Reel 2 Real film fest for youth finds virtue in the virtual

In its 20th year, R2R negotiates the tricky space between media and reality

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      In High Fantasy, one of the harder-hitting films getting their West Coast premiere at the 20th annual Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth, four South African teens find themselves transported Freaky Friday–style into one another’s bodies. No goofball comedy, High Fantasy instead explores unsettling questions about class, race, and gender with a depth and seriousness that you simply wouldn’t have seen when Venay Felton started the festival two decades ago.

      “We’ve always tackled big questions, but I think we have access to a wider choice of better-quality films from around the world than ever before,” says the founder in a call to the Georgia Straight. “We didn’t have films as inclusive as we do this year.”

      Indeed, among the full-length titles coming to the 2018 edition of R2R, Naoko Yamada’s animated feature A Silent Voice concerns a high-school student forced to reckon with the abuse he heaped on a deaf student years previously. In Cloudboy, a Belgian 12-year-old confronts his own largely denied Sami heritage. And in the widely acclaimed, U.S.–made Princess Cyd—getting its Canadian theatrical premiere—a queer teen explores painful family issues with her reluctant aunt.

      Among the short-film programs—divided into categories that include Indigenous stories, works by young filmmakers, and specific themes such as bullying—we find the topics of anxiety (“Nadine”), war/migration (“Rupture”), and wealth disparity (“The Glass Pearl”).

      Watch the trailer for Cloudboy.

      It’s heady stuff for young minds, in other words, and it’s to R2R’s great credit that the festival remains so responsive to both an increased “global awareness” among youths and the pressures that come with proliferating technological savvy and media saturation. But do parents or educators ever object to some of the content Felton and her colleagues bring to the kids’ table?

      “Some parents will approach us afterwards and say, ‘That was too traumatic for the children,’ ” answers the executive director, “and I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, to be upset by something that’s challenging to deal with. What I’m hoping is that it inspires conversation on those difficult topics. And there’s a certain line that we draw when we select the films. It is still from a child’s point of view.”

      The festival is also sensitive to specific age groups. “There are very few complaints and it’s usually when, say, a three-year-old has attended a film that we’ve recommended for an eight-year-old,” continues Felton. “That happens. Which is not to say that a three-year-old can’t necessarily handle the subject, ’cause I think they really just want answers to their questions, not necessarily to be protected from reality.”

      Speaking of which: among the festival’s usual array of conferences, activities, and filmmaking workshops—not to mention the traditional opening-day pancake breakfast—this year’s R2R introduces an impressive virtual-reality component into the mix.

      Spread across a variety of programs, titles include Maria Lantin’s “I Am Afraid”, in which words and sounds become mutable objects inside 3-D space, and “theBlu: Whale Experience”, which had Sundance attendees buzzing in 2016 thanks to its up-close-and-personal encounter with an 80-foot cetacean. There are also a handful of typically inspired NFB efforts, director Theodore Ushev’s animated linocut gem “Blind Vaysha” among them. Here, the viewer is placed inside the titular character’s metaphysically fraught head, with the future visible in one eye, and the past in the other.

      Watch the trailer for Blind Vaysha.

      Again, Felton and her colleagues are simply keeping a bead on the evolution of technology and storytelling, but how do we feel about such a comprehensively immersive medium at a time when it’s already difficult enough to tear our kids away from their 2-D screens?

      “Well, that’s a whole other problem,” answers Felton with a laugh. “I know there’s a lot more discussion of limits among the young people I work with. Screen time and not allowing it when they’re really little—that’s a growing awareness and a conversation. I think really what you want to do is give your kids the tools to be critical of the media, not just to be swept up by it and have it be all-consuming.”

      As it happens, R2R is also ready with a more practical answer to these concerns. Next Thursday (April 12), media educator Tash King brings an interactive presentation to the festival called Digital Literacy: The Power of Speech, designed to help young citizens of the 21st century find their way through the ubiquitous assaults of “fake news”, disinformation, and propaganda.

      There are, no doubt, more than a few parents and teachers who’d also appreciate some help pulling the signal from all that noise.

      The Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth takes place at the Vancity Theatre and the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Sunday (April 8) to April 14. More information is at the Reel 2 Real website.

      Watch the trailer for Princess Cyd.