Local candidates schooled in silver screen

Commercial Drive's Van East Cinema was packed on the night of November 10. Alarm Clocks Kill Dreams, Vancouver mayoral candidate Ben West's film documenting the Work Less Party in May's provincial election, kept the dreadlock-and-funky-hat crowd riveted to their seats in one of Vancouver's last neighbourhood movie theatres, even though the film was about as much an action-adventure as My Dinner With Andre.

Before the 80-minute movie: a speech from Green school-board candidate Andrea Reimer (delivered by a friend); a speech against the expansion of Highway 1; and an introduction to West.

You couldn't ask for more effective propaganda for an idea, and a political party. For two hours, the Work Less Party's primary message of working less, consuming less, and living more drifted through the dark theatre like the smells of popcorn and patchouli.

"We were just shooting stuff through the [provincial] campaign," West told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, noting that he finished editing the film just in time for the municipal election. "No matter what happened, we wanted to have an impact. Hopefully, we'll get young people interested in politics again and make it accessible and exciting."

That's what all of Vancouver's municipal parties want: young people. Alarm Clocks Kill Dreams, with its $46 budget, attracted a crowd with an average age of about 30. That's pretty darn young by municipal-election standards. No other party made its own film to attract this kind of crowd.

Instead, election budgets seem to have gone to posters, TV ads, radio spots, buttons, and offices. Yawn. To give credit, though, COPE's two full-house screenings of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price at the Pacific Cinémathí¨que on November 13 shows the party understands the power of feature film for political change.

Clearly, so does West, 27, who is a filmmaker. Normally, he shoots everything from promotional videos to beer commercials. This was his first feature-length project.

West isn't the only mayoral candidate with a background in film, although he is the only one to make a film to promote his party. Of Vancouver's 96 candidates for mayor, council, school board, and park board, at least seven of them have a strong background in the film industry.

Although City Hall, the park board, and the school board aren't normally considered hotbeds of film-industry politics, all three of them have a surprising influence on films-Hollywood, indigenous, independent, and student-in this city. City Hall's film office deals with permits, and council sets zoning and taxes for theatres and studios. The park board regulates filming in parks, and the school board does the same thing for schools. Plus, schools offer more and more film programs.

Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate Jim Green actually lived in his New York City film school circa 1967 and 1968. He immigrated to Vancouver with the idea that he was going to leave behind his Brooklyn social-work career and be a filmmaker.

As a city councillor, he told the Straight in a phone interview, he has "met with the film industry continuously". Green also said he has lobbied the province to get rid of the PST to stimulate the industry. "I think we should do everything we can in helping the arts to get the funding they need," he stated.

Green hasn't committed, though, to how he'll vote on whether publicly funded buildings can post the names of private donors on their buildings, such as the Vancity Theatre at the new Vancouver International Film Centre.

NPA city council candidate Colleen Hardwick Nystedt is the only candidate with an endorsement from the Motion Picture Production Industry Association of British Columbia. She owns New City Films, a coproduction film company she runs from her Kits Point home.

"Vancouver has to be competitive and user-friendly," she told the Straight in a Kitsilano coffeehouse, but she doesn't think the trucks and lights should be able to overrun the city. "It bothers me that the film industry thinks it can snap its fingers and anything can happen. I come from the location side of things. I'm used to dealing with the public and understanding their concerns."

Fellow NPA city-council candidate Elizabeth Ball began as a film actor in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. After she came to Vancouver, she established the Arts Club Theatre School, then helped to start Carousel Theatre and the Carousel Theatre School, launching dozens of young local actors into careers in film.

"We need more writers moving into film," she said. "What are we doing for writers at the civic level? I'd like to see a city program for individual artists; we don't have one now."

Roadblocks to a booming film industry in Vancouver, she said, are taxes and the difficulty in working with some locations. An education program for the city, she said, would help build understanding between citizens and the industry.

Another NPA city-council candidate with film experience, but from a very different angle, is Patrick Maliha, a "professional film reviewer" on Shaw TV's Urban Rush. He is also an independent-film actor and a standup comic. But take him seriously: he believes that arts groups should have free rein to recognize their sponsors with signage.

"We've finally figured out how to get private money for the arts, and now the city might say, 'Oh, you can't do that,'" he said on the phone. "We should allow the arts to use their creativity to get money so they can be around for the long haul."

COPE park-board commissioner candidate Spencer Herbert worked for years as a film "background performer". His big-time moment: he is the guy standing next to Brad Pitt in one scene of Legends of the Fall. But, more seriously, he makes films for multimedia performance and he produces theatre.

Vancouver's parks are used constantly by the film industry, Herbert said, and he claims he is "an advocate for the film industry but also for neighbours who go, 'Damn those trucks!'" Herbert claimed that if he becomes a commissioner, he wants to open the parks to more uses, including to the film industry.

COPE school-board-trustee incumbent candidate Kevin Millsip worked his way around the industry. Indy-film star, minor character in two 21 Jump Street episodes, production assistant, and now trustee negotiating with the industry, Millsip said he's committed both to increasing film education in Vancouver schools and to negotiating appropriate film-industry usage of the schools.

Revenue from school rentals goes to both the individual schools and the school board.

"I'm not opposed to schools being used for film and TV," Millsip told the Straight. "But the key would be to have them not disrupt education. That's what we need to be thoughtful about." Millsip also said acting training, as all the film candidates have, is a great background for politics.

"A good actor is a good listener," he said.

With all candidates hoping to attract young voters, it's surprising that more political parties didn't use the city's theatres as a venue for campaigning through feature film. After West's example of how it can be done, though, and with so many candidates across the political spectrum with a background in the industry, perhaps by the time our federal election rolls around Hollywood will have to compete with the Liberals, NDP, Greens, Conservatives, and the Bloc to get a screen in Vancouver.