VIFF 2016: Vancouver International Film Festival picks for animal lovers and pet owners

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      With so much to choose from, there are numerous opportunities within the Vancouver International Film Festival's film selection to create your own mini film series program by selecting titles about one specific topic.

      Here's an example, with a list of films all about animals or pets—from wolves to turtles.

      For cat lovers, there's Kedi, a documentary about the cats of Istanbul and the people who love them, as well as She's Allergic to Cats—who can resist watching an attempt to make all-feline remake of Carrie?

      Elsewhere, Prison Dogs goes to the dogs—it's an American documentary about how canines can help people find the power to change and have a shot at a second chance in life.

      For the birds (and the bird-brained, as in those who love thinking about birds): Czech Republic's Lost in Munich, in which a 90-year-old parrot sparks an international incident, and Portugal's The Orinthologist, about a birdwatcher who stumbles into two Chinese pilgrims.

      In the mix, there are also rats and bugs (yes, they are pets too, although in the films listed below, they're viewed in other capacities...).

      The list below features synopses taken from the VIFF website. For full screening details, visit the VIFF website for up-to-date information.


      Bugs (Denmark)

      You may prefer to just take these intrepid culinary enthusiasts at their word, but certain insects are ambrosial when eaten fresh. Visiting is a fabulous way to open your mind to new possibilities, and so is this jaw-dropping film. What makes it so much fun is that our globetrotting guides—Ben and Josh—are as good at talking (and thinking) as they are at eating.

      You know the scoop. The world food supply is dwindling and we need to explore other means of feeding ourselves. But as our adventurous young Scottish chef Ben Read says, “Everyone has been making a lot of hype about insects and sustainability and most of that hype is crap.” So, Ben teamed up with researcher Josh Evans and Roberto Flore, who moved from Sardinia to become head cook at Nordic Food Lab. The lab, established by Rene Redzepi in 2008, is on a barge in Copenhagen harbour, just across the water from Redzepi’s Noma, the world’s top-rated restaurant. Its mission is to explore the potential of ancient native grains, berries, mosses, seaweeds and insects to create new flavours and products. Its non-profit status is one reason all of the research—jointly funded by the Danish Government, independent foundations and private companies—is disseminated to the rest of the world for free.

      Ben and Josh’s mission: travel the world to research indigenous food traditions that have successfully utilized sustainable local insects. Their voyage takes them to Italy, Kenya, Uganda, Australia, Mexico, Peru, the Netherlands, Japan, Switzerland and Norway. Bugs brings us along to many an incredible sight (and sound!), and it shares with us not only vivid culinary descriptions but a contagious joie de vivre. (Interesting to know: Josh, a Yale University graduate, the Nordic Food Lab’s lead researcher and the manager of the project “Discerning Taste: Deliciousness as an Argument for Entomophagy,” was born on Vancouver Island.)

      Kedi (Turkey/USA/Germany)

      Here’s an absorbing cat’s-eye view of the colours, textures and pace of modern Istanbul. Cats have long been a cultural and often ceremonial mainstay in many parts of the world. In this particular city, the self-reliant animals have lived freely since before the Ottoman Empire. Yet, their existence is deeply intertwined with the lives of their human counterparts, who see themselves as guardians, rather than owners, of their four-legged friends.

      The word “kedi” literally translates as “cat,” and in Turkish culture it’s understood that caring for these animals is a social and religious obligation. Ceyda Torun’s delectable film uses specially crafted camera rigs, and an extreme measure of observational patience, to capture all of the hard-to-reach places where cats go. There’s an estimated ratio of one-cat-per-person in Istanbul and, if Kedi is any indication, not one has ever gone unloved. However, Turkish cats are faced with the same problems of gentrification and loss of green space that most major cities’ inhabitants are experiencing.

      If the majestic whiskers don’t inspire curiosity about this ancient Eurasian city, the beauty of the cityscapes and the remarkable photography will!

