Festival flits around the world in 41 films

10+4 (Iran) Mania Akbari's episodic sequel to Abbas Kiarostami's dashboard confessional 10 also has plenty of references to her recent VIFF offering, 20 Fingers. Here, though, she's bald from real-life chemotherapy. Her philosophical conversations with friends and family in cars are talky and full of insights, from Akbari's candid thoughts about viewing her disease as an "experience" to the way her bald head confounds an Iranian society that demands she cover her hair. Granville 7, September 28 (12:30 p.m.); Ridge, September 30 (4 p.m.); Granville 7, October 2 (9:45 p.m.) > Janet Smith

ALICE'S HOUSE (Brazil) A subtly powerful central performance by Carla Ribas as a seemingly tough-as-nails manicurist anchors the story of a working-class family falling apart in a dingy part of Sí£o Paulo. Alice's older sons are hustling for survival–Mom is almost too blind for housework and her cab-driving husband is having it off with a neighbour–but, recalling the deus ex machina spa lady in The Women, her gossip time at the salon is both her sanctuary and her undoing. The characters' ordinariness makes the drama quietly subversive. Pacific Cinémathí¨que, September 28 (11 a.m.); Granville 7, October 5 (6:40 p.m.) and October 8 (noon) > Ken Eisner

ANITA O'DAY: THE LIFE OF A JAZZ SINGER (USA) Anita O'Day has long been considered a jazz singer's singer, but this exemplary doc makes the case that the vocalist (who died last year, still swinging) belongs in the top tier along with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Certainly she was the only white female performer on that level, and the many clips here will show even the uninitiated that her improvisational skills and innate musicality were beyond categorization. Granville 7, October 3 (1:30 p.m.) and October 6 (6 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 10 (3:45 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

ARMIN (Croatia) The story is small but the payoff sizable when a gruff Bosnian drags his lumpy, sullen 14-year-old son to Zagreb to play accordion for a German film crew shooting a feature about the '90s Balkan war. While the dad throws money around and tries too hard in general, the boy displays some steely reserve, as well as some psychological damage not easily spotted at the start. The film subtly shifts your take on the main characters and remarkably underplays the drama at the very end. Granville 7, September 29 (7:15 p.m.) and October 1 (3:30 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

BAD HABITS (Mexico) Eating disorders have never had such dreamy, philosophical treatment as in this film, which artfully intertwines food obsessions with sex, religion, and family. An anorexic, upper-class mother bullies her daughter about overindulging; her husband lusts after a gluttonous young student; and a nun scarfs garbage for others' sins. Their stories are set against a Mexico City looking gorgeously gloomy, with biblical-scale rains cascading against modernist windows and leaking into dank nunneries. Granville 7, October 3 (11:30 a.m.) and October 10 (9:45 p.m.) >Janet Smith

BALLERINA (France) Few documentaries have captured the excruciating discipline of ballet as successfully as this portrait of the Mariinski Theatre (formerly known as the Kirov). As you watch instructors stretching prepubescent students like licorice whips, adjudicators speaking about the exacting requirements for body types, and endless Edgar Degas–like dancers floating across St. Petersburg's most ornate stage and rehearsal halls, the impression is of an art form as transcendent as it is fetishistic. Vancity Theatre, September 28 (8 p.m.); Pacific Cinémathí¨que, September 29 (11 a.m.); Granville 7, October 7 (10 a.m.) >Janet Smith

BEAUFORT (Israel) The Israeli soldiers who occupy a crusader castle that the Israel Defense Forces have used as an observation post for the past 18 years rarely stray far from its battlements. Nevertheless, this platoon feels a sense of failure and doom as it prepares to pull out of Southern Lebanon in Joseph Cedar's stark drama. Whatever the long-term political ramifications of their frequently bloody efforts, these guys know that they didn't win, despite what their generals might say. Granville 7, September 29 (9 p.m.), September 30 (9 p.m.), and October 1 (1 p.m.) > Mark Harris

