should go.

In this feature length documentary, director Bob Christie follows Vancouver Pride Parade director Ken Coolen, along with several VPS colleagues, as they travel to places where Pride is still steeped in protest, and even where queer sexualities are still criminalised. The group experiences first-hand the violent threats of anti-gay protestors in Warsaw, Moscow, and Budapest, and witnesses Equal Ground’s kite-flying Pride action in Colombo, Sri Lanka, an event which is only advertised after it has happened in order to protect those brave enough to attend. In Sri Lanka, homosexuality is still punishable with up to ten years in prison, and “curative rape” is a “common practice.”

Beyond Gay connects the Pride celebrations in cities like Toronto and Vancouver to a wider global movement with a call to action to support human rights around the world. Ken Coolen, a likeable big guy with a gentle demeanour, meets courageous activists around the world. In Moscow, he praises the group, led by Nikolai Alekseev, for their bravery, asserting, “You are not alone” as he shares a binder full of signatures from Canadian government officials for the Declaration of Montreal on LGBT Human Rights. The fear is palpable in many scenes, especially the action in Moscow where secret locations and meeting spots were necessary simply for a small group of people to stand outside the Tchaikovsky Conservatory with rainbow flags, and then walk 120 feet before dispersing to avoid violence. The anti-gay protestors and media showed up at the decoy location. Violence erupted when a Pride organiser responded to a media question by affirming that he was with an LGBT organisation. He was immediately pushed, and beaten.

The film is full of these heart-breaking struggles and testimonials, as well as awe-inspiring triumphs. Energetic club music scores much of the film, suggesting urgency while also evoking the intensity of Pride celebrations, and its origins in Stonewall. The music was at times heavy-handed: sombre piano music scores moments of reflection, which causes them to verge on campy. In these scenes, I think a “moment of silence” in the music would have been more effective, an austerity to convey the coarse reality of the human rights violations.

The motivations for the film are easy to understand. Pride celebrations in North American have come under much criticism for their commercialisation, which many feel demonstrates how we have “lost our way.” I often hear people cite A&W’s visible parade sponsorship–a restaurant that assigns heteronormative gender roles even to hamburgers– as an example of all that is wrong with Pride today. This year in Victoria, one group responds to the current state of Pride by hosting Alt Pride Community Festival, which was “formed as a reaction against experiences of oppression, exclusion, and lack of accountability during pride events and within queer communities.”

I’m not sure how I will feel about Pride this year. Things have changed a lot since I first marched in a Pride Parade. It was 1997, and I was sixteen. I walked behind a float blaring “We Are Family,” a drag queen in a purple spandex gown and silver wig waving to the crowds. But the cheers always swelled for us, the youth group, the only LGBT youth group I knew of, one which met at Bute and Davie in Vancouver’s West End Friday nights. (To attend, I had to travel for three hours on public transit, with no way of getting home before the buses stopped running.)

That was the first and only Pride Parade I marched in. This right to assemble and celebrate our diversity is one that many of us take for granted.

Andrea Routley is the editor of Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s queer literary magazine.

Film weakened by force-fed poignancy

Shiawase no taiko o hibikasete: Inclusion
Directed by Ken’ichi Oguri
Canadian premiere, Eric Martin Theatre
May 29, 2013

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf.

The Canadian premiere of  Ken’ichi Oguri’s Shiawase no taiko o hibikasete: Inclusion was hosted by Friends of Music Society, an organization that offers “partnership-based music programs to build relationships between people with mental illness and those without.” Inclusion follows a Japanese drum troupe (Zuiho Taiko) composed of players with mental disabilities who find “creative independence” through music.

Before any preconceived notions of inability can be summoned, the opening to Inclusion informs the viewer that this troop plays 130 concerts a year–a glorious achievement, but one that leaves no room for the viewer to settle into the movie before Ken’ichi fills scenes with poignant and bittersweet displays of kindness and achievement. This style of force-fed moments of warmth, affection, and modesty mostly resolve the movie’s conclusion without even having made it 45 minutes in.

That is not to say that there isn’t a power to Ken’ichi Oguri’s decision to display compassion; the film exudes genuine emotion all the way from the small Nagasaki prefecture in Unzen City, to the troupe being discovered and coached by a famous Taiko performer to competing in the Tokyo International Taiko Contest.

