10 Canadian Films to Watch at VIFF

Embrace our homegrown talent with Fiona Morrow’s top Canadian film picks for this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.


MEDITATION PARK, Screens Sep 28, 30 and Oct 11

(Dir: Mina Shum. Cast: Cheng Pei Pei, Sandra Oh)This year’s festival opener is a suitably Vancouver affair from local director Mina Shum. Maria (played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon villainess, Cheng Pei Pei) is an elderly married woman who has spent the best part of her life locked in domesticity, allowing her husband to rule the roost. The day she pulls out a pair of panties from his pocket is the day her world view shifts. Set in and around East Van, Meditation Park, this has local crowd-pleaser written all over it.

NEVER STEADY, NEVER STILL, Screens Sep 29, Oct 7 and 10

(Dir: Kathleen Hepburn. Cast: Shirley Henderson, Théodore Pellerin)It is rare to encounter a feature film debut as technically assured, emotionally resonant, and beautifully written. Kathleen Hepburn’s remarkable movie is set in northern B.C., where Judy (Shirley Henderson in a bravura performance) is quietly losing her independence to Parkinson’s disease, and her teenage son Jamie (the excellent Théodore Pellerin) is stumbling into an adult world, unsure where he fits, and who he might fit with. This is a movie that lives in the spaces where nothing is said, where nothing really happens, but everything exists. This one will haunt your dreams.


(Dir: Latiesha Ti’si’tla Fazakas, Natalie Boll, BC)Beau Dick’s work stops you in your tracks. Vivid and provocative, his masks carry in them a strength that brings them alive, even hanging on a museum wall. No surprise then, that Latiesha Ti’si’tla Fazakas and Natalie Boll’s intimate protrait of the late master carver and hereditary Kwakwaka’wakw chief should show us a charismatic man full of spirit, humour, passion and humility. Dick’s art was an extension of his culture, his commitment to Potlach, and his political activism. This is a fascinating and fitting tribute to a major Pacific Northwest artist, important community leader and a man who inspired all those he met. 

c̓əsnaʔəm: THE CITY BEFORE THE CITY, Screens Oct 1, Oct 6

(Dir: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, BC)Acknowledging our presence on unceded First Nations territory is (and rightly so) becoming common practice before gatherings of all kinds in Vancouver. But how much do most of us understand about what was here before? In collaboration with the Musqueam First Nation and UBC Museum of Anthropology, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers pieces together the rich history of this land — with emphasis on the area now known as Marpole — and the abject thoughtlessness with which it was appropriated. It’s not all ancient history, either: locals were harvesting artifacts from the so-called Marpole Midden as recently as the 1950s and, as the film shows, only protests prevented a sacred gravesite near the Arthur Laing Bridge becoming just another glass tower in 2012. Vital and illuminating.


(Dir: Kyle Rideout. Cast: Judy Greer, Daniel Doheny)Liam (Daniel Doheny) has spent his life homeschooled, but impulsively breaks into the public system on the hope of spending time with his first crush, to the chagrin of his helicopter mom (Judy Greer). An unexpected follow up from the director and writer of the quirkily atmospheric Eadward, this fairly straightforward geek-out-of-water comedy benefits from an empathetic and generous touch (Liam’s crush begins when he spots her wooden leg), and an enthusiastic performance from Greer.   

SHUT UP AND SAY SOMETHING, Screens Oct 4 and 8(Dir: Melanie Wood, BC)

Hearing Shane Koyczan live is an experience like no other: the spoken-word artist spits out pain, anger, love and hope in syllables that drill lifelines through your veins. Having drawn on his rough childhood, been open about his own transgressions—the bully who became a bully—it somehow makes sense that he would confront his biggest demons in public. Brought up by his beloved grandmother, Koyczan has been estranged from his father most of his life. Turning 40, he decides it’s time to face this ghost from his past, and try and find out why his dad decided to stay away. Undeniably heart-wrenching, there is something also uncomfortably voyeuristic—if not downright cruel—going on here that raises questions about art and exploitation.

UNARMED VERSES, Screens Oct 4 and 6

(Charles Officer, Canada)Winner of this year’s Hot Docs award for Best Canadian Documentary, Charles Officer’s film explores the intersection of racism and poverty through a low-income public housing complex set for redevelopment in Toronto. Despite no proper funding, the community continues to scrape together resources for its residents and at a youth music project, Art Starts, Officer finds Francine, a 12-year-old girl, with an ability for articulating her situation beyond her years. Officer was inspired to make the film after the killing of Trayvon Martin, hoping to find a way into a conversation about race with black youth. Francine, he told one interviewer, “became the light for me”.

OUR PEOPLE WILL BE HEALED, Screens Oct 5 and 9

(Dir: Alanis Obomsawin, Canada) In this, her 50th documentary project, Alanis Obomsawin continues the important task of documenting the process of real reconciliation—the rebuilding of lives and communities from the ground up. At Manitoba’s Norway House Cree Nation, 450 km north of Winnipeg, that essential work is long underway. Obomswain concentrates on the community’s k-12 school, and how its focus on introducing these young people to their culture in a positive learning environment prepares them for the future. She also contextualizes this hopeful scenario with the history that created its need.

ON PUTIN’S BLACKLIST, Screens Oct 7 and 10

(Dir: Boris Ivanov, BC)If the spread of Russia’s influence — and Putin’s agenda — across the Western world is the stuff of your nightmares, then Boris Ivanov’s documentary looking at the country from the inside out may not offer much comfort. As racism soars and homophobia is considered public policy, Putin continues to build an “us versus them” culture that threatens us all. 


(Dir: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson)A reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller Vertigo filtered through the fabulous mind of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin: what’s not to be excited about? This is only the second performance (it premiered in San Francisco) of this experimental collage that employs no footage from the original film, drawing instead on a multitude of other movies, television shows and archive film that has used the Bay Area as a backdrop. With the world-renowned Kronos Quartet performing Jacob Garchik’s score live, this has to be the show of the festival. Don’t miss. 

See Fiona’s international film picks here, or her doc picks here, or view the full VIFF schedule at viff.org.