Film Reviews

VIFF 2022 – The Documentaries

As the never-ending Vancouver summer continues to shunt fall to the side, it is almost with reluctance that local film lovers retreat indoors for the 2022 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Just kidding, cinema is back, and we’re here for it. With a strong collection of local and global documentaries on the programming slate this year, is it only fair that we give the real world its due…

The Grizzlie Truth

The Vancouver Grizzlies NBA franchise was a big deal when it arrived on Canada’s west coast in 1995. Six losing seasons later, it had faltered to the point where its owner, Michael Heisley, finally did what he had promised fans he would never do: he whisked the team away to Memphis, where it remains to this day. The ultimate crime against sports fandom had been committed, and the local fans wanted answers, but for years the facts of the Grizzlies’ struggles remained a blur of conflicting opinions and bitter finger pointing.

20 years later, filmmaker and ultimate fan Kat Jayme – whose Grizzlies pedigree was proven in 2018’s Finding Big Country – decided it was time to banish the ghosts of Grizzlies past and unearth the truth behind team’s departure from her hometown. A juggernaut of infections persistence, Jayme assembles an impressive line-up of former players, General Manager Stu Jackson, and even the franchise’s infamous number two draft pick, and one-who-got-away, Steve Francis.

This is where The Grizzlie Truth thrives. As Jayme gets the goods from her subjects, her fangirl nature both warms the heart and pulls back the curtain on an almost forgotten moment in Vancouver sports history. The edit could be tighter, with the runtime needlessly stretched by several lengthy fan segments that offer little more than their well-established passion, but for Grizzlies supporters and sports fans alike, The Grizzlie Truth is a shot worth taking.

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The King of Wuxia

King Hu is a legend. One of the most influential filmmakers to emerge from the martial arts explosion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hu was a driving force behind the international breakout of Hong Kong and Taiwanese action cinema. A contemporary of Bruce Lee (though the two never had the chance to work together), his stylistic direction elevated the wuxia picture to dazzling new heights.

Is it fitting then, that Lin Jing-jie’s 220-minute documentary is as sprawling an epic as Hu’s 1971 classic A Touch of Zen. Split into two distinct parts, the first tracks the films that shot Hu to stardom. Lin provides an astonishing legion of super fans (collaborators like John Woo, Tsui Hark, Chuh Shih, Cheng Pei-pei, and Sammo Hung) with the opportunity to dissect just how ahead of his time their mentor was in evolving the artistic and technical sides of wuxia filmmaking.

Taiwanese director Lin crafts a loving portrait of his countryman’s exploits behind the camera, with patient pacing that allows Hu’s atmospheric reels to enrich the awestruck, proud, and highly emotional discussions of his work from those who knew his best. The second half takes us into deeper into Hu’s biographical journey, but it is the two-hour opening section that is a must see for true kung fu cinema heads and film nerds alike.

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Copyright: FUEL / Christopher Herwig.

Soviet Bus Stops

In the middle of nowhere, a Canadian traveller pulls over to the side of the road. Clutching his camera, he traverses his subject, looking for the perfect angle. Finally, he shoots. The subject? A bus stop, one of thousands Chris Herwig has photographed over the years. Of course, it is not mere bus stops that Herwig has dedicated his life to documenting. It is something far more compelling. It is art. For these bus stops, are Soviet Bus Stops.

Scattered across the former Soviet Union, from Chernobyl to the edge of Mongolia, local bus stops were a triumph of expressionism amidst a period of brutal systematic architecture and a firm discouragement of artistic endeavours that did not directly benefit the state. Herwig, relentless in his search for each distinctive structure (and if he’s lucky, its designer), is our charming guide to a curious bygone era, spanning 10,000 miles of mostly rural, often desolate highway.

A niche exploration of creativity from adversity, Soviet Bus Stops is a quickfire yet satisfying historical document by Herwig and director Kristoffer Hegnsvad.

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There is something inherently fascinating about a ghost town. Once thriving communities, abandoned by their inhabitants, they are a relic of man lost to time and reclaimed by nature. Even the nuclear wasteland at Chernobyl teems with life in the wake of our departure. Not so at Anyox, a former company town in northwest British Columbia, accessible only by water. Prior to its collapse during the Great Depression, the town hosted a prosperous copper mine. Now, all that remains are the scars of industrial might, blotting out an enormous area where nothing will ever grow again.

Constructed like a slideshow of stunning 35mm and 65mm photography, co-directors Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora juxtapose the backdrop of Anyox’s striking landscapes and ongoing salvage operation with its long lost human element. Utilising letters, newspaper articles, and seemingly ancient film footage, they seek to unearth the grim day-to-day reality of life at the mine. Emerging from the extreme slow burn is a surprisingly captivating narrative, drifting from social lives, to safety hazards, to labour disputes, all underpinned by the incredible diversity of the mine’s workforce.

Almost dreamlike in presentation and effect, Anyox is a unique deep-dive into a black hole of resilience and destruction in the face of colonial greed.

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Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Riotsville, U.S.A.

Riots are nothing new in the U.S. The two are long term partners, locked in a perpetual cycle of violence, and justice for none. Though they have reunited in recent times, the union was born in the mid to late 1960s, with the intersection of the budding civil rights and anti-war movements. The mere thought of people of colour and the “far left” demonstrating on the streets of their cities drew a single response from elected officials and their increasingly militarised units of law enforcement: brutality.

The breeding ground for this response is the focus of Sierra Pettengill’s sleek archival documentary. At Fort Belvoir, V.A., named for the slave-operated plantation that preceded it, the army built Riotsville, a mock town designed to train military and police how to deal with civil unrest in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots. Taking advantage of the now public, truly wild military film stock, Pettengill skillfully links Riotsville with the deadly police response to peaceful protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1968.

Acknowledging that Chicago is a path well-trodden, Pettengill wisely zeroes in on Miami, and the lesser known incident at the black neighbourhood of Liberty City. Though few cameras captured the event, Pettengill makes the most of the stark footage available, stitching a harrowing narrative of local desperation and savage police response, taken not only due to the race of their targets, but the training they had received at Riotsville. A tough watch that’s vital in its historical relevance.

The 2022 Vancouver International Film Festival is on now. Follow our coverage here.

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