EL BENNY (Cuba) This colourful dramatization of the tempestuous life of mambo king Benny Moré skirts the usual biopic sins: he's just too hung up on booze and women to keep his career on track. Although the time structure seems unnecessary, Renny Arozarena is a charismatic focal point, and the many band and rehearsal scenes–in pre-revolutionary Cuba and dingier parts of Mexico–give you a real sense of how Afro-Cuban music evolved. El Cantante it ain't. Granville 7, September 27 (2:30 p.m.) and September 30 (6:40 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

BLACK WHITE + GRAY: A PORTRAIT OF SAM WAGSTAFF AND ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (USA) His lover Robert Mapplethorpe got all the hype, but this doc makes a convincing argument that Sam Wagstaff had an even bigger impact on the cultural scene. The WASPy opposite of his partner, the upper-crust New Yorker was one of the first major collectors of photography and helped give it credibility in the art world. Interviews with the likes of pal Patti Smith shade in the fascinating contradictions of the man, but photography fans will be left wanting more on the works Wagstaff had such a gift for finding. Pacific Cinémathí¨que, September 28 (4:30 p.m.); Granville 7, October 3 (7 p.m.) and October 5 (12:30 p.m.) >Janet Smith

THE CHAMPAGNE SPY (Germany/Israel) "Espionage isn't a profession; it's an art form." So said an Israeli Mossad agent who left his young son with his mother in Paris in 1961 before leaving for Nasser's Egypt, where he masqueraded as a former Nazi in order to befriend German rocket scientists. Nadav Schirman's ambling doc doesn't always convey the complexity of this true case, but you can see how this could become an exciting feature film–which is exactly what is in the works. The jazzy score ups the cool factor throughout. Granville 7, October 6 (8:45 p.m.), October 7 (12:30 p.m.), and October 11 (10:30 a.m.) > Ken Eisner

DANS LA VILLE DE SYLVIA/UNAS FOTOS EN LA CIUDAD DEL SYLVIA (France/Spain) These two bookend movies are extraordinarily odd–they look as if they were shot through the eyes of the protagonist, a lonely artist who returns to a picturesque French city in order to find the woman of his dreams. Director José Luis Guerin makes both films look ravishing, even if his romantic hero does sometimes behave like a nonviolent stalker. Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 2 (9 p.m.) and October 3 (3:30 p.m.) >Mark Harris

DAUGHTERS OF WISDOM (USA) Set against Tibet's pastoral landscapes, Daughters at first seems like a beautifully shot portrait of a curiosity: an entire Buddhist nunnery in a country where almost all devotees are monks. However, the wry observations of its subjects gently reveal their chosen path as a sort of feminism in a poverty-wracked society where wives do much of the hard labour. Granville 7, September 29 (10:30 a.m.), October 4 (6 p.m.), and October 6 (3:30 p.m.) >Janet Smith

ELIJAH (Canada) A Harper who was good for Canada? Bill Merasty has an understated grace as Elijah Harper, a Cree politician from Manitoba who scuttled the Meech Lake Accord and Brian Mulroney's career with it. It looks made for TV, and some of the writing is punishingly didactic, but the material is so interesting, especially when enhanced by old footage and cheeky animation. This is a rare mainstream movie that captures Native humour. Granville 7, October 5 (7:15 p.m.) and Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 8 (1:30 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

EMPTIES (Czech Republic) The Sveráks are back! Eleven years after Czech director Jan and his writer-father, Zdenek, gave us the Oscar-winning Kolya, they have reteamed for this even more cannily crafted delight. A love letter to Prague at its unprettiest, the film stars Sverák senior as a newly retired schoolteacher who, crankily gravitating toward menial professions, finds the perfect spot, recycling bottles at a local grocery store, where he can get entangled with the lives of the locals. Meanwhile, his long-suffering wife (the marvellous Daniela Kolárová) wonders when he will drop his horndog fantasies and notice her. Extra points to fans who spot the Kolya joke about halfway in. Granville 7, October 3 (7 p.m.) and October 6 (4 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

