Film Discussion

VIFF 2019 – “I recognise that cough” – Celebrating VIFF’s senior citizens

The build up to a screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival almost always follows the same ritualistic pattern. Those in the passholder line – media, guests, volunteers, and punters with an unlimited pass – are let in first, with many assembling up to an hour or more in advance to guarantee a seat.

Next come the regular ticket holders. Some have been standing in line even longer than their lanyard-sporting brethren, because although they are guaranteed a seat, they aren’t guaranteed a good seat, and they know those sneaky passholders will have first dibs on the best aisle spots; snapping up seemingly entire rows with their jackets and scarves while they, paying customers, are forced to wait outside in the wonderful Vancity rain.

These first two sets of VIFF patrons share a common majority demographic: senior citizens; retirees; pensioners; call them what you will, they are here. And just like every year at this docile West Coast festival, they are here in force.

The final few audience members to be permitted entry, if they’re lucky, are those on standby; a line made up predominantly of younger people. Why? Because the seasoned seniors beat their inexperienced, unorganised heinies to all but a few of those coveted barcodes of entry.

Once inside the theatre, it’s a whole old world. Warm greetings flitter down amongst the endless sea of coat-covered-seats – “I recognise that cough” was comfortably the most endearing – as VIFF veterans of any number of decades enter their element.

READ MORE: The Twentieth Century – An interview with director Matthew Rankin

Like every visit to the cinema with non-reserved seating, where to sit and how far back is a point of contention. At a showing of The Two Popes, one grey-haired couple shuffle up and down the aisle next to several rows until the lady is satisfied that her companion will be able to see the whole screen. When they eventually take their seats she is no longer convinced, but he reassures her. His epic chuckles throughout suggest she nailed it.

Those on their own have no such worries; most are settled a good 30-45 minutes before the film starts, glancing up only when they need to awkwardly let fellow patrons squeeze pass. One gentleman had extra motivation to get there early: “To catch up on my reading”. A quick sweep of the theatre suggests he is not alone. There are books, VIFF programs, even a real life newspaper. And phones, of course… they may be old but they aren’t dinosaurs.

The rest proceed to pass the time with something more generational and frankly quite beautiful: the lost art of conversation with a perfect stranger. Yes, the seniors at VIFF love to talk – with each other, with the staff, even with me – and the best thing about it is that it is not idle conversation. The only thing these people love more than film is going to the cinema to see one on the big screen, which can be easy to forget when you don’t see an old chap in a mac thumbing through a copy of Motherless Brooklyn before a late-night multiplex showing of Joker.

Most see more films during VIFF than I could hope to accomplish. Indeed, it is not uncommon to meet folks at an evening screening who are settling in for their third, fourth, or even fifth feature of the day. While most have the capacity to do this due to retirement, others are driven by their longstanding relationship with the festival. One gent had taken two weeks of paid leave (a limited luxury in North America) to attend as many screenings as physically possible, just like he’d done the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that. Unsurprisingly, he cannot wait to retire.

Best of all, like all good cinephiles, they know their stuff. One lady in her 70s analyses the finer human points of Michael Apted’s Up series, before quietly fuming about the ropey subtitles and portrayal of Buddhism in Korean flick Samsara. Another expresses her dislike of Matthew Rankin’s cerebral Canadian pisstake The Twentieth Century. She knew a film in which former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King is forced to wear an erection alarm was probably not aimed at her to begin with, but she went anyway. That’s just what you do at VIFF, you make the most of it.

READ MORE: BFI London Film Festival 2019

While we wait for Ford v Ferrari to start, one couple, Eva and Tim, embody the nature of the festival. Eva, a former volunteer-turned-punter, has seen 15-20 films. Tim has seen one, which he was dragged to by Eva (though of course he enjoyed it). Ford v Ferrari is his second, and he’s excited. A former tyre man on the racing scene, he once met the real Carroll Shelby at Seabring, and even owned one of the cars he designed. During the hair-raising, eardrum-thumping racing sequences, it was impossible not to steal the odd glance across at what can only be described as the senior equivalent of unfiltered fanboy joy.

One event in particular encapsulated the senior spirit of the festival. In 1989, Michael Moore’s debut feature Roger & Me screened at VIFF. Now it was back, with Moore in tow as guest speaker. Reliant on my credentials to snap up one of the limited media slots, I knew I needed to ignore my crippling hangover and arrive well in advance of the 11:30 start time. When I turned up at 10:15, dark glasses firmly fixed to my face, the lineup was already starting to snake. The liberal Vancouver seniors were here, and they were fired up. The first chap I met had been so determined not to miss out that he had arrived at the box-office at 9:15 to buy two tickets. They only had one, but he needn’t have worried; the lady at the front of the line had a spare. Because of course she did.

Once inside, the audience gave Moore a standing ovation before the he had even said a word. He asked if anyone had been present for Roger & Me‘s VIFF debut some 30 years prior. Surely not… oh, wait, there’s one, there’s a lady with her hand up. What an absolute hero.

Coming from the land that spawned Brexit, it was refreshing to experience a large group of seniors cheer heartily as Moore attacked the ever-drifting right wing agendas plaguing the US, the UK, and as of next week, potentially Canada. Save for McCarthyism, cinema and liberal politics have long paired well, with Moore a key ambassador. His audience in Vancouver agreed to the extent that they were willing to stand patiently in line at the pub (yes, Michael Moore bought everyone a beer and kept talking for over an hour after the screening), regardless of age, just for the chance to shake his hand.

As he finally made his way to his car, flanked by his family, one old lady chased him down to ask not for a selfie, but for an autograph. My heart still hasn’t resolidified.

Catch up on our coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2019 here.

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