World Wide Web: Vancouver International Film Festival, Day Two

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My second day at the Vancouver International Film Festival brought white lines of thin girls, silent film shadows, a Unabomber web, and American telemarketing Mubai-style. But before all that, it might be best to begin with life outside the movie theater. It does exist, after all, even if film festival obsessiveness sometimes make it easy to forget.

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This year, the downtown area where much of VIFF is located is under construction. One block of Granville -- the street where the main theater is located -- is closed off due to early work on an underground system partly connected to Vancouver's selection as host of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Now, I'm not saying Vancouver doesn't have problems, but it would take a full year of Palmolive rain to get some areas of Market Street (or my beloved home block in a different part of SF) as clean as Granville's dirtiest spots. With no shortage of mountains, bodies of water, and snowy weather, Vancouver seems like an ideal place for Mao Asada and Kimmie Meissner to have a triple axel duel. Yet people who live here seem ambivalent about the Olympic honor -- the letters section of one local weekly is dominated by missives complaining about the preparations and funding (ie money problems) thus far. Considering how well Vancouver as a whole ordinarily seems to run, it's enough to make the mind reel in imagining the potential chaos of an SF Olympics sometime in the near future.

Vancouver knows how to put together a well-run film festival -- that's undeniable. Once again this year it's a thousand times easier to attend public screenings here than at other fests. The schedule isn't punishing -- other than in the sense that it forces one to weigh equally attractive options against one another. And uncovering some of the programming logic, and the pinballing narratives it can form, is a pleasure.

I started VIFF day two with a look at Thin, the first documentary by photographer Lauren Greenfield, whose monograph Girl Culture found some admirers in the Guardian offices when it was first published. I can't say I was wowed by the book -- the portraits of consumer-crazed young girls seemed indebted to Diane Arbus in a way that verged on cheap-shot or caricature treatment of exactly the type of thesis-like subject matter Arbus avoided. But there was no denying Greenfield had a sharp, distinctive eye.

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In Thin, that perspective yields greater rewards, because it's at the heart of a thoroughly committed -- at times problematic, and probably all the better for it -- approach to documentary. Shot by Double Dare director Amanda Micheli, Thin is much better looking than an average documentary, but not in a shallow or strictly stylistic sense. The camerawork here is attuned to the intimacy Greenfield is striving for in this extended look at a number of anorexic or bulimic girls and women, and the institution where they are receiving treatment, the Renfrew Center in South Florida. What Greenfield emerges with is an angry other side of Todd Haynes' Superstar and Safe, and a female "nuthouse" rendering much more nuanced and harshly honest than Girl, Interrupted. Through just one of her main subjects -- Shelly, a med-hooked nurse who arrives with a tube in her stomach that only allows her to purge more easily, Greenfield encounters complex family issues (Shelly is a twin) and an almost overwhelming amount of material for a critique of woeful American societal values and health care problems.

That's without taking into account Shelly's seemingly dazed but actually quite sharp personality. Besides Shelly, Thin also spends time with tough and manipulative Polly; Brittany, whose mom indoctrinated her in the practice of chew-and-spit when she was kid; and Alisa, a tough mother of two who joined the military during Desert Storm to lose weight. Thin was produced by HBO; while the network's attempts at making indie movies (American Splendor; Elephant) leave me unenthused, they have produced some excellent documentaries. Movie postscripts are often cringeworthy, but in the case of Thin, they pack a real punch, especially when paired with Greenfield's still portraits, which silently articulate these women's inner battles.

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Silent articulation also takes place -- with splendid results -- in Jennifer Reeves' short film Shadows Choose Their Horrors. The only problem with Reeves' The Time We Killed, an examination of one woman's agoraphobia after September 11, was its difficulty sustaining moody non-narrative experimentalism over a feature-length format. Here, she's working with a shorter runtime, images of greater beauty and flow, and a lead actress (Winsome Brown, who also collaborated on the scenario) who isn't afraid to indulge Nosferatu-like qualities. It's too easy, really, to cite Guy Maddin as a counterpart for Reeves, as he is far from the only director currently working with intertitles, classical music, and other silent film motifs. A more revealing comparison would be the nightmarish urban dreamscapes of David Lynch, especially from the Eraserhead era. (Reeves herself mentions Eraserhead in a recent Guardian conversation with Jenni Olson.) The dark liquidity of Shadows also brings lesbian experimental filmmaker Su Friedrich to mind.

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Perhaps only in Vancouver would a mid-afternoon weekday screening of Lutz Dammbeck's documentary The Net -- recently brought to DVD by Craig Baldwin and Other Cinema Digital -- draw an audience of 150 or so people. 150 people who found out Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was a lab rat for government LSD experiments during his youth. For its interviews alone (especially an amazing conversation with cybernetician Heinz von Foerster), Dammbeck's movie is extraordinary, and I really hope to write about its macro-micro zooms at greater length in the near future. Some random questions off the top of my head: what do Kaczynski and Valerie Solanas have in common, and how do surviving East and West Coast counterculture figures differ today? By no means is Dammbeck seduced by Kaczynski (to use an overwrought comparison, their distant dance has a Silence of the Lambs-like quality), but when the director sits down with one of the Unabomber's high profile (and high income) victims he uncovers an ideology even dodgier and quite possibly more damaging to the world.

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The same "global" connectivity that Dammbeck critically traces gets many layers of raver gloss in Ashim Ahluwalia's John & Jane, a cool study of six call-centre workers in India who spend most of their waking hours on the phone adopting American accents (and identities) to sell products to red-staters in the U.S. Ahluwalia's movie has a great subject, and it is handsomely lensed. It's also at least a bit staged and dramatized, though not necessarily as insightfully as, say, Hany Abu Assad's Ford Transit. In both its good looks and its reliance on voice-over married to moody atmosphere and editing, John & Jane fits in with a new breed of stylish political commentary docs, perhaps led James Longley's Iraq in Fragments. The jury is still out...

Next: marathon perversity and penance, all within my VIFF weekend report.

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