Once an Icelandic colony, Gimli sits at the edge of Lake Winnipeg, a beach community in the province of Manitoba that is home to a couple of thousand residents and that hosts an ever growing film festival for five days each July. The seventeenth and latest iteration of the Gimli Film Festival was its largest so far, including approximately 45 feature films and various shorts. Needless to say, no attendee can see the entire program. I was lucky enough to attend for three of the five days of programming, making it to 14 screenings and avoiding the dozen plus titles I had already seen.
The hallmarks of the GFF are its free sunset screenings on the beach with its massive 11 metre tall screen set up out in the water. This year featured Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996), Footloose (Herbert Ross, 1984), The Neverending Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984), and the Criterion title Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009). Classic car owners came out en masse for the screening of American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973), lining the beach with some beautifully chromed vehicles, however the most inspired selection was Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds (1963) with Gimli and its gulls allowing Bodega Bay to spread out beyond the screen’s limits.
Canadian cinema always figures prominently at the GFF and with Canada celebrating its 150th anniversary, the Festival added a retrospective of great Canadian films that included David Cronenberg‘s body horror classic The Fly (1986), the underrated coming of age-wonder Léolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1992), John Paizs’s prairie postmodern Crime Wave (1985), Don Shebib’s Maritime masterpiece Goin’ Down the Road (1970), and the Criterion Collection’s “documentary-fantasia” My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007), among others. Director Sandy Wilson was on hand for a Q&A following her film My American Cousin (1985), a wonderful pastiche of 1950s, small town life about a twelve year-old girl and her suddenly arrived, Cadillac-driving, dreamboat American cousin. Canada’s answer to American Graffiti, My American Cousin offers scenic views, simpler times, broad national stereotypes, and the fun of light incest and the possibility of statutory rape (or should I say “statutory great!” – thanks to Pete Holmes for that line).
Gimli’s roots find representation in the GFF’s Northern Lights program celebrating Icelandic and circumpolar cinema. Arguably the North Star of these films is last year’s winner of the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, 2016). Resembling Raging Bull in its look but feeling more like Ferdinand the Bull, the film portrays the lead-up to real-life Finnish boxer Olli Mäki’s 1962 featherweight title shot and the complication of his increasingly perceived love for his girlfriend Raija. The film is sweetly romantic, modestly understated, and full of Nordic melancholy, but it is also formally engaging, pleased to employ staccato cuts to smash between scenes and the bob and weave of verité camerawork to provide spontaneity and immediacy.
The Northern Lights program was not without its missteps. Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016) was loved by the audience I watched it with but the film failed to explore the idea of communal living in any meaningful sense, told a nasty story about a marriage’s demise and a woman’s breakdown, and (no spoilers) uses a child as a cheap, tear-wrenching plot device. Zacharias Kunuk’s Western-inspired Searchers (2016) is little more than a home invasion/revenge story lacking the nuance and cultural inspiration on display in Kunuk’s other works. Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie (2017) is a YouTube supercut of Russian dashboard camera footage that is at best a freak show/atrocity exhibition and at worst a periodic snuff film. Thankfully, François Jacob’s documentary, A Moon of Nickel and Ice (2017), was an intriguing portrait of the remote Siberian mining town of Norilsk – part sci-fi dystopia, part suppressed soviet history exposé, part late-capitalist elegy, part arctic Alphaville.
The biggest laughs I heard at the Festival were for Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours (2017). Loosely adapted from The Decameron, this Sundance selection concerns a young servant who flees his master and hides as a handyman and groundskeeper in an isolated convent. His sanctuary is compromised by the foul-mouthed and unpredictable nuns that see him as a target for abuse and/or a relief for their emotional and sexual frustrations. An honourable mention goes to Slamdance Grand Jury Prize Winner Dim the Fluorescents (Daniel Warth, 2017), a dramedy about a struggling actress and an overly earnest playwright trying to make ends meet performing educational scenes for corporate training seminars. While it starts as a film heavily resembling Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998) and the work of the Max Fischer Players, it ends with a bravura long-take sequence that is truly stunning.
Documentaries were well represented at GFF. Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner Dina (Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, 2017) (missed it) and SXSW Audience Award Winner Becoming Bond (Josh Greenbaum, 2017) (fun but stylistically out of sync with itself) made appearances, as did the highly acclaimed Quest (Jonathan Olshefski, 2017) (a moving account of a North Philadelphia family in the vein of Steve James‘s work) and the Icelandic crime documentary Out of Thin Air (Dylan Howitt, 2017) (a well-made exploration of false confessions in a true crime context that still felt not quite ripe for documentary treatment). Perhaps the most endearing doc was Brad Abrahams’ Love & Saucers (2017), a warmly compassionate tale of alien visitation that never stoops to make its subject, 72 year-old David Huggins, into the butt of an easy joke.
As the GFF wore on, the trailer for Pablo Larraín’s Neruda (2016) seemed to follow me, chasing me at each screening much as Gael Garcia Bernal’s self-aggrandizing police inspector fumbles in the wake of Chile’s great statesman and poet. Neruda is a beautifully shot film, mixing gorgeous locations with Hitchcockian rear-projection, but its impressionistic approach and its national specificity make it perhaps a bit more impenetrable than it needs to be. Having addressed Neruda, I would also remark upon Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, 2016), a compassionate tale of national exhaustion told through the locus of a Romanian doctor trying to preserve his daughter’s university scholarships, and Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016), a tale of ghosts and text messages that features a curious performance by Kristen Stewart and a mechanical plot that audibly grinds.
Best of the Fest went to Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2016), a deserving choice even if it felt rather well-circulated in advance of the GFF. Volunteers rumoured on the morning of the last day that Attiya Khan’s A Better Man (2017) might win, suggesting that audiences were notably moved by the documentary’s portrayal of the filmmaker’s re-connection with her abusive boyfriend decades later. Line-ups on the last day had attendees discussing Heartstone (Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson, 2016), a coming of age story of two Icelandic teenagers in a remote fishing village that hardly left a dry eye in the house. My favourite was David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017), a profoundly moving film where Casey Affleck plays the spirit of a man hidden beneath a white sheet who haunts his marital home and observes his now widowed wife (Rooney Mara). The absurdity of the ghost’s appearance makes it pitiable and disarming, turning it into a sympathetic figure as time elides around it and the isolation of its circumstances becomes ever more poignant. I’ll be thinking about A Ghost Story‘s frame limits for weeks. Don’t miss it.
Many thanks to the Festival’s organizers for another great year and my apologies for the many, many films that escaped my discussion above. For a full list of the GFF’s program, visit its website.