VIFF embarks on odysseys in music

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      "With music, you can keep on dreaming." So says Quique Cruz in Archeology of Memory: Villa Grimaldi, one of numerous movies about music as inspiration and guiding light at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

      The Chilean-born guitarist and composer was pursuing his craft, with a sideline of the mild youth activism then popular in his country, when Salvador Allende was elected president. After the U.S.–backed coup in 1973, in which Allende died, Cruz—also known as Claudio Duran—was arrested and sent to the once-genteel location of the title. There he was beaten and tortured before being shipped out of the country—never to return, he thought.

      "You have to be a kind of archaeologist to find and tell your story," he offers later in the impressionistic film, which he codirected with American Marilyn Mulford. After a time in Vancouver (where he will return for this fest), he found his now jazz-tinged art was pulling him back to Chile, and the movie (screening September 26 and 27 and October 9) documents his bittersweet return.

      In more austere fashion, Sí¼den follows the arrival in his native Argentina, after 50 years away, of composer Mauricio Kagel. He got in trouble for writing antifascist—although playful—pieces, and then moved to Germany, where he also felt the tug of his childhood influences, as seen (September 26 and 28 and October 5) in this entertaining collaboration with a group of new-music players in Buenos Aires.

      Modern sounds travel to Indonesia in Teak Leaves at the Temples (October 4 and 8), in which a trio of European and American free-jazzers jam with folk and pop musicians and dancers in unique and highly visual rural settings. And classical music wanders far afield in the handsomely shot Trip to Asia: The Quest for Harmony (September 28 and 29), which follows Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on a tour of major cities. The emphasis is on the younger musicians, whose time with the orchestra is fraught with high-school–like anxieties.

      A Chinese pianist is the focus of The Young Romantic (September 26 and 27 and October 3). Made by Canada’s Barbara Willis Sweete, this fascinating documentary traces the origins of spectacular up-and-comer Yundi Li (his mom used to whack his fingers with knitting needles if he hit bum notes) while travelling with him on a Chopin-centric concert tour.

      An even breezier journey is found in Talking Guitars, which follows master luthier and restorer Flip Scipio on his house calls, taking him into the homes and studios of client pals like Paul Simon, David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Carly Simon, and Jackson Browne. The film’s writer, director, and cinematographer is Claire Pijman, who usually lenses for other people’s projects.

      She met Scipio while wielding a camera for Wim Wenders on 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club, and some ideas took shape. "Ry Cooder had hired him to look after the instruments belonging to the Cubans, because they were not in very good shape," says the VIFF–bound Pijman, in English, on the line from her home in Holland.

      She was captivated by the way her fellow Amsterdammer related to people and their guitars and pitched him the notion of a film on how he works. He was embarrassed by the idea of approaching his high-profile regulars.

      "Eventually, he relented, and what we found was that these artists were really delighted to talk about Flip and his work. I mean," she adds with a laugh, "these guys really like talking about guitars."

      The film (October 5, 7, and 10) offers performances from people, like Leni Stern, who’ve bought Scipio’s designs, plus fleeting visits from occasional clients, like Keith Richards. It was an arduous labour of love for Pijman. "When I first met Flip, I was single. And by the time we finished shooting, I was married and had three children."

      Other features focus on voyages of discovery by musicians. In the deeply moving Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée (September 29 and 30), the famous Senegalese singer travels from Africa to the southern U.S. and back, retracing the harsh steps of forced servitude and picking up musicians at various removes from that disaster.

      An even more intimate voyage, Throw Down Your Heart (September 26 and 27 and October 6) follows banjo master Béla Fleck on a life-changing trek across Africa. His beloved instrument was invented in Africa, inspiration for the lute and guitar. The peripatetic effort was directed by Sascha Paladino, Fleck’s much younger half-brother.

      "This project, like a short we did earlier, gave us a chance to really get to know each other," explains the director on the line from Los Angeles. On a conference extension, calling from Minneapolis, is Fleck himself. "This came about," the banjo wiz adds, "because I was getting a little bored with the way I was approaching music. Quite frankly, I never expected to do so well in my career, especially with this odd instrument, and in the last few years I’ve been feeling like it’s been coming a little too easily."

      After his label, Sony Classical, agreed to fund the trip—also suggesting that Paladino direct the footage—a corporate shakeup pulled the plug. Fleck ended up paying for the five-week journey, producing a multi-artist CD in the process.

      Happenings along the way, in four far-flung nations, included collaborations with rustic villagers, such as blind kalimba player Anania Ngoliga, and slick professionals, like singer Oumou Sangare. Fortunately, Fleck continues to bring a banjo on his knee even to locations as nonexotic as Vancouver, where he and Paladino will attend screenings.

      A different sort of journey started here, when writer Ryan Knighton realized he was losing his eyesight. With a glimmer of daylight left, he travelled to a small town in Germany to hear the performance of a John Cage piece intended to be played for a mere six centuries. The goal? To hear the changing of one pitch to another on a massive church organ—an event not to be repeated for a few years.

      B.C. filmmaker Scott Smith followed him, and the resulting film, named after the composition, is called As Slow As Possible (October 4 and 6).

      "I think I started with his situation of letting go of an old identity while still waiting for a new one," says Smith on the line from his Vancouver home. "But I have to add that both of us were keenly interested in simply experiencing the change of a note. I think he was hoping that in that experience he might find something that would help him in his own gradual change."

      When told of this event, Fleck is fascinated.

      "You know," ponders the banjo man, "everything in this universe is made of vibrations—from the spinning of the planets to striking a drum skin generates them. Mathematically, musical impulses can be infinitely divided, and if we slow them down, they can become so slow they are inaudible to the human ear—but they are still there."

      What of the impulse to travel, seeking out sounds and experiences for personal transformation?

      "I’m very wary of making proclamations about any kind of changes a journey like this can bring about," Fleck concludes soberly. "I don’t know if this trip fundamentally changed me in any way and may not know for some time. I can only take what I encountered and try to apply it in some way. I learned a lot from editing the footage, of course. And the most important thing, I guess, is that you should never wear shorts on-camera."