      Lost in Munich

      Lost in Munich (Ztraceni v Mnichově) (Czech Republic)

      It’s rare indeed to come across a film that is very original, delightfully entertaining, fast-paced and of broad historical import, but that is what Petr Zelenka (remember the hilarious Buttoners in VIFF 98 and Wrong Side Up in VIFF 05?) has fashioned here.

      When a 90-year-old French parrot that once belonged to Édouard Daladier—the French prime minister who signed the 1938 Munich Agreement granting Hitler much of Czechoslovakia—is brought to Prague in 2008, it begins reciting some of Daladier’s, shall we say, less diplomatic statements regarding the Czech people. In the midst of the kerfuffle this causes, a reporter kidnaps the parrot, sparking a full-blown diplomatic row between the Czech Republic and France.

      But wait! Cut to the present, when we realize that the parrot incident was part of a fiction film, the making of which was being chronicled by a documentary crew. And so Zelenka brilliantly switches gears to mock-documentary mode, as part two charts the dysfunctional feature’s collapse to hugely entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking effect (think Truffaut’s Day for Night)…

      The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo) (Portugal)

      In majestic northeastern Portugal, solitary ornithologist Fernando (the body of Paul Hamy, the voice of director João Pedro Rodrigues) kayaks along a river peering through binoculars in search of rare birds. Distracted, he is caught in the rapids and ends up being saved by two Chinese pilgrims, lost on their way to Santiago de Compostela. This is not good. Eventually extricating himself from the women, Fernando forges his own path, and the further he ventures into the forest, the moreThe Ornithologist morphs into an exploration of the realm of fantasy, as Fernando undergoes a series of extreme masochistic trials on the road to spiritual enlightenment in this mythopoetic Western-inflected wilderness.

      This Birdman’s journey comes to echo that of Anthony of Padua, Portugal’s most beloved saint. Indeed, the director litters his film with religious iconography and artistic references. But Rodrigues’ blasphemous exploration of the transformative process of religious awakening, through a serious of wild—at times sexual—adventures focusing on the pleasure and the pain of the body is a modern film, in line with Godard’s Hail Mary or Buñuel’s The Milky Way. A trained ornithologist himself, Rodrigues has made what is likely his most personal film since O Fantasma and the fascinating The Ornithologist launches his filmography into new territory.

      Prison Dogs

      Prison Dogs (USA)

      A beacon of light in the dark nightmare that is the American prison system, “Puppies Behind Bars” is a remarkable program that sees hardened New York convicts raise and train service dogs for up to three years. Living with the puppies 24/7, the inmates teach the dogs 99 commands, after which the canines go on to help war veterans with PTSD. Co-directors Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir have crafted a film that explores the power of the bond between humans and animals, and the gift of a second chance, while seeking to answer the question of how to make prison a true place of rehabilitation.

      In the bleak setting of New York’s sprawling Fishkill Correctional Facility, the inmates, often serving long sentences for crimes that haunt them, struggle daily to find a way to pay their debts to society. The “Puppies Behind Bars” program offers them a chance. Encompassing 18 months, Prison Dogs chronicles five prisoners and the five puppies they are entrusted to train, and shows the struggles of the inmates as they cope with the pressure and the difficulties of a prison setting. In the end, saying goodbye proves the hardest task of all… A story of love, loss, rehabilitation and redemption, Prison Dogs is a true testament to the fact that rehabilitation is possible for those society deems impossible to save.

      Rat Film

      Rat Film (USA)

      What can we learn about a society from the way that it treats its lowest echelons, both in terms of humans and animals? In Baltimore, Maryland, the endlessly fascinating city perhaps best known for John Waters and The Wire (and remember these cultural totems in relation to this film), the catastrophic failures of urban society are explored via the humble brown Norway rat, dirty pest to man but also an ideal subject for experimental study—not to mention food for snakes. Theo Anthony’s warped essay film traverses a doomed century of gradually institutionalized racism with the boundaries of Baltimore, literally mapping an alternative history of the city through its many, many rodents and those who hate them, love them (perhaps a bit too much) and love to hate them—when you’re unemployed, you might as well bide your time by devising ways of hunting down rats with air guns and fishing poles baited with peanut butter-coated turkey slices.