Despite the temporal transitions, Inclusion never skips a motivational beat. Most members of Zuhio Taiko were ostracised, institutionalized, and perceived as people who could not achieve something worthwhile. It is clearly Ken’ichi Ogrui’s desire to show that those with mental disabilities can lead normal family lives, as the film enters the drummers’ homes at every opportunity. These moments when the camera entered the homes always felt heavy handed with shots that linger and probe as though waiting to find something specific rather than just tell the story as it happened.

Without ruining the film, there are moments that evoke paternal instincts to protect those that seem to need defending. While this is effective in reaffirming that people with disabilities should not be approached as “functioning disabled people, but seen as a member of society,” the movie fails in its zealous attempt to cast the members of Zuiho Taiko in any role other than brow-beaten drummer. Even though time is spent with the family of the Zuiho Taiko’s leader, the documentary devotes most of its time to reproducing scenes of social stigma.

Still, much of Inclusion is bursting with humor and sincerity. There is a beautiful story hidden within: a vocational rehabilitation centre full of people institutionalized for their mental disabilities. A director who asked residents if they were happy received a resounding “Yes.” That same director who shut the facility down after hearing that the only thing in the world the residents wanted was to leave.

This juxtaposition of honest storytelling to directed moments of tension is counterintuitive to the crux of the film: “The world is more beautiful when the world is in harmony.” It muddles the achievements of the Zuiho Taiko drum troupe. I’m left wondering, are we to feel sad for these people who lead mostly ordinary lives or bask in how they’ve mastered something that others would only dream of?

Despite its weaknesses, the movie is a success. If you’ve watched and enjoyed small documentary films before then Inclusion will leave you feeling hopeful. Moreover, those with a penchant for documentaries that fall outside the “norm,” will be smitten by the warm sentiment and strong narration.

However, if you’re used to the types of documentaries that spring up around Oscar season with vivid production value and a distinctly unabridged story, then Ken’ichi Oguri’s Inclusion is not for you.

Video night experiment succeeds

Video Art @ Garrick’s Head Pub, Victoria, BC
Featuring works by Rick Raxlen, Janet Rogers, Scott Amos, Carolyn Doucette, Pamela Millar, Alejandro Valbuena, Constance Cook, Carrotkid Films, and Morgan Tams.

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

I recently attended an experiment. There were no electrodes involved, though electronics played a key role. Open Space Gallery, MediaNet, and the Garrick’s Head Pub hosted a showcase of local video artists.

The Garrick’s Head expansion crowns Bastion Square and has a friendly, over-scale feeling, with a mixture of ordinary seating and enormous banqueting tables attended by stools. Our party of three occupied a corner of one such edifice, facing the large screens arrayed along the south wall above the bar. Another filmmaker (not part of the show, but very friendly) and an artistic associate sat down across from us, and another pair of viewers joined us further down. There was a general sense of creative camaraderie. The evening was a little ad hoc, in that there were no printed programs, but Doug the MC very kindly lent me his script so that I could make notes on the titles and creators of the works.

The night began with Morgan Tams’ Killer’s Crossing, subtitled “A Pacific Northwestern”–a surreal cow-metal rock opera in miniature, with words and music by Brooke Gallupe (of the late lamented Immaculate Machine). Richard Raxlen‘s playful envisioning of Jane Siberry’s “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog” followed. Raxlen showed two pieces; the second was a visual accompaniment to “Mumbles,” the jazz tune known for its cheerfully incomprehensible vocals, a kind of virtuoso glossolalia. Raxlen’s jumpy, layered lines and half-seen figures worked similarly at the edge of interpretability.

The pub noise sometimes presented a challenge during the quieter or more verbal pieces. Victoria Poet Laureate Janet Rogers‘ contribution, Just Watch, used a simple juxtaposition to powerful effect. Tiny silhouetted figures crossed an unstable surface that seemed to rise and fall above a brightly coloured static scene. I won’t explain the trick of it here, since I found the disorientation so effective, but it’s worth seeking out. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really hear what the speaker in the video was saying.

Scott Amos‘ highly textured experiments in Primordial Soup stirred O’Toole to comment wistfully that it was “Very NFB,” and it did have the exploratory feeling of the golden era of NFB film-making. (A YouTube description notes that Primordial Soup is “an experiment with acrylic paints, India inks and drain cleaner on an old 16mm film.”) In contrast, Paul Whittington‘s L19 Disposed is a bleakly funny dystopian animation that accomplishes a lot of (non-verbal) storytelling in two and a half minutes.

