The Arab Spring was still fresh in the headlines when Vancouver International Film Festival director Alan Franey began noticing something on the film-festival circuit: a wealth of high-quality films dealing with revolution and empowerment. While some dealt specifically with the uprisings in the Arab world, the themes were apparent in a swath of works exploring everything from a wrongful conviction in the Philippines to a calypso star who tried to change the world.
"I think the films are born of the zeitgeist" says Franey, who detected enough of a pattern that he felt the issues should be highlighted at the festival, marking its 30th anniversary this year. The themes are central to many films on the program at VIFF, which begins Thursday.
Among the highlights is the Harry Belafonte biopic Sing Your Song, which has its Canadian premiere at VIFF.
Her own daughter was 7 when Gina Belafonte set out to make a film about her father. "I very much wanted to make sure that my daughter and my brother's [about-to-be-born child] had the opportunity to know in some detail who their grandfather was," said Gina Belafonte from Los Angeles, where she lives.
Best known for upbeat calypso songs such as The Banana Boat Song (Day-O), Harry Belafonte was also a committed activist who devoted as much time and passion to the cause as he did to his music, putting his career – and life – on the line at times. His activism reads like a chronicle of recent history: He was involved in the civil-rights movement, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, famine relief in Ethiopia, AIDS relief in Africa. What Sing Your Song makes clear is that Belafonte did not just lend his handsome face and famous voice to these efforts; in the film, his son remarks that his activism was really his father's second family.
As an outspoken critic of the policies of George W. Bush post-9/11, Belafonte became ostracized, and this film was born partly out of that difficult time.
"Part of me was feeling like the record can be set straight," said Gina Belafonte. "And now you can see that the important dynamic he had in terms of his participation in the landscape of American history is so profound that he can say things that he needs to say from his point of view about Bush or Colin Powell or his take on Barack Obama, and it comes from a place of absolute articulated knowledge and not just a complete wacky point of view."
New York-based Harry Belafonte, 84, who still speaks on social issues, was initially reluctant to make the film. Ultimately, though, he wound up being interviewed extensively for the documentary and worked closely with director Susanne Rostock throughout. He had "total creative and artistic final cut and say," according to his daughter, who co-produced along with Canadian Michael Cohl and others.
Vancouver-raised producer Marty Syjuco also has a familial connection to his subject in the documentary Give Up Tomorrow, about his brother's wife's brother. Paco Larranaga was 19 in 1997 when he was charged in the rape and murder of Filipino sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong. Larranaga and his family assumed the charges would be dropped after some 35 witnesses (including Syjuco's mother) came forward to say they had been with Larranaga hundreds of kilometres from the crime scene in Cebu.
But Larranaga was convicted, along with six others, after a highly publicized trial and eventually sentenced to death.
Director Michael Collins (who also has a personal connection to the case; he is Syjuco's partner) creates an exhaustive chronicle of the case, which has left audiences outraged since its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, where it won the Audience Award. It has also given Larranaga, after 14 years behind bars, some hope.
"We were able to give Paco a copy," said Syjuco from New York, where he and Collins live. "And he saw it and he was just so excited. 'Finally,' he said, 'my real story is going to come out.' "
The film has, its creators believe, gained some political traction: A week after Tribeca, they say Larranaga's treatment in jail improved, suggesting that while films can chronicle change, they can also be the catalyst for it.
"So often you see people who are really engaged and you see that the filmmaker has really changed minds or opened hearts or caused people to want to take action," says Franey, who notes that a common question at post-screening question-and-answer sessions is, "What can I do now? I've seen this film. What can I do about this cause?"
Enough, Syjuco and Collins hope, to free Larranaga.
"For our dream ending, we always imagine Paco coming out of jail," says Collins. "When we started this film, Paco was on death row, and we didn't know what was going to happen. But obviously we're just waiting for the day when he comes out. And we'll be there with the cameras and we'll happily change the ending."
Give Up Tomorrow plays at VIFF Oct. 6, 7 and 13; Sing Your Song screens Oct. 12 and Oct. 14 ( viff.org).
More VIFF 2011 films about political change and activism
This is not a Film (Iran) Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
The screening of this film, about Jafar Panahi's inability to make a film while under house arrest, is unfortunately timely: Co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb has been arrested in Iran, while Panahi remains under house arrest.
18 Days (Egypt) Sherif Arafa, Kamla Abou Zekry, Marwan Hamed, Mohamed Ali, Sherif Bendary, Khaled Marei, Mariam Abou Ouf, Ahmad Abdallah, Yousry Nasrallah, Ahmed Alaa
Ten stories by 10 Egyptian filmmakers were shot in the immediate aftermath of the 18-day Egyptian revolution earlier this year, offering a fresh, raw document of the event.
No More Fear (Tunisia) Mourad Ben Cheikh
A chronicle of the Arab Spring's beginnings in Tunisia and the problems in that country that led its youth to rise up.
Surviving Progress (Canada) Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks
Martin Scorsese is among the executive producers of this film based on Canadian author Ronald Wright's bestseller A Short History of Progress.
Mama Africa (Finland/Germany/South Africa) Mika Kaurismaki
South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba was banned from her own country, but became an international superstar thanks to Harry Belafonte.