A time for celebration and contemplation

This year marks a special occasion for the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) as it turns 40 years old. VIFF’s 2021 edition will run from Oct 1 to 11 in a hybrid format showcasing a diverse selection of more than 110 feature films, 77 shorts and 20 events online and offline.

With theatres reopened since June, things are finally gradually going back to normal where film festivals can try to be what they used to be again – a gathering place for movie aficionados and a great occasion to celebrate art and culture.

The festival will open with an inventive biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, from Japanese English director Will Sharpe. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, it tells a remarkable story of the Victorian illustrator about his love for drawing cute cats. It will close with Petite Maman, the latest film by French director Céline Sciamma, a poetic film about the mysterious bond between mother and daughter.

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary, the festival has launched a new initiative – VIFF Leading Lights. The special event will pair an established filmmaker with a long legacy with the festival, Kore-eda Hirokazu, with an emerging filmmaker of his choosing, Bora Kim, whose latest film House of Hummingbird has won multiple awards since its debut in 2018.

“The two will talk about their work and the creative process. It represents that we are at this crucial junction for the festival, and we are not using this to rest on our laurels,” says Curtis Woloschuk, associate director of programming at VIFF. “We will use this occasion to honour what came before and look to see what is coming next.”

He also points out certain themes that run through this year’s festival in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“There are a lot of films that structurally play with time and temporal shifts. In these structurally adventurous films, there are stories about people reconnecting with their communities, heritage and families, that resonate with a lot of people right now, how they are connecting with the world,” he says, “There are also films about the creation of art and music and the value of creativity. They are a potent reminder of the value of art, how it can alter how we see and engage with the world and with each other.”

He adds that It has been a tough spell for art and culture organizations, these are films that remind us of how arts contribute to our lives.

VIFF’s 2021 lineup also offers rare access to some thought-provoking documentaries that use cinema’s power to educate the audience and engender positive change.

My Childhood, My country: 20 years in Afghanistan

This documentary, following the life trajectory of an Afghan boy Mir, as he navigates through life’s difficulties in the backdrop of the turmoil of his country, is perhaps the best story there is for a foreign audience to both understand and care about what has been happening in Afghanistan. It has a contemporary context now that the Taliban recently returned to power in Afghanistan after its fall 20 years ago.

“Focusing on a child will make you think about the future of Afghanistan and what is his future. You also don’t know where he is going to go next,” says co-director Phil Grabsky, “It is a story about a young boy growing up and it is also about Afghanistan. What did we do right and what did we do wrong? There were 40 countries involved, men and women have died and a lot of money has been spent, it astounds that people don’t want to understand what has happened.”

The documentary is an extension of the award-winning director Grabsky’s previous works on Mir’s life – The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan and The Boy Mir – 10 years in Afghanistan.

Eager to find out for himself what has happened to the country, Grabsky was the first filmmaker to fly into Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban,. He met Mir by chance on his first tape around the Buddhas of Bamiyan, an ancient Buddhist religious site, which the Taliban blew up in 2001.

A passionate and inspiring filmmaker, Grabsky has already made 250 documentaries in his 30-year career. His other major project, Exhibition on Screen, started about a decade ago, brings major art exhibitions and artist biopics to cinema screens around the world and already plays in 61 countries.

Among all his documentaries, Grabsky believes this one on Afghanistan is his best. “I don’t think it is worth making films unless there is a purpose. It has been very hard, I almost stopped twice, it is gratifying now that we are getting recognition. I just wish the ending was slightly happier for Mir and the country,” he says.

“What we do as filmmakers is we try to inform; I try to ask the right questions to the right people. If you hear someone say it is a complete failure, it is also not true. Women have become educated, and they don’t lose that knowledge. You have a civil society that you didn’t have 20 years ago. 20 years ago, they didn’t have mobile phones and now you see they are all plugged in.”

The film also shows the resilient spirit of the Afghan people even when they are at arm’s length to death. One sees Mir’s innocent and bright smile as a child, and he remains optimistic at the end about his life and his country even as the Taliban return.


Still from Coextinction | Photo courtesy of Coextinction

Another critical documentary about the present state of the world hits much closer to home. Coextinction, made by first time female filmmakers Gloria Pancrazi and Elena Jean, is a story about the survival of Southern Resident Killer Whales in B.C. and the complicated web of interconnected issues behind it.

There are only 74 Southern Resident Orcas left currently and they are facing extinction threat. Pancrazi, who works on the ground monitoring these orcas, decided to find out why and let the world know.

“It started with a love for the orcas, and a big need that they would survive and thrive. Then it grew into protecting more than the orcas,” she says.

There are many issues that negatively impact the orcas such as noise disturbances and water pollution. But as Pancrazi unravels the complicated puzzle, she also discovers that local chinook salmon is also going extinct, which is the main food source for orcas.

“The salmon are starving to death and that is connected to the fish farms, to the dams, to the pipeline. In addition, they are all happening on unceded lands of indigenous people, so it is also connected with indigenous injustice. They are also impacted as salmon is a major part of their culture and diet.”

‘As the orca goes, so go we’. Pancrazi adds that coextinction is not just about the orcas and the salmon, it is also about us being connected to the climate crisis and how we are impacted by it.

An emotional film as it documents the species’ extinction threats as well as indigenous injustice, Pancrazi is hopeful things can change if people start to take action.

“There is hope, I can’t accept they will go extinct, they are such a special group of species, they swim together through grief and celebration,” she says. “The orcas are incredibly resilient and intelligent. Salmon is also a very resilient species; if we do something, they will come back.”

For more information on VIFF, please go to viff.org

To learn more about Phip Grabsky’s works and Mir’s life, please go to


To learn more about the Orca situation, please go to