Originally shown on Bravo!, Alejandro Valbuena’s Caffeine uses a cafe and the delicious drug it dispenses to frame dance sequences. My favorite segments reminded me of the risk-taking momentum of Québécois dance troupe La La La Human Steps. Caffeine was followed by Carolyn Doucette’s Little Plank Walk, in which live-action foraging to chanted vocals gave way suddenly and delightfully to experimental saxophonage and edgy animation. Pamela Millar’s Blue Minute Bridge is a metallic noise poem, a visual and auditory dissection of the Johnson Street Bridge, previously screened as part of the BC Spirit Festivals. The evening ended with Constance Cook‘s Anarchist Footwear, a playful depiction of a community’s feet that filled me with reminiscences.

Even with minor sound issues, the night was a success. Many of the video pieces shown are available online through YouTube, Vimeo, and other sources. I recommend that you look them up.

Julian Gunn is a local writer with eclectic tastes.



Films worth revisiting: The Fog of War

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Directed by Errol Morris; Starring Robert McNamara as himself

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf

This 2003 Sony Pictures Classic opens with some black and white footage of former United States Secretary of State Robert McNamara preparing for a press conference.  It then shows a wartime montage played back to sweeping strings and stressed flutes. From that point onward, the film’s tension  never abates. Fog of War is an interview with McNamara, President of the Ford Motor Company and former President of the World Bank. It is a history lesson that does not sidle around difficult issues and involves a man who, with determination, lived an amazing life burdened with decisions that, right or wrong, caused his vilification.

“Any military commander who is honest with himself will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily–his own troops or other troops–through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn’t destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is ‘don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes.’ And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. They’ll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.” –Robert McNamara

Fog of War viewers follow eleven lessons from McNamara which range from “Empathize with your enemy” to “Maximize efficiency” to “You can’t change human nature.” Viewers step into the war room and hear the conversations of John F. Kennedy and McNamara during the Cuban missile crisis. Viewers become privy to the startling facts of how close mutual destruction came to the nations of Earth.

Director Errol Morris shifts focus to McNamara’s early life and the initiation of the Second World War. From there we witness a whole new side to the Pacific Theatre. Bravery is bested by statistics: tackling fuel efficiency so that more sorties could be run overtop of Japan, the mathematics behind using firebombs that burned Tokyo to the ground. For those who knew only the nuclear attacks on Japan, to see the loss of life based solely on firebombing is startling, gut wrenching and physically chilling.

At times the montages of fire, bullets, personnel, and explosions that overlay McNamara’s narration feel heavy handed. They make his voice seem unwavering in the face of deciding the fate of others.  Yet, that is the basis of this film. To see the face and logic of someone rationalizing the decisions of war–where the freedom of some outweigh the deaths of others. What makes Fog of War so compelling is McNamara’s penchant to look inwards, without guidance from Morris, to ask himself the most difficult moral questions. Such honesty coupled with humanity is what should beat in the heart of leaders, and here we see a man who doesn’t shirk from responsibility–knowing his job would leave him a monster.

The movie visits McNamara’s time with Ford and the introduction of the seatbelt–McNamara figured he could save upwards of twenty thousand lives. Morris then begins to shift the focus towards the Vietnam War, but stops in at John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Whenever Robert McNamara’s confident voice cracks from pressure, falters in lieu of teary confession, when Philip Glass’ soaring original score lifts McNamara’s voice so that we can feel it more than hear it, Fog of War is at its best. It educates, empathizes, critiques. A more touching and fear-rousing documentary may not exist.

Joshua Zapf loves rediscovering movies from the past. 

Poet’s team video undermines bullying

Shane Koyczan and collaborators
To This Day – TED Talk

Reviewed by DJ Fraser

Vancouver resident Shane Koyczan is already a fully fledged Canadian poetry star, and that is no easy stardom to come by. Koyczan appeared at TED this past February, where he performed the now-viral multimedia performance of “To This Day,” with violin accompaniment by Hannah Epperson and animated segments executed with the help of dozens of animators.