A FATHER'S MUSIC (Germany) One of several German films at the festival examining distant family relationships, Igor Heitzmann's documentary digs into what happened when his father, the famous conductor Otmar Suitner, chose to perfect his career in East Germany rather than leave his other wife there and join Igor's mother in the West. Somehow, until he retired fairly recently, Suitner managed to keep both marriages going, and this situation's unpredictability–along with some very fine performances captured in archival footage–keeps the tale compelling. Granville 7, September 27 (4:15 p.m.) and October 4 (7:20 p.m.); Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 12 (11 a.m.) > Ken Eisner

FISH DREAMS (Brazil/Russia/USA) A superficial and annoyingly naive portrait of a small Bahian village, in which a young fisherman gives up his future to please a fickle young beauty who–frankly, my dear–doesn't seem to give a damn about him. Russian-born director Kirill Mikhanovsky has an interesting documentary feel when he focuses on the plight of the local fisher folk, who are struggling to get organized in the face of diminished stocks and mounting costs, but he strains for fablelike quality, and the central romance is dull. Granville 7, September 29 (11 a.m.), October 4 (7:15 p.m.), and October 11 (10 a.m.) > Ken Eisner

FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN (Denmark/USA) The intimate meets the epic and the personal the political in Jennifer Fox's six-hour, three-year, nonfiction video diary. Her journey is as infuriating as it is fascinating, as Fox overanalyzes her own struggles with her biological clock and string of noncommital relationships, then plays them off the experiences of women in places ranging from Lahore to Calcutta to Moscow. The premise begins with a tight focus on her New York world, where the 42-year-old is juggling two long-distance open relationships–one with a married man. Her unique approach is to hand off one of her digital cameras to her friends and family, so we get to sit in on the back-and-forth chats about marriage, babies, and men. But stick around for the second half of her quest, where she racks up the air miles: she speaks directly to women who have suffered everything from genital mutilation to being beaten for not having sex with their husbands. Fox's problems look trivial next to those of the women she meets around the globe, but she reels you in with a new level of film intimacy. One small sample: explaining female masturbation to a group of South Asian women who don't even have a word for the act. Part 1: Granville 7, October 1 (4 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 9 (10:45 a.m.). Part 2: Granville 7, October 1, (8 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 9 (3 p.m.) >Janet Smith

FORBIDDEN LIE$ (Australia) Norma Khouri, author of a notorious faked account of a Jordanian "honour killing", is so devious that she makes Clifford Irving look like Diogenes. Or at least that's how she comes across in this gleefully relentless look into her life and work. As the author tries to talk her way out of one inconsistency after another, you gradually realize that some parts of what she says must be true. But which? Trying to figure it out makes this documentary more entertaining than 99 percent of fictional detective stories. Granville 7, September 27 (6:15 p.m.), September 30 (8:45 p.m.), and October 5 (3:30 p.m.) >Mark Harris

FOSTER CHILD (Philippines) A rare slice of slum life is revealed as director Brillante Mendoza darts a hand-held camera past dingy ditches into crowded ramshackle huts. In one of them, a family is fostering a toddler for a last few days before handing him off to rich Americans. The look is rough cinéma vérité, but the message is complex: the community comes off as so supportive and loving that you'll wonder if the child will be better or worse off abroad. Granville 7, September 30 (6:30 p.m.) and October 1 (noon) >Janet Smith

LA FRANCE (France) In many respects, this is an ordinary antiwar drama about a young wife (Sylvie Testud) who disguises herself as a boy in order to find her missing husband on the Western Front in 1917. But in one key area, it's like nothing you have ever seen before. Whenever music is used, director Serge Bozon blurs the line between naturalism and surrealism (not to mention MGM musical illogic and Brechtian agitprop) so successfully that you can only marvel in stunned admiration. Pacific Cinémathí¨que, September 27 (11 a.m.); Granville 7, September 30 (9 p.m.) and October 2 (2 p.m.) >Mark Harris

GARAGE (Ireland) Much of the best 20th-century Irish literature is devoted to poor devils dealing with prevailing sexual and social poverty in the more benighted rural villages. Josie (Pat Shortt) is a 21st-century cinematic chip off that old literary block, but this latter-day loser knows there's a more sophisticated world out there, a world where he couldn't possibly survive. This chunky gas-station attendant with a bad hip must depend upon a vulnerable and limited habitat like a giant panda, an animal that he resembles. Granville 7, October 2 (4:15 p.m.), October 7 (6:20 p.m.), and October 9 (4:15 p.m.) >Mark Harris

