When I left Vancouver in 2011 after a blissful few festival months in this intriguing Canadian city, I always hoped I would be back sometime for the Vancouver Writers Festival
. This year I did it! It was another excellent festival year with exciting authors from Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland and a few other countries. I was on the “Walk a Writer” team, which was a great experience. One or two of us would meet with the authors and moderator of a particular event at the hotel, take them over to their venue, help out with book signings and then help them find their way back if required.
My first event was already a real highlight. The topic was “Writing back to the Self” and the pieces read by each of the writers as well as the discussion led by moderator Andreas Schroeder were fascinating and moving. Do look all of them up, each of the books sounded truly fabulous: Eve Joseph
, Alison Pick
, Kathleen Winter
and Michael Pond
The following day I got to meet two of my favourite historical fiction authors, Sarah Waters
and Emma Donoghue
. It was also good to hear that Irish director Lenny Abrahamson is currently filming “Room” (based on Emma’s previous novel) in Toronto and will be working on a film adaptation of Sarah’s “Little Stranger” next. The group of writers I looked after later was equally fascinating. Christos Tsiolkas
, Dionne Brand
, Thomas King
and Lee Maracle
discussed cultural belonging or a lack thereof and its implications.
On the last festival day I worked on one more event, “The Life and Times” with Emma Donoghue
, David Homel
and Jane Smiley
. It was another intriguing session, this time revolving around the intersection of history and fiction. After a scrumptious lunch at the Granville island market, I went to one more event, “The Tie That Binds” in the Improv Theatre. Writers Angie Abdou
, Nancy Lee
, Richard Wagemese
and Rudy Wiebe
each read excerpts from their latest work, which all centred around more or less tricky family relationships.
To describe my festival experience as mind-blowing might seem a bit far-fetched, but thanks to the clever questions of the moderators and the willingness of pretty much all the festival guests to share some very personal thoughts and stories, it did leave me extremely impressed; most of all by the amazing resilience of human beings and the ability of the festival writers to capture the many facets of the human experience in such a captivating way. You could do much worse than picking up any book by any of the above authors.
I made it to Montreal (aka Leonard Cohen worshipping central) a few days after the Montreal World Film Festival had started and hadn’t heard back from anyone regarding volunteering yet. So as soon as I’d checked into my accommodation I picked up a festival programme and went down to the Cartier Latin for my first doc screening of the week. I chatted a bit with the venue coordinator outside and through her got in touch with the volunteeer coordinator. Luckily he didn’t mind taking on an extra person and so on day two in Montreal I started my first official shift as a ‘pillow volunteer’.
My job was to hand out free pillows for people to sit on during the outdoor screenings on Place des Arts. The pillows, or ‘coussins’ in French, were sponsored by Loto Quebec and people were borrowing them for the screening and then returning them afterwards (at least that was the idea, they were so cool looking though, I’m sure we ‘lost’ a few every night). On the first night I was working with a guy called Charles, who lived nearby and whose wife always came to see the films with him. Once I’d learned the basic vocabulary like telling people to bring the pillows back afterwards everything went swimmingly. On the second night I started recognising returning audience members and some would come up and chat with us or would ask about the films.
It’s funny, when I was a student I worked on a strawberry field in Bavaria for a summer and before I started there, I could have never imagined how interesting this job would end up being. But it was. Pillow volunteering was a bit the same. Some interesting patterns started to emerge right from the start. There was a man who turned up every night. He was middle aged, had a beard and always a friendly smile on his face. He was usually one of the first people to arrive and would routinely plae his chair right in the centre in front of the screen and would then wait patiently for the movie to start. Then there were the families, little kids excitedly accepting the colourful pillows from me waving them around or using them as frisbies. And those who wanted a pillow of a particular colour. They were the ones I insisted on reminding that they were only borrowing them and had to return them afterwards. Some still wanted a red pillow instead of, say, a white one, as sitting on a red pillow would somehow be a better experience than sitting on a pillow of another colour?? I know, I didn’t get it either!
When I wasn’t handing out and collecting pillows I got to see a few more films, mainly documentaries of course. At some of the screenings the directors were present to answer questions from the audience after the film. I had never really thought about this much until recently but at every Q&A there seemed to be at least one person asking some sort of unusual, unrelated, unnecessary or plain stupid question. It was like they felt compelled to put up their hand and say something random like ‘During the whatever scene why was the male character sitting in a whatever car and why did he not take the bus instead?’ Some directors were kind of taken aback by that sort of thing and would go ‘ehem, well, you know…’ and then launch into some kind of explanation. Some others were obviously more prepared for it and graciously responded with ‘Thank you, you know that’s a good question. Next question?’ I mean, seriously, you worked very, very hard on a film for a long long time to tell the most amazing story and then all someone asks is ‘What was the title of the song at the end?’. Grrr.
I was very impressed with some films, like the German-Kenyan co-production Soul Boy, which had been produced with local film students and was thoroughly enjoyable and very well made. Other films, such as Nigatu: A Dream of Running, had theoretically a good story (a portray of a marathon runner trying to make it in the international race circuit) but seemed kind of static, just scraping the surface of what was happening and not revealing enough of the emotions of the characters involved. The first public screening of Japanese doc ‘Dancing Chaplin’ surprised me in a positive way on the other hand and was a lot more moving than I thought it would be. All in all I’ve had a really interesting couple of days here, love experiencing a new place ‘through’ a festival, makes it always twice as exciting.
Posted in Film Festival Reviews
Tagged canada, dancing chaplin, dreaming nicaragua, film festival, leonard cohen, montreal, montreal festival des films du monde, montreal world film festival, nigatu, place des arts, quebec, soul boy