The animators who collaborated with Koyczan for this performance are not one-time colleagues–all are collaborators for the To This Day project, a continued effort to prevent childhood and adolescent bullying. This outreach project aims to connect and inspire those willing to stand up to bullying and to “find the beauty” in the world.

At any live TED talk, there are two screens onto which animations, graphs, charts or live feed footage are projected. Koyczan’s performance was augmented with an introduction that is not in the original video for the To This Day project, which exists as a animated video work. Throughout the performance, the rhythm of Koyczan’s words guides the visuals painstakingly through images that break apart, split at the seams and shatter to reveal new scenes of mixed media, from cut-out paper animation to pencil drawings. Breaks in the imagery shift back to the performers and the audience at TEDquarters, their rapt attention turned to Koyczan on stage.

If you view the TED talk from home, the segmented animation often occupies the entire visual space, with Koyczan’s sweet, impossibly fluid then abrupt, hopeful narratives as a sound track.  The conscious synthesis of Koyczan’s poetry and the graphic styles of literally dozens of animators remind the viewer of the absence of a monolithic style or predominant medium accompaniment to Koyczan’s poetry.

The combination of this multi-perspectival poem and multimedia presentation (at the live performance as well as in a home viewing) crosses media boundaries:  narrative, visual representation, graphic animation and music are cast together. Without any doubt, my favourite aspect of this TED video/performance was Koyczan and collaborators’ clever balance of media with poetry, and how this aspect of the work conveys a multitude of experiences, rather than Koyczan’s singular view. Calling attention to the universality of the bullied child in all of us, Koyczan and his team turn a singular work into a global movement.  Different voices speak out, turning words into shields, drawings into livelihood, casting collective hopes with each other. The presentation and intermedia experience offered by Koyczan’s performance reinforces the idea that collective strength, through art and self-expression, enables survival and success. On a bad day, this performance could bring tears of happiness to my eye in spite of the world. On a good day, it could bring tears because of it.

Subscribe to #ToThisDay for project updates.

DJ Fraser is an MA History in Art student at UVic and the online gallery curator for Plenitude Magazine.


Films worth revisiting: The Kid Stays in the Picture

The Kid Stays in the Picture
Directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein
Written by Brett Morgen. Narrated by Robert Evans

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf

1957: Robert Evans is plucked from the poolside by Norma Shearer to play her late husband and renowned producer, Irving Thalberg. From there Evans, driven by lust for the movie industry, works his way up to become producer for the lowliest movie studio around–Paramount Pictures. He goes on to pull the studio out of a nose dive with titles like The Godfather, Love Story, China Town, and Rosemary’s Baby. Having done the impossible, he falls in love and gets the home of his dreams.

Right there, we have enough drama to make a cute, based-on-real-life, film. But Morgen and Burstein follow Evans’ story to its bitter end–through divorce, alleged associations to a murder and drug scandals. We are privy to every up and down in the life of a man who seems to have had it all handed to him on a silver platter.

The Kid Stays in the Picture is more than thoughtful documentary. It is a heart-wrenching tell-all narrated by Evans himself. His growling baritone supplies the film with a seen-it-all veracity that leaves you–at least, it did me–sympathetic for every decision, challenge and heartbreak.

And that’s the satisfaction this movie offers. Everything that seems lined in silver is, in fact, coated with Evans’ blood and sweat. Each of those movies listed earlier was crucial to Paramount’s success and each was pocked with drama during all stages of production. The film’s ability to divulge freely is maddening at times. Honesty, as poignant as Evans, is the base of all sad stories.

The documentary is told almost purely in a photo-collage style, but Morgen and Burstein work cinematic wizardry by making scenes feel animated. They weave the exposition of personal life and career through motifs; by the end of the film, viewers are left feeling nostalgic, as if Evans were a close uncle they’d like to see more of. Despite Evans’ first-person narration, it’s easy to forget the movie is a documentary. Morgen and Burstein have masterfully adapted from Evan’s autobiography to make an enchanting, sorrowful movie to watch.


Joshua Zapf  loves to research older movies

Films Worth RE-visiting: The Illusionist (L’illusionniste)

The Illusionist (Lèillusionniste)
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Original screenplay by Jacques Tati,
Adapted by Sylvain Chomet.

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf

The Illusionist is beautiful for many reasons, but most of all because it is believable.

