Vancouver, British Columbia--
Befitting its location in one of the more tranquil cities on the planet (even the cabdrivers are fond of touting the low crime rates), the Vancouver International Film Festival has got to be the most humane of such events--and this I say objectively, regardless of having been one of the festival's many invited guests. (Really.) As opposed to the round-the-clock reeling that one endures at, say, Cannes or Sundance, screenings here never begin before 10:00 in the morning or after 10:00 at night; and if there's something you've missed on the big screen, a well-stocked "videotheque" in the fest's hotel headquarters provides tapes and makeshift viewing booths. And it isn't all about movies here: In a telling case of counterprogramming, a complimentary three-hour boat tour of the Pacific Rim was scheduled opposite a screening of Wong Kar-Wai's masterpiece In the Mood For Love. Alas, it takes a lot less than three hours at sea to make this reviewer feel queasy, so I passed. But such was the hospitality in Vancouver that I felt, forgive the expression, almost famous.
Speaking of almost-blockbusters, the total absence of American studio product at this festival is very much to its credit. (When you're loving Hollywood 365 days a year, it's nice to take a few days off.) Indeed, it's this absence that partly explains the enthusiasm Vancouver must bring to courting critics and filmmakers while distinguishing itself from the flashier Canadian competition. (Fests in Montreal and Toronto occur only weeks before.) Across a schedule of more than 200 features this year, the closest the 19-year-old VIFF came to accommodating the mass audience was screening Lars von Trier's proven crowdpleaser Dancer in the Dark and Ang Lee's irresistible martial-arts blowout Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, both well-circulated at fall fests--and must-see films. The latter aptly played as part of Vancouver's "Dragons & Tigers" sidebar devoted to East Asian fare, a seven-year-old VIFF tradition made even more worthy this year through the presence of those Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, and Iranian films that collectively signaled the "year of Asian cinema" at Cannes back in May.
But, at least for me, the VIFF's most distinguishing quality was its sizable collection of documentaries during a season when nonfiction films are exceedingly scarce at other fests. Even better, many of these were strongly critical works (a.k.a. "biased" or "leftist") that one couldn't imagine screening on PBS or even at the purportedly p.c. Sundance--proving that Vancouver is a lot further from the U.S. border than it appears on the map.
Trade Off, for instance, is a galvanizing digital-video document of the WTO protests in Seattle, much of it shot in "You are there!" style from within the "trenches" (tear gas and rubber bullets taking the place of mortar fire), and distinctly from the perspective of anti-trade activists of all stripes. (This, according to director Shaya Mercer, is PBS's reason for having passed on it.) Like a number of the docs in Vancouver, Trade Off is notable for exposing the mainstream media's own biases and omissions while turning the camera on some underexposed extroverts--including, in this case, the goofy freelance organizer-cum-MC Mike Dolan, the rabble-rousing Jello Biafra, and the Big One of media lefties, Michael Moore (not to be confused with the identically named, South African-born head of the WTO, whose appearances here are rarely if ever flattering).
Trade Off's thesis that those in power will stop at nothing to increase their fortunes was driven home in Vancouver again and again. Gary Marcuse's Nuclear Dynamite, for example, is a straight-faced Canadian doc about ludicrous Cold War efforts by American and Soviet scientists--very nearly realized--to use nuclear explosions "to reshape the land for your pleasure." A "new" Panama Canal? No problem--and never mind the fallout. An instantly manufactured Alaskan harbor? Push the button and say your prayers. In present-day interviews, the hydrogen bomb's octogenarian co-inventor Edward Teller, who spearheaded the "planetary engineering" outfit known as Project Plowshare through the late Eighties, comes off mainly as a petulant kid who just can't wait to shoot off his firecrackers.
Similarly horrifying, Hidden Wars of Desert Storm (one of four Gulf War docs at the fest) briskly details how the Bush administration got what it wanted by provoking a war with Iraq and then prolonging it through economic sanctions to the point of genocide. That this familiar yet well-organized and infuriating material couldn't possibly make it onto American network TV where it belongs is evident throughout, not least in the doc's use of Madeleine Albright's notorious statement--recorded by 60 Minutes but withheld from broadcast--that the decimation of at least half a million Iraqi children "may have been worth it."
And yet nothing in Hidden Wars is as incendiary as the mildest moment in Uncle Saddam, a shockingly satirical and obscenely funny doc written by Kids in the Hall's class clown Scott Thompson and composed largely of backstage, Saddam Unplugged footage spirited out of Baghdad through unknown channels. "Uncle Saddam," as he's known to the children of his way-overworked interior designer, is clearly a troubled soul: The first thing we learn about him here is that his mother tried to have him aborted. This fact may or may not account for the sundry and hilarious pathologies on display in Uncle Saddam: the deep-seated fear of germs, the fishing trips with hand grenades (he seems to catch and clean his family members by similar means), the uncontrollable fetish for lace wallpaper.
In any case, the filmmaking nearly matches its subject in audacity: Director Joël Soler's savage editing strategies provoke the guiltiest laughter only to slap the smile off your face with images of maimed and starving Iraqi youth. I saw Uncle Saddam, but I can't quite believe I saw it. Backed by a profoundly inappropriate soundtrack of Middle Eastern-flavored techno, it's the documentary equivalent of The Producers' "Springtime For Hitler" sequence, and it makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye look like The Sorrow and the Pity.