      Overflowing with detail, Rat Film incorporates augmented reality, an on-the-job ride with a street-philosophizing exemplar of the Baltimore City Rat Rubout Program, scientific debates, miniature crime-scene dioramas and a barrage of enthralling history lessons. Recalling the work of Harun Farocki, Anthony’s sensational debut feature pleasurably pinballs around its subject, creating an ecological portrait of a ruined city that just might be best suited for demolition.

      The Red Turtle

      The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) (Netherlands/France/Japan)  

      Studio Ghibli fans can rejoice at the arrival of Michael Dudok De Wit’s sumptuousThe Red Turtle, an exciting harbinger of the wonders that the animation house’s post-Miyazaki era might hold. Produced and drawn by the hands that crafted  Spirited Away, De Wit’s ode to the cycle of life is a collaborative effort that is guided by sublime directorial vision.

      The Red Turtle feels like it has been a part of oral histories for millennia. The reference points for this wordless fable are vast and universal but ultimately it hinges on love and family. A Robinson Crusoe-like man, a speck in a large vista, swims to a remote island alone. There’s not a soul in sight but birds and turtles punctuate the sky and sand. A woman is spawned from nature’s erosion (almost as if she was being spawned from a single rib). Soon, they welcome a family to their Edenic existence.

      An amalgamation of ancient Eastern tales and the Genesis narrative, The Red Turtle has the scope of a Greek myth and the captivating power of a hymn. With Ghibli’s impressionistic tableaux and Dudok De Wit’s traditional influences, this tender, intimate film emerges as an instant classic that deserves to be worshipped on the big-screen.

      Seasons (Les saisons) (France)

      The makers of Winged Migration and Oceans are back. Four years in the making, this eco-minded spectacle portrays the natural history of Europe’s lands from the end of the Ice Age up to now. Directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud use seasons as a framing device to explore the animals and habitats of the continent, as well as their history. The movie was shot in the wilds, and, in its breadth and richness of detail, it conveys the sense of a massive undertaking even as it displays a rare grace.

      This is film about creatures great and small—including humans. In the present-day environment, the natural world exists at our mercy, and Perrin and Cluzaud show a love for nature that includes concern for its well-being. Above all, though, the film is a celebration of beauty. Shooting both on land and from the sky, the filmmakers retain their sense of wonder in depicting land animals and their environment. They’ve crafted a work not just for nature lovers but for anyone who has ever been taken aback by the sight of a magnificent beast or cast an admiring eye over a natural vista—meaning, of course, that the film is for everyone.

      She's Allergic to Cats

      She's Allergic to Cats (USA)

      Funded by his work as a Daft Punk body double, former dog groomer/video artist Michael Reich's certifiably demented debut is the tale of Hollywood dog groomer/video artist Michael Pinkney (Michael Pinkney) harbouring big-screen ambitions: an all-cat remake of Carrie. Berated by his best friend (YouTube star Flula Borg) and mortified by the plague of rats that’s been visited on his squalid apartment, Michael habitually drifts from his disintegrating reality into a fever dream that mimics his garish, lo-fi video work. (Be sure to bring a hanky as you may very well experience some occasional bleeding from the eyes.)

      When Cora (Sonja Kinski) walks into his dog salon one day, Michael suddenly dares to dream that life might offer more than trimming terriers' nails. But while he may’ve found someone who’ll take his story of Howard the Duck-inspired sexual confusion in stride, it doesn’t mean that his odyssey won't veer into still more surreal territory. Be warned: as a 10-minute crescendo of cacophonous sound and degraded visuals turns the silver screen fluorescent, you might just find yourself fighting the nostalgic urge to adjust the tracking.

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