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A sneak preview: The Vancouver International Film Festival

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What: Vancouver International Film Festival

Where: Various Vancouver cinemas

When: Sept. 26-Oct. 11.

Alan Franey, festival director for the 21 st Vancouver International Film Festival, proclaimed an underlying message of "immersion of natural environment" in many of the nearly 300 films in this year’s festival.

As in years past, I made it a point to seek out films with a strong sense of outdoor production values. With 2002 being the United Nations Year of The Mountains I was curious to see if the international film community had indeed brought us more work from alpine lands.

Besides nature, "holding history accountable" is another important theme at this year’s festival and the lineup of socio/political documentaries this season is very impressive.

The first documentary I saw at the Pacific Cinematheque was Notes From A Personal War . I strongly recommend this highly-explosive documentary from Brazilian directors Joano Moreira Salles and Katia Lund.. The film is a powerful document which follows the police, the drug dealers and the local inhabitants in a war-like situation in the hillside slums or "favelas" of Rio de Janeiro. The war on drugs here is portrayed as a senseless and hopeless case where youths as young as nine and 11 year olds proudly tote semi-automatic weapons and battle police, or rather an army in full combat gear. There seems no end to the conflicts as the funerals on both sides only escalate. It is a very powerful and honest film where the desperation of the moment is captured incredibly well by a cameraman hot on location, sometimes so hot that the bullets nearly graze the camera.

For those wishing a perspective on the encroaching war on Iraq, Stealing The Fire , a 96-minute documentary, produced and directed by John S. Friedman, takes us into the intriguing story of Karl-Heiz Schwabb, a German technician. Schwabb having worked for Degussa, a German firm supplying nuclear technology to many developing nations, was accused of selling nuclear technology to Saddam Hussein. The paradox of the story is how the German nuclear program, from its inception during the reign of Hitler, was courted by both the Soviets and the Americans for its know-how. Now countries such as Pakistan have also received crucial information from German technology, according to this documentary.

The Czech Film The Wild Bees , by Bohdan Slama, was an entertaining but slightly shallow feature depicting very basic country life in rural Czechoslovakia, where eating, screwing and drinking dominate the primal senses of most. Amusing but nothing out of the ordinary.

Guardian of The Frontier is a beautifully shot feature by Slovenia’s first woman feature director, Maja Weiss. It juxposes lesbian explorations within the Deliverance-type setting of a canoe trip by three female university students on a holiday outing.

Delusion is a charming 50-minute Dutch documentary on schizophrenia. The film opens up this little known world comprised of other realities and our misunderstanding of them. Directed by Boudewijn Koole.

Minor Mishaps, by Danish Director Annette Olesen, turned out to be a very blunt feature film where a group of actors supposedly ad libbed a great deal of the screenplay while shooting. The result is a very sharp and direct film in the style of The Celebration and with a certain Dogma feel.

View From The Summit, a 76-minute NFB documentary directed by Magnus Isaccson, attempted to follow the interests of activists, the police and a few public relations people representing the delegates to the Summit in Quebec and the demonstrations that followed. The result was a rather neutral yet informative doc in true NFB style.

By far, the most impressive as well as emotional documentary from the lot I saw was a 64-minute Czech production directed by Matej Minac. The film, narrated by Canada’s own Joe Schlesinger, depicts the story of 669 Jewish Children brought from Prague to England as refugees of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Nicholas Winton, curiously a non-Jew himself, was a 28-year-old stockbroker during the Second World War when he took it upon himself to rescue the children and arrange to deliver the kids safe into the care of British families. The film really celebrates a true feeling of accomplishment, of humanity and our potential for carrying out "the power of good."

Schlesinger himself was one of the saved children, adding a very personal touch to the fascinating story.

Minac a true craftsman of Czech cinema with various accomplished films under his belt, fine tuned his film with a great mix of interviews, archival photos and footage as well as an escalating plot line, which culminates with the now grown up children and their families actually meeting Winton in an emotional BBC talk show setting.

Definitely a great beginning to a promising festival. For more information see www.VIFF.org

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