GETTING HOME (China) Not really a Chinese Weekend at Bernie's, as a quick plot description suggests. For one thing, you won't find a fest character you like better than the 50-ish city worker played straight by comic Zhao Benshan. This lovable sad sack is saddled with the body of his dead pal, whom he promised to cart back to their faraway home village in the flood-happy area of the Three Gorges Dam project. Writer-director Zhang Yang (Shower and Spicy Love Soup) doesn't mind exaggerating for effect, but this wide-ranging road movie introduces so many wonderful and sometimes awful people along the way–not to mention breathtaking views and darkly absurdist moments–that you're always glad you came along for the ride. Ridge, September 28 (7 p.m.); Granville 7, October 4 (1 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

GREAT WORLD OF SOUND (USA) One of the best films in the fest, containing the kind of street-level wisdom we want from indie cinema, GWOS is named after a travelling "company" that gets struggling would-be musicians to pay for demos that will obviously go nowhere. Craig Zobel's film centres on Pat Healy and Kene Holliday as a gentle grad-student type and a wised-up older black man who team up to become "producers" on the road, each taking very different lessons from the experience. This is the kind of low-key gem Jim Jarmusch wishes he could make. Granville 7, September 29 (9:15 p.m.), October 2 (12:30 p.m.), and October 6 (noon) > Ken Eisner

THE HOME SONG STORIES (Australia) Armed with slender cigarette holders and glam cheongsams, Joan Chen is unforgettable as a fading Chinese lounge singer who carts her two children around Australia from boyfriend to boyfriend. Steely, impulsive, yet nurturing, she's remembered from the point of view of her son. It's stylishly shot with vivid '60s and '70s details that are undercut by the darkness of one woman's descent and the loneliness of adapting to a strange land. Granville 7, October 6 (7 p.m.) and October 7 (1 p.m.) >Janet Smith

IMPORT EXPORT (Austria/France) Ulrich Seidl is one of his homeland's better-known "I hate Austria" film artists. In Import Export, however, he broadens his dyspeptic vision to incorporate the crumbling ruins of the former Warsaw Pact. Essentially, this is a double odyssey. The first involves a Ukrainian nurse attempting to better her lot in the West; the second concerns the self-discovery experienced by an Austrian wastrel when he follows his truck-driving stepfather from one decaying post-Soviet apartment block to the next. Disturbing, yes, but convincing and brilliantly told. Van ­city Theatre, September 27 (9:30 p.m.); Granville 7, October 3 (9 p.m.) and October 4 (11:30 a.m.) >Mark Harris

IN MEMORY OF MYSELF (Italy) If Robert Bresson had reshot Last Year at Marienbad within the walls of a Venetian monastery, the end result would look pretty much like In Memory of Myself. The struggles of three would-be priests with the issues of faith is dealt with almost entirely by midnight walks, lingering stares, and spontaneous homilies. Ritualized to the point of obsession, it's still fascinating. Granville 7, September 28 (3 p.m.) and September 29 (7 p.m.) >Mark Harris

IN SEARCH OF MOZART (U.K.) A cacophony of talking heads doesn't entirely bury the brilliance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's music in Phil Grabsky's collection of great performances, chats of varying value, and pointless travel photography. Narrated by Juliet Stevenson, the film tries to cover the highlights of Mozart's life, but the best insights come from top musicians and conductors talking about, and demonstrating, favourite details from the composer's best work. It's a 128-minute reduction of a series made for European TV, so expect a few bumps, such as wondering why we need to watch people in jeans talking on cellphones in modern-day Vienna, Rome, and Salzburg. Granville 7, October 1 (6:45 p.m.) and October 3 (3:30 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

