Vancouver Short Film Festival celebrates immigrants’ stories

The 11th annual Vancouver Short Film Festival, dubbed “watching together, staying apart” this year, opens Jan. 22. There are 61 features to discover from emerging and established Canadian West Coast movie and animation artists.

As is the Festival’s practice, several titles celebrate Vancouver’s diverse communities and the theme of identity. Frequently omitted in stories about Greater Vancouver’s Asian immigrants are individuals who have arrived seeking a different life. Similarly, there are stories of how separate groups can be intertwined and thrive together. Two titles address this gap.

A-Yi tells the true story of an unlikely friendship, forged without a common language, between a group of East Van twenty-year-olds and an elderly Chinese woman. Yarlung is about identity and memory and how to bridge the gaps and collisions between different generations and worlds.

Stressing the benefits of respectful curiosity

A-Yi is a Cantonese word for aunty and a more appropriate address to refer to the elderly. The mute relationship began when A-Yi was collecting cans in the back alley of the house where director Martyna Czaplak lived with her roommates. It moved on to A-Yi establishing her own “can depot” under their deck, and then to taking over their garden. In the process, A-Yi not only occupied spaces around the house but also filled their hearts.

“Anyone who has ever met A-Yi will attest to it when I say that A-Yi is an absolute ray of sunshine,” recalls Czaplak. “She is extremely hard working and resilient, positive and patient, always smiling and ready to share her knowledge of gardening through a variety of gestures.”

Even though all translation attempts via apps failed, Czaplak and her roommates “felt an instant affection for her and coexisted together without having to think about it at all – it was the purest form of friendship any of (them) had ever experienced.”

Czaplak used traditional Chinese shadow puppetry to recount “A-Yi’s story of where she came from and how she got to Vancouver” not having “any other materials to show from her past.”

The climax comes when the remaining roommates have a translated sit-down conversation with her. Throughout the documentary, kindness and respect emanate from these East Van residents toward the subject. But it is most evident during the scene when they act and talk with a mix of shyness and obvious excitement to finally learn more about her. The tone of the conversation embodies the overall film: charming, poignant, and funny. At one point one of the characters describes A-Yi as an “uplifting” personality. This can be said about the entire story and how one might feel after seeing it.

Scene from Yarlung. | Photo courtesy of Vancouver Short Film Festival

Identity through connecting with the land

Yarlung’s hand-drawn charcoal-on-paper animation tells the story of three children in their Tibetan refugee village of Tezu who experience the death of a loved one and the mechanism they find to cope, namely by interacting with the Yarlung Tsangpo river. Tezu is where director Kunsang Kyirong’s mother was born. In the film she wanted to capture the dynamics of having various generations grow up together in this village.

“The starting point of this film came from researching the Yarlung Tsangpo and the number of communities that depend on this enormous river and how damming plans would impact those communities. I cherish stories and wanted to find a way where I could explore the preciousness of the Yarlung, and the lives of those who depend on this river,” says Kyirong.

The flow of the charcoal technique can be viewed as a mirror of the river itself, thanks to the medium’s subtle gradations. “A lot of what I enjoyed the most while using the process of charcoal and straight-ahead animation, is the spontaneity and drawings that come out unexpectedly,” she explains.

Kyirong also notes that the end result is quite different from the initial idea. The film is a blend of fiction and non-fiction. “Everything in the story had happened in real life; I think what I manipulated was the timing of it all,” she says.

This story feels very Canadian in the way that many immigrants only have memories or limited experience with their roots, as well as how Nature is fully part of life , and shapes everyone’s identity.

The festival runs from January 22–24. Film programs will also be available up to 7 days after their weekend premiere.