Canada International Film and Television Festival Awards opening ceremony

A couple weeks ago on November 6, I was lucky enough to attend the opening ceremony for the 2nd annual Canada International Film and Television Festival, held November 6 to November 8, 2015. This was a kickoff for a couple days of deliberation, which culminated in the final awards ceremony.

Canadian Senator Yonah Martin attended, and presented one of the prizes. You can see more on her website. The winners are listed here. You can see the truly international aspect of the festival from winners such as the actor Mr. Debebe Retta, whom I believe to be Ethiopian.

This posh event, held at the Marriott hotel in Richmond, was a pleasant and elegant reprieve on that very wet, dark night. After the opening remarks (mostly in English, but also in Mandarin) from several distinguished participants, including the mayor of Richmond and several internationally known members of the film industry, we partook of the delicious and well-presented hors d’oeuvres (not to mention wine).

Actor Jill Jaress was one of the speakers, and she talked about how she had maintained a career for herself as she became older and was called less often. She took on directing, producing, and scriptwriting. Her largest production is 1 Nighter, a romantic comedy for which she directed, produced, wrote, and acted (co-starring with her real-life boyfriend and Golden Globe nominee Timothy Bottoms).

(Jill Jaress speaking at CIFTA. Photo credit Raymond Chou)

I cannot find a press release for the 2015 version of this event, but this one for the 2014 event is accurate in its description. “One of the main goals of this Festival is to establish an interactive platform for film enthusiasts from both Eastern and Western cultures, and to promote the advantages of the Vancouver film industry.”

Let’s step back a bit and think about films (and television shows too, but I did feel there was an emphasis on films at this presentation). In Vancouver, and in most vibrant, multicultural cities, hearing a mix of languages in a typical day is unremarkable. If you are not multilingual (I struggle to be bilingual myself), just ask someone you know from Malaysia, India, or the Netherlands how many languages he or she speaks–I’ll bet a minimum of four. But even given the reality of a mixed linguistic landscape, many times films try to be all one language or culture (which admittedly is appropriate in some cases, but definitely not all).  The mandate of this festival, which looks at films from all around the world, is to encourage multiculturalism in film. Multicultural does not have to mean multilingual, but in many cases it will. Indeed, I have seen that a number of films at the Vancouver International Film Festival do use several languages, as that is what makes sense when the story moves through different locations and cultures.

I’m looking forward to Year 3! Here are a couple more pictures (photo credit Raymond Chou).


Review: Agnes of God, PAL Theatre until Nov. 29

“Agnes of God” opens with a backdrop that clearly suggests a religious and austere setting, with a beauty and light that are quite striking.

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The three women in this play are attired in contrasting clothing: Mother Miriam Ruth in a standard black nun’s garb, the psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone in a brown pants suit that exemplifies 1980s power-dressing, and the young novice Agnes, dressed in white robes that suggest her purity and innocence. The clean lines of the set and the wardrobe color palette are some details that really enhance the play.


Although I knew the play featured Agnes and the mysterious birth and death of a newborn, I did not know the details of the plot. You may have seen the 1980s-era film featuring Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, and Meg Tilly, but I have not.

Agnes is a 21-year-old novice (meaning she is a relatively new resident who lives a nun’s life but has not yet taken her vows) with a mysterious past.

A ghastly scene involving Agnes on the ground, passed out from lack of blood, with a baby in the wastepaper basket under the bed, is described. Livingstone is the court-appointed psychiatrist with her own history of loss and trauma, who is far from a disinterested observer. Mother Miriam Ruth is not too interested in getting at the truth, and seeks desperately to stop the inquiries, but is she doing this to protect Agnes, or for some other reason?

As I was watching the play, I could not help but wonder what would happen now if a Mother Superior insisted on attending her novice’s psychiatric sessions, and if the psychiatrist freely shared what she had learned from Agnes with the Mother Superior. Rules were looser during the time the play was set in the 1980s, but I doubt this play should be taken as a legal guide in any event. According to Wikipedia, the play was inspired by a real-life case involving a 36-year-old nun with a somewhat similar story of concealed pregnancy.

