A reel close-up on diversity

The Globe and Mail, Canada
April 1 2004

A reel close-up on diversity

Documentaries and social-realist dramas dominate this film festival
dedicated to giving visual minorities greater exposure, LIAM LACEY


Toronto’s fourth ReelWorld Film Festival, which kicks off today and
runs through the weekend at the Famous Players SilverCity Empress
Walk cinema, is moving up to a new level this year with a series of
seminars and panel discussions about breaking into the film business.

Started four years ago by soap-opera actress Tonya Lee Williams, the
festival (and the ReelWorld Foundation behind it), has generated
government financing and corporate sponsorship, and on that level is
already a success. What remains difficult to pin down is what the
festival, with its all-too generic name, is about.

The aim is diversity, specifically films about and by visual
minorities, but there’s a lot of overlap with existing Toronto
festivals. There is already a successful Reel Asian film festival in
the fall, and for black film, Planet Africa at the Toronto
International Film Festival and the Get Reel Film Festival (April
21-25). But nobody ever suggests a cap on the number of film
festivals for white people, and more festivals may mean more
opportunities and better representation of minorities in films.

The handful of films I’ve seen — there are more than 80 works
ranging from feature films to music videos in the festival — look
like good old Canadian multiculturalism. Several of the films have
white lead characters. Several others — the short Nigel’s
Fingerprints, the feature Little Brother of War and the Cuban film,
Entre Ciclones (Between Hurricanes) — have bi-racial lead

Documentaries and social-realist dramas are predominant. (The extreme
example of this is a film called Take Out, about Chinese immigrants
in New York, which spends most of its running time taking us on a
tour of food deliveries.) The opening gala, Little Brother of War
(tonight at 6:30), is Vancouver director Damon Vignale’s story about
an eight-year-old half-Indian orphan boy who travels across the
country to Chicago for a lacrosse championship, and befriends a jaded
cop. The film previously played at the Vancouver and Montreal film

The closing-night gala on Sunday is the world premiere of a romantic
comedy, The Seat Filler (at 7 p.m.), about a regular guy who falls
for a superstar, Destiny’s Child’s Kelly Rowland.

A couple of documentaries look promising. Change from Within (Sat., 3
p.m.), a first film from Montreal’s Peter Farbridge, is about
inspirational teacher Margaret Bolt and her success in giving poor
children a break through her St. Peter Claver school in Kingston,

Wet Sand: Voices from L.A. Ten Years Later (tomorrow at 1 p.m.) is
Korean-American filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s re-examination of the
L.A. riots of 1992, and its aftermath, on relations between the
Korean and black communities.

I Made a Vow (tomorrow at 4:30 p.m.) is a documentary focusing on
Canada’s oldest black community in Nova Scotia. Filmmaker Juanita
Peters (winner of a $5,000 National Film Board’s Reel Diversity Award
for her story pitch) offers a charming shot-on-video profile of the
importance of elaborate weddings in the town of North Preston. The
hour-long film follows the year-long preparations for Sharon and
Robbie up to the big day. The film does little to explain the
cultural history of these elaborate fetes but the music and warmth of
the characters carries it through.

Music and dance are the subjects of a quite wonderful film, Dame La
Mano (Give Me Your Hand) (Sunday, 3 p.m.), by veteran Dutch
documentarian Heddy Honigmann, which follows a group of irrepressible
Cuban expatriates. These characters gather each Saturday night at a
New Jersey nightclub to sing and dance the rumba, a dance that is
promoted as doing everything from stopping aging to promoting sexual
vigour and fighting cancer.

Cuban culture is also the focus of Entre Ciclones (Between
Hurricanes), which is screening Saturday at 9:30. This Havana-set
comedy, a huge hit in its native country last spring, follows the
misadventures of a handsome telephone repairman and the various women
in his life. While it does offer some insights into contemporary
Cuba, its bureaucratic frustrations and the differences between the
revolution generation and the pragmatic self-interested children,
it’s a shrill affair, with the stereotypes broadly drawn.

Neither is there much new in director Michael Tolajian’s feature
Bought & Sold (Friday, 9 p.m.). This multi-ethnic dramedy is about a
young Hispanic man who takes on work for a local Italian loan shark,
befriends an Armenian pawnbroker, learns about the Armenian genocide
and ditches his gold-digging girlfriend for a better choice.

A much more ambitious if not entirely successful drama, set in the
world of graffiti artists, is Bomb the System (Saturday at 7 p.m.).
When the film was shown at festivals in New York and Los Angles last
year, Variety hailed its director, Adam Bhala Lough, as a fresh new
directing voice, with a kinetic visual and driving narrative sense.

The film follows recent high-school graduate Anthony (Mark Webber,
who played Scooby in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling), who lives to go
out at night with his crew and “bomb” or paint walls with his art.
Anthony’s older brother, also a graffiti artist, was killed years
before on the streets. The movie, which plays out like Footloose with
spray cans, feels more than a little absurd, but it’s a visual tour
de force, with the director throwing in jump cuts and dissolves in
celebration of a visual art form, all accompanied by a layered
techno-rap soundtrack.

All screenings take place at the Famous Players SilverCity Empress
Walk, 5095 Yonge St., Toronto. For more information: the ReelWorld
website (); for tickets call (416) 923-9232.