Diversity plays a big part in this year’s Vancouver Women in Film Festival, which runs from March 4 to 6 at the Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour Street). The event features a new Aboriginal Film Showcase, as well as notable films starring or directed by members of visible minorities. In “TORA”, a short film about the Japanese-Canadian internment, environmentalist David Suzuki stars in his first acting role, while feature film The Neighbor puts the spotlight on Iranian immigrant women in North Vancouver.
Festival director Roslyn Muir says the lineup was both a result of both coincidence and an effort to include viewpoints often neglected in mainstream movies.
"We really wanted to showcase more aboriginal films this year, so we asked [Métis-Cree director] Barb Hager to put together a program, and then we just happened to get these great films like The Neighbor," she says. "There’s such a diverse population in Canada now, and we wanted our films to reflect this."
By phone from New York City, Neighbor director Naghmeh Shirkhan mentions that she wanted to make an “accurate portrayal” of Iranian women living in the West.
“I wanted to show what happens when they go through the upheaval of displacement,” she says. “There’s a lot of baggage, and I don’t feel contemporary films about Iranian women have come close to talking about this.”
The Neighbor candidly depicts the bond between a middle-aged dancer and a restless young mother who leaves her small daughter unattended while she pursues an affair. Shirkhan says the film, starring local mother and daughter Azita Sahebjam and Tara Nazemi, was generally well-received, but that some viewers found it “hard to watch”.
“We have an Asian sensibility; we have to save face,” Shirkhan explains. “The film is like a voyeur watching these women, and a lot of Iranians would rather see something a bit more glamorizing.”
Shirkhan understands the obstacles faced by women in the film industry, recalling the disapproval of her film-school professors when she was studying to be a director. “They said, ”˜Don’t you want to get married and have children? That doesn’t go hand in hand with production,’” she says with a laugh, adding that her husband looked after her two children while she was making the film.
The director’s tone of can-do defiance is echoed in other movies in the festival. One of the must-see docs, Leave Them Laughing, chronicles the last years of comedian (and native Vancouverite) Carla Zilbersmith, who died last May of amytrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Even as the disease steals her motor skills, she refuses to let it dampen her humour, as she jokingly talks about her “fuck-it list” (men she’d like to sleep with before she dies) and how ALS stands for “always looking sexy”. Meanwhile, in Sisters in Arms, director Beth Freeman interviews women in the Canadian military facing combat in Afghanistan. In the festival’s opening film, Danishka Esterhazy’s Black Field, a pair of sisters in 1870s Manitoba are torn apart when a seductive French-Canadian imposes himself on their isolated farm.
“In a lot of mainstream movies directed by men, women tend to be relegated to a side role of wife or girlfriend,” says Muir. “In reality, they have many adventurous experiences, and you’ll get to see that in our films.”