All three women in the play have different experiences of femininity and womanhood, but all relate to womanhood through the prism of their Catholic upbringings, even when this has been discarded, as with Livingstone.

It’s hard to say much without spoilers, so I will stop here. But I will say that Annie Arbuckle, who plays Agnes, has a wonderfully lovely voice singing Latin songs. In contemplative orders, to which the nuns belong in this play, nuns often had choirs where their voices could be heard only from behind a screen. That may even still be true in a few places.

Whether or not you are a Catholic (I am not), the themes of this play are universal for anyone concerned with the plight of girls and women. The acting is compelling, and I was more drawn into the mystery than I expected.


A night at the salon: Global Civic Policy Salon, October 28

I liken the Global Civic Policy Salons to a tasting menu at a high-quality, innovative restaurant. Each course is well-prepared, and some are exactly to your taste, but the other courses are still intriguing and fun.

The salon follows a format of seven minutes per speaker. It is always astonishing how much can be said in that time with a well-prepared speaker.

At the October 28 salon, I was particularly taken by Alexander Weimann on the harpsichord. In seven minutes, he not only explained how and why he had moved to Canada, and eventually Vancouver, in his dual roles with Early Music Vancouver and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, but performed a couple of beautiful pieces on a lovely harpsichord. I am constantly encouraging people to take advantage of the great cultural opportunities Vancouver offers, rather than pining and complaining about what it does not. The music that Weimann brings to Vancouver is top-quality, and we are very lucky to have his talent in our city. I strongly recommend you look up the Early Music Vancouver schedule and attend a concert.

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Sam Sullivan, who with his partner Lynn Zanatta, pioneered this salon format which originated from personal dinner parties they gave, said that he specifically tries to avoid themes when selecting speakers, but that themes always emerge. That phenomenon was clear when we heard both from Judy Graves, a tireless and well-spoken advocate for the homeless in Vancouver, and from Bob Rennie, better known as “the condo king”. Graves reminded us how the homeless crisis has mushroomed, how we never used to see homeless people hanging around downtown, because just about everyone, save for a very few, could somehow find some room somewhere. Things have changed fundamentally, for various reasons. She urged us to consider the plight of a homeless person stuck in the rain, with wet socks and shoes. The average homeless person loses 20-30 years of life expectancy. Graves often tried to find shelter spots for homeless people, and did not always succeed. For such a complex subject in seven minutes, Graves masterfully led us through the current situation, how it got this way, and what the consequences are.


In a way, I thought Bob Rennie was brave to speak after Graves, knowing that many people blame him for the current high prices of real estate in Vancouver, and see him as an evil force of gentrification, which I consider to be a gross oversimplification. But Rennie did not mention that, nor talk about condos. Rennie was there to talk about the art he has collected, including some explosive American photographic images that make very serious points about gun violence. Rennie has a public art gallery in the Wing Sang building (which he has renovated), and is Chair of the Tate North American Acquisitions Committee (have you ever been to the Tate Modern in London — if not, go!).

Another speaker, Daniel Kalla, focused on how to have a dual career, in his case as an emergency-room physician and as a fiction author (it’s interesting that Rennie also has a dual career of sorts as an art collector and condo developer). The key, as one might expect, is not to waste time on frivolous pursuits. Kalla claims to be lazy, but his literary output suggests otherwise. It is true that emergency room physicians do have the benefit of strictly defined shifts, but that just means they have what approximates to a 40-hour work week. I am always trying to balance my cultural pursuits with my need to stay current in my technical field (which I also really enjoy), so I can relate somewhat.

Corey Ashworth talked about his campaign to help LGBT seniors who have been forced by circumstances to go back into the closet. How can this be, in 2015? Sometimes they have to rely on people who are not accepting of who they are. Take a look at Ashworth’s March Sweater Project:

Nicole Bridger spoke about the importance of fashion with a conscience, and the sadness of recently closing her Vancouver factory, although she hopes to develop some other approaches to this problem. Kevin Chong sounds like a very interesting author, and Dale McClanaghan offered us the promise of a Granville Island with a lot more creative spaces, once Emily Carr University makes the move to east Vancouver.