ISKA'S JOURNEY (Hungary) Brace yourself for a bleak, brutally affecting bite of Romanian postcommunist squalor. Iska is a 12-year-old girl who survives with other children by rummaging through slag heaps for scrap metal. Her attempt to escape her plight takes her on a journey from rough mining mess halls to corrupt orphanages to an even darker circle of hell. What makes the almost apocalyptic landscape bearable is that it's all seen through the eyes of this odd but oddly likable girl-boy (played by Mária Varga, whose own life has mirrored what's on-screen). Granville 7, September 30 (2:30 p.m.) and October 2 (6:40 p.m.) >Janet Smith

THE MATSUGANE POTSHOT AFFAIR (Japan) This tongue-in-cheek "true story" is like a black Italian farce, where all the characters are criminals, perverts, moral imbeciles, cretinous cat's paws, or some combination of the above. Things turn sour after a hit-and-run incident in an isolated mountain town. An absolute delight if you're in a misanthropic, bloody-minded mood. Pacific Cinémathí¨que, September 28 (9:15 p.m.); Granville 7, September 30 (11 a.m.) and October 3 (noon) >Mark Harris

MISCHIEF NIGHT (U.K.) There's no poverty like U.K. poverty, and the working-class scamps and tramps of Leeds don't need much excuse to mix it up. Troublemakers of various ethnic castes get ready for a raucous annual Friday-night do that has repercussions for hard-bitten mum Tina (Kelli Hollis) and her family, already the subject of two other funky films from British-TV writer-director Penny Woolcock. The end is a bit sketchy, but Mischief Night satisfies. Granville 7, October 2 (7:15 p.m.); Ridge, October 7 (4 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

THE MISSING STAR (Italy) Gianni Amelio's Lamerica was about two Italian con men who try to take advantage of freshly liberated, but hopelessly impoverished, Albania. His The Missing Star, conversely, is about an unemployed Italian safety inspector (Sergio Castellitto) who goes to China to search for a faulty blast furnace that originally served the steel mill in which he worked for many years. Postindustrial Europe meets laissez faire Maoism in a surprising, thought-provoking, and strangely beautiful work from Italy's top contemporary director. Ridge, October 1 (9 p.m.); Granville 7, October 5 (11:30 a.m.) and October 8 (6:40 p.m.) >Mark Harris

MY WINNIPEG (Canada) Although this film does contain some archival footage and purports to be the life story of Guy Maddin, Canada's most phantasmagoric cineaste, it is every bit as whacked out as Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and all the other weird masterpieces created by Manitoba's most gifted son. Fetishized buildings (swimming pools, department stores, and hockey rinks) drift in and out of the consciousness of a train-borne narrator who can neither seem to keep awake nor get out of town. If the world was really like this, we wouldn't need to dream. Granville 7, October 1 (3 p.m.) and October 3 (6:20 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 11 (9:30 p.m.) >Mark Harris

NOMADAK TX (Spain) The two Basque drummers followed in this beautifully recorded and shot documentary have a unique approach to touring: they make their large-scale percussion oddity out of local materials wherever they go. Their marimbalike instrument–the TX is short for txalaparta–requires a pair of dedicated players. After working with carved ice in Arctic Finland and desert stones in Morocco, they are joined by local musicians for songs of uplifting spontaneity and heart-racing rhythm. Granville 7, October 2 (10 a.m.), October 5 (3 p.m.), and October 10 (9:15 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

ON THE RUMBA RIVER (France) Fans of Buena Vista Social Club must drag their friends to this spectacularly colourful and intimate look at Papa Wendo Kolosoy, an elder statesman of African music who has touched on every type of sound out of his native Congo. The film is by France's Jacques Sarasin, who did a similar countrywide journey with the late Ali Farka Touré in I'll Sing for You and is here even more assured in an almost unnarrated, breathlessly cinematic tour, which finds Kolosoy unearthing old friends and wonderful songs everywhere he goes. His wife isn't always happy about it, though”¦ Granville 7, October 4 (1:30 p.m.) and October 9 (9:30 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

