The Vancouver International Film Festival marks its 31st year in 2012, and Alan Franey has been there for every one of them. Mr. Franey, 55, joined the festival in 1982 after managing the Ridge Theatre. As festival director (he landed the job in 1988), he travels the world, seeing a dizzying number of films. This year’s festival, which opens Thursday, features more than 380 films from 75 countries.
How many films do you see a year?
I see hundreds. Because when I go to a festival, I will see five, six films a day sometimes for 12 days in a row and I go to several festivals. And then here, I’m often watching submissions. So it adds up to several hundred films over the course of a year. Many of the films are exciting and worthwhile. And if you hate them, you can turn them off.
What sets VIFF apart from other festivals?
I really think it’s distinctively of this city, which is so multicultural and so oriented towards the Pacific and Asia. And a mark of pride is that for a city that is on the periphery of a lot of things, I think we punch beyond our weight class in terms of how large a festival and how vibrant the audience is. The Vancouver audience knows this is the two weeks of the year when they don’t need to be concerned about Hollywood star power.
Do you get annoyed by constant comparisons to the Toronto International Film Festival?
Not any more. I did at one time when an awful lot of the interviews were predicated from beginning to end on why aren’t you like Toronto? I’ve found that that question isn’t asked as much. Or if it is, the answer is understood better. There’s no lack of access to big Hollywood films, so if we don’t give Canadians a chance to hear their own stories and to see the very fine cinema from many other nations, it might not be done.
How do you select the opening night film?
You want a film that is broadly accessible and that sets you up for a good after-party. So we try to show a film that is either a really stellar example of Canadian cinema or just a real feel-good film. You want to please your sponsors, not all of whom are used to subtitles. And once in a while you want to stir the pot and really challenge people. It’s good to create some controversy.
Speaking of controversy, last year, your opening party was held behind picket lines at Rocky Mountaineer Station, whose workers were locked out. What was that like for you?
It was horrible. It was like being in a traffic accident. I honestly did not know [about the lockout]. I didn’t go to the gala myself.
What’s new at VIFF this year?
We have a more decided emphasis on international shorts, something we’re going to be doing more of in the future. I think the whole vocabulary of short films is more relevant in the new Internet-based economy.
Can you look back to a filmmaker you championed over the years who went on to do great things?
Michael Haneke, for one. We showed his very first feature Benny’s Video and pretty much everything he’s done. So it’s gratifying to see him winning the Palme d’Or this year with Amour.
Any boneheaded mistakes you’ve made over the years?
I remember with some embarrassment rejecting the South Park guys’ first film. If I had been more familiar with that kind of icky transgressive humour, I would have recognized the talent. But a musical based on cannibalism [Cannibalism! The Musical!] at that time, I was not ready for.
If I can see one film this year, what would you recommend? (You must hate questions like this.)
I want to mention Griot about a Senegalese kora player. The film just transports you to that place. We’re doing the world premiere and a live concert at the Vogue.
And an alternate choice?
A film from Belgium called Come As You Are. I have seen that film rise to the top of the audience awards at just about every festival it plays. And it’s an unlikely film to captivate public attention like that. It’s based on three young men who have the decks stacked against them. One is virtually blind, the other has a terminal disease and the third is a real cantankerous guy in a wheelchair, and they all head off on a road trip to have their first sexual experience. And it really turns an audience on.
This interview has been condensed and edited.