The story takes place during the 1950s. The protagonist, Tatischeff, is an illusionist and a master of his craft.  We follow him, and a handful of other entertainers, as they struggle to make ends meet. In desperation, Tatischeff travels to Scotland and, after a small performance in a local tavern, he settles into his room. A young maid becomes so perplexed by Tatischeff’s abilities that she is convinced he is magic. She follows the illusionist to escape the humdrum life of her village, a place that has seemingly just seen its first electric light. Tatischeff, awash in her admiration, shows fatherly affection for her. He attempts to give her everything her heart desires but cannot prevent the slow disenchantment that comes with time.

The film does not incorporate hard dialogue. You might suggest, if you had to explain it, that there are no spoken lines. That’s why I nearly overlooked this film; I figured the premise too lofty, the design too avant-garde for my liking. Nevertheless, The Illusionist is one of the finest films I have ever had the pleasure of watching. I predict that after just twelve minutes you will be enchanted.

The Illusionist is a cartoon of the highest quality, drawn to the grandest scale. Scenes sprawl like photographs. The music, originally pieced together by the director Chomet, guides you seamlessly through scenes. No spectacle is spared as background characters move with their own accord giving life to every scene–more life than most live action movies could ever hope to attain.

At times the movie is like rolling artwork. The trip from Kings Cross to Scotland is outstanding. You could review that segment a dozen times and continue to discover new and wonderful details (the advertisement on the bus, the gulls meandering near a cliff, the Border Collie managing his flock, the change of passengers, the name of the Scotsman’s boat.)

Chomet has done a masterful job. The music, the sentiment, the novel characters, the idiosyncratic movements of the lead are all threads woven into a touching storyline. The Illusionist is a resounding achievement–a film that that should not be missed, no matter how old or young you are.


Josh Zapf just committed himself to Co-op Studies in Writing at UVIC; he  was mesmerized by Star Wars and Indiana Jones as a kid. 

Polley’s Stories We Tell moves audiences with simple honesty

Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley, Director
Viewed at  the Available Light Film Fest
February 4-10, 2013, Whitehorse, Yukon

Reviewed by Nadine Sander-Green

Stories We Tell is an experiment that went incredibly well.

In her first documentary, Sarah Polley searches for the truth about her mother, an actress who died of cancer when Polley was eleven years old. She does so in the most direct way she can think of: by interviewing everybody and anybody who knew the exuberant Diane Polley. We meet Diane through her handful of children, her husband Michael, her friends, an actor who worked on stage with her for only a few months. She is remembered as a fearless character who had a terrible voice but sang all the time. Diane was the life of the party, a woman always trying to fix the mess she had created, a loving wife, a mistress.

In several interviews Polley has admitted she had no idea if the film (which took over five years to make) was going to amount to anything. She even said she was embarrassed to be making it. She couldn’t figure out why she needed to tell the world her family’s story.

What comes out of this experiment is a surprise. Polley’s biological father is not Michael Polley, the father who helped shape her into the woman she is today. Her biological father is Harry Gulkin, a film producer who had met Diane when she was acting in a play. Although Polley’s family joked she might not be Michael’s real daughter (her blonde hair says it all), it seems as if that’s all it ever was: a joke.

For those who have followed Polley’s career, from child-actress in CBC’s Road to Avonlea to director of the critically acclaimed Away from Her, learning about  her “real” father is a juicy piece of information. But scandal is not what the documentary is about.

Stories We Tell questions why we need to expose our personal stories. It’s not a new question, especially in this age of the memoir and general lack of privacy. The answer doesn’t come quite to the surface in the film, but it’s there. It’s in the audience’s trust as the film meanders along in no clear direction except for Polley’s steely determination. It’s in the way the film is paced; the slow unravelling of little truths that make the film whole.

At first glance, Polley’s story is not exceptional in any way. Many people uncover truths about their parent’s infidelities. Some discover more devastating truths. Many have suffered more. The success in this film is simple: Polley makes her story matter. It’s her honesty, her vulnerability, but mostly it’s her constant prodding for some version of truth.

Members of the audience are sure to leave with more questions about truth and memoir and the need to tell stories than they arrived with. Polley has brought to light what many have ignored when crafting their stories; it’s easier to believe there is only one truth, rather than incorporate many.

But the audience will also leave with the weight of a full story, and a darn good one at that.


Nadine Sander-Green is a writer and photographer based in Whitehorse, Yukon.