SCOTT WALKER: 30 CENTURY MAN (U.K.) Scott Walker may be the most interesting pop superstar you've never heard of. While he remained part of the hit-making Walker Brothers, the transplanted Midwesterner was momentarily treated by the U.K. press as a rival to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. More interested in a unique Rimbaud-meets–Phil Spector sound, the mop-topped baritone dropped out, creating increasingly obscure albums and movie soundtracks at roughly two a decade. This fascinating meta-doc, executive-produced by David Bowie, contains zero biographical data but profoundly dissects the influence that Walker (also present on-screen) had on modernists like Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Sting, and members of Radiohead, all of whom make lucid and insightful comments about a mysterious artist who often elicits more admiration than pleasure. Granville 7, September 30 (6:20 p.m.), October 2 (11:30 a.m.), and October 11 (4:15 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

SEACHD: THE INACCESSIBLE PINNACLE (Scotland) When was the last time you saw a contemporary feature where all the characters spoke in Gaelic and all the narrative conventions were those of a traditional oral storyteller? If you never have or it's been a while, you should definitely see Seachd. Granville 7, September 28 (2 p.m.), October 9 (6:20 p.m.), and October 10 (1 p.m.) >Mark Harris

TWO EMBRACES (Mexico) The construct of Enrique Begne's film is sentimental, with both parts involving a key scene of”¦ Well, you guessed it. But the relationship at the centre of each is unique and involving, and both act as microcosms for Mexico City's massive societal growing pains. In one, a troubled student falls for a tough cashier at the local supermarket. In the second half, serendipity leads a poor cab driver to spend one long night in the chichi apartment of a rich fare, where he runs into the man's troubled daughter. The stories are also stylishly atmospheric, with plenty of grimy, tiled exteriors and tangled overpasses in the first, and a claustrophobically dark, upscale den in the second. Granville 7, September 28 (4:15 p.m.), October 7 (7 p.m.), and October 12 (noon) >Janet Smith

VACATION (Germany) A subtly troubling story that recalls 2006's Summer '04, although this tale is even less dramatic. Different generations of a middle-class family meet and don't quite come together at a rustic home in the former East Germany. The Tin Drum's Angela Winkler plays the linchpin mom, who has grown bored with rural life and doesn't quite connect with her dying mother, laid-back second husband, her two daughters, or the couple's much younger son, who has brought his teenage girlfriend along for the summer. Nothing happens but life, but somehow this is enough in this quiet winner. Granville 7, October 1 (4:15 p.m.) and October 9 (7 p.m.) > Ken Eisner

VANAJA (India/USA) Despite eye-candy tableaux and dance numbers, this is a provocative offering amid the Bollywood wonderland. A 15-year-old lower-class village girl who dreams of becoming a dancer is sold into servitude, then abused by a wealthy member of the mansion. The film shocks with rape, caste oppression, and out-of-wedlock births, although the age of the girl, and the way she tries to manipulate her way out of her mess, is sometimes as off-putting as it is subversive. Granville 7, October 2 (9:30 p.m.) and October 4 (2 p.m.); Ridge, October 6 (7 p.m.) >Janet Smith

WAR/DANCE (USA) Watching children give accounts of unimaginable violence is difficult, but as one of them says: "If we don't tell it, no one will know." The tales of child soldiers, massacres, and rape in northern Uganda are little known here. Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine set the orphans' stories–shot in extreme close-ups–against a happier present: the young members of a refugee camp are practising for a national music and dance competition. This documentary pays vivid homage to the once-idyllic pastures where the children were born, but its real draw is the beauty of their performances rising out of such horror. Granville 7, September 28 (3:30 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, October 2 (10:45 a.m.); Pacific Cinémathí¨que, October 4 (9 p.m.) >Janet Smith

YOU TOLD ME, YOU LOVE ME (Germany) The title is taken from the novel eventually written by an eccentric young man who comes, almost by chance, to change the life of a 60-year-old ex-swimmer (the unforgettable Hannelore Elsner) who has become disgusted by overly comfortable solitude. This poetic film's observations of food, sex, art, and the ineffable aspects of family are novelistic and also unpredictable. Pacific Cinémathí¨que, September 30 (4:30 p.m.); Granville 7, October 5 (9 p.m.) and October 7 (2:30 p.m.) > Ken Eisner