For the $20 ticket price, you will rarely find such a stimulating and diverse set of ideas in one evening. Not to mention, the evening started with the folk duo “No Mothers” playing some fun music. Sign up so you can be sure of finding out about the next salon in a few months time.

Review: The Incomplete Folksinger (Firehall Theatre, until November 14)

A skilled actor can sustain an illusion, and make us believe. That’s what I found compelling about Mark Hellman’s one-man show where he plays Pete Seeger, complete with banjo and guitar and his own voice. When Hellman came back on the stage for a Q&A after the show, it was clear just how well he had sustained the illusion. I could hear and see Seeger in Hellman’s performance (I have seen many Seeger performances on YouTube and elsewhere), but with Hellman on the stage as himself, it was clear just how remarkable a transformation it was.

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The show takes us through Seeger narrating his life, using material from Seeger’s 1972 600-page biography, The Incompleat Folksinger.  Seeger died in 2014 at the age of 94, so this book is still far from the complete story of Seeger’s life.

As a huge Pete Seeger and folk music fan, I loved this show. But my companion, whose tastes are somewhat different, still enjoyed the show as well. The play is not just about Pete Seeger, but about politics, folk music preservation, fascinating events in American history, and finding the courage to constantly be fighting for what you think is right.

Seeger started his career as a would-be journalist during the Great Depression, and could not help but notice all of the suffering. Soon he met Guthrie, perhaps his most influential collaborator. It was Guthrie who got Seeger out to explore the width and breadth of America, starting with a car Guthrie had not yet paid for, and continuing with riding the freight trains. In the aftermath of a 1949 concert with African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson, Seeger and his family were the victims of an orchestrated Ku Klux Klan attack where stones were hurled at his vehicle as they attempted to drive away.

Seeger was threatened many times for his political activism. He was in Mississippi when the bodies of three civil-rights workers were found in 1963. He was continually being prevented from appearing on television, although sometimes succeeding too. The infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) tried to force Seeger to incriminate his friends. He waged a difficult legal battle, and fought criminal charges for refusing to speak, but ultimately prevailed. What Hellman did not dwell on, and what might be Seeger’s greatest error, was his initial support of Stalin, which lasted over a period of years, and was eventually admitted by Seeger to be an error.

All through this, Hellman would take up the banjo or guitar as appropriate, and sing another Pete Seeger song, or a song that Seeger had popularized. One of my favorites is “Lonesome Valley” (which a little online research indicates is a gospel song that predated both Seeger and Guthrie), but was popularized by both. I don’t have a video of Hellman, but here is Seeger singing it with Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo:

The Q&A was fun. Hellman discussed the difficult process of winnowing down the 600-page autobiography to a single night’s performance. Hellman said there was more than enough material for another show. An audience member pointed out that Bob Dylan was omitted, as well as the notorious electric guitar controversy at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but as Hellman pointed out, the book only discussed Dylan as a songwriter, and thus, to winnow the material down, the decision was made to exclude him.

I asked about when Seeger started singing Spanish-language songs. Seeger is well-known for his Guantanamera and De Colores covers, but I was unaware that Seeger’s love for Spanish-language music included a love of Spanish Civil War songs. I researched a bit, and found a 1940s-era album featuring Seeger and other folk singers, titled Songs of the Spanish Civil War: Volume 1.

Here is Pete Seeger singing one of these songs in 1993 (with translations provided by his singer grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who I have been fortunate enough to see perform in both New York and the Vancouver Folk Festival):

Pete Seeger did not seek out fame or fortune. He lived modestly, in a home he had built himself. Even into his 90s, he continued his political activism, through song and otherwise. Among the things I find interesting about Pete Seeger is how he combined his own creative genius with those of so many who came before and after him, and how he worked with others on the causes he found so important, including cleaning up the Hudson River.