I arrived in Glasgow early on the evening of February 3rd via Scotrail by way of Edinburgh. Typically, passengers looking to travel to Glasgow from London would board a train at Euston station for a direct route to the city, but an early morning freight train derailment led to the rerouting of all northward traffic to nearby King’s Cross, thankfully just one stop over from Euston on the tube. Selecting this route takes travelers along the eastern coast of the United Kingdom – a slice of the island not often written about due to its farness from more attractive tourist spots like Brighton, Wales, Northern Ireland and the islands of western Scotland. Sadly, as I gave in to the overpowering urge to nap shortly after having lunch onboard the train, I also have not much to report about those sodden seaside villages.
The Glasgow Film Festival would begin its 8th year just two weeks after my arrival and, as someone who has earned a living for the last decade working for various Canadian film festivals; I make a point of traveling to a few foreign festivals every year. Just down the road from the excellent Mitchell Library (the UK’s oldest reference library), on the western edge of downtown Glasgow, was the flat I had arranged to rent, carefully chosen for its convenient proximity to all festival venues; the interior was littered with splintered lumber and plaster ground down into a fine dust under the feet of the frenzied handyman trying to finish the shower room before my arrival. When it was clear the work wouldn’t be completed in time for my first evening in town, my defeated landlord chaperoned me on my first Glaswegian pub crawl before pouring me into a hotel room much later that night.
The festival itself is similar to many of Canada’s regional film festivals in the sense that it designs its program towards a commercial sensibility – auteur oriented and genre driven cinema that isn’t terribly different from what you’d find in a Canadian multiplex – along with a handful of more serious, politically progressive films with an audacious and pioneering style. Among the finer of the few films that belong to the latter group were two of the three Canadian titles, both Quebecois, selected for the program: the feature film debut by Montagnais-born playwright Yves Sioui Durand, Mesnak and superstar Jean-Marc Vallee’s Café de Flore.
Mesnak, about a young Aboriginal man struggling to find a way to reconcile his burgeoning artistic career from his biological family’s problems with substance abuse, was by far, the most subtle and gorgeous use of black & white photography I’d seen in a Canadian film. That is, until it was revealed after the screening during the Q&A discussion with Durand that the film was intended to be projected in colour, and, apparently, a vibrant palette at that, but the Scotch projectionist on duty that afternoon was unfamiliar with the tape deck assigned to the venue and couldn’t figure out which switch to flip.
A quick chat I had with Durand after the screening revealed that the film is rep’d in Canada by K-Films Amerique in Montreal, and that a proper viewing in the film’s intended colour scheme is understandably necessary and recommended.
Vallee’s Café de Flore, simultaneously about a middle aged French-Canadian DJ in present day Montreal, and a poor mother struggling to raise her downs syndrome afflicted young boy in Paris of the 1960s, has an annular structure that doesn’t fully reveal itself until the final few minutes of the film. The director did not attend the screening, and thankfully this projection at the top floor of the Cineworld multiplex that is, as it happens, the tallest multiplex in the world, elapsed without the slightest hitch.
Shortly after the festival concluded with the Scottish premiere of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, I returned to London for a month, then visited a good friend in New York for a few weeks when I realized that Glasgow was still very much on my mind.
The people are among the friendliest, and most gregarious in all the world; the pigeon-filled, sloping streets that give the illusion of a much larger city just barely visible beyond the mist are complimented by weather that’s like a roulette wheel that never stops spinning, endlessly cycling through multiple systems in a day, everyone knowing that the ball will eventually stop at the unwanted spot when it loses momentum but still allowing for a little hope while it stays in motion.
And so I returned and stayed in Glasgow for another three months, and, now, as I’ve returned to Canada 12 days ago for my annual summer job with the Vancouver International Film Festival (celebrating its 31st year from September 27th to October 12th), I’m reminded of the typical response I got to a question I put to many people during the Glasgow Film Festival: what do you have to do to see a Scottish film in this city? (The festival, by my count, had only two Scottish features. Both documentaries; one, an archive screening called Big Banana Feet  about comedian Billy Connolly, and the other, a straight forward teledoc about Glaswegian jazz singer Annie Ross.) My question was almost always answered with another: why would you want to see one of those?
I’ve reappeared in Vancouver with a truly appreciative sense of what it means to work for an organization that supports its domestic cinema as completely as the VIFF’s Canadian Images program, the largest showcase of new Canadian cinema in the country – a cinema that impresses and captures the admiration of festival programmers and audiences well beyond our own borders.