By Mariam Baldeh
Flight attendant Barbara Lewison has been going to the Vancouver International Film Festival for almost 35 years – ever since it first started in 1982. We sat down with her to talk about her annual festival tradition with her mother and what being a VIFF+ member has meant to her over the years.
Tell me about how you first got involved with VIFF.
I got involved through my mother. She was an all-around scholar who loved movies and books and was just really involved in the arts community. I used to go with her before she died of pancreatic cancer in 1999. It was just what we enjoyed doing together. I learned a lot about film from her… from her interpretations, because many films I really didn’t understand back then. She would pick the films and, inevitably, they would be immensely powerful, and often I would come out saying I didn’t understand anything, and she would begin to explain a lot of the nuances and the subtleties in the film. Now I have a much better capacity to understand a wider range of films.
What sort of films did you enjoy seeing with your mother?
Arts films – I mean everything to do with music and dance and literature – there were a lot of those types of films then. But now there’s a massive range. In the earlier days, the festival was nowhere near this big. Her favourite films would’ve been literary films because she was a literary scholar, so she mostly liked documentaries about writers and art. She liked other films too but she was probably most inspired by films that had to do with her field. Because we’re a Jewish family also, we were most drawn to films that had to do with Judaism, Israel and Palestine and the Middle East in general, as well as all the films that had to do with religion.
So when festival time comes around, how are you usually feeling?
It’s definitely one of my favourite events of the whole year. It’s interesting that I work as a flight attendant and one of my favourite times of the year is when I don’t fly anywhere. I stay home, I tell my friends and family, “I’ll see you in a couple of weeks, don’t call, I’m going to the film festival.” I can be completely selfish and free to choose whatever films I want in the moment because I have a pass. Last year I had what’s called the platinum pass, which costs close to $1000. It’s an enormous gift if one chooses to have that pass because you can walk in and out of every film without waiting in line. Now I have a regular pass, I’ll wait in line with the regular pass-holders, but we’ll still have the privilege of getting into the films before the regular ticket holders so it’s still a wonderful privilege and a lot less expensive than the platinum pass. It’s like a combination of therapy and stimulation for me.
What kind of films do you find you gravitate towards?
I think one of the things I appreciate the most are the films that touch me the most, and those are usually the films about courage in the face of adversity. And those are mostly documentaries. It’s usually someone doing something extraordinary in some way, and they’ve dedicated their life to that and people have found out and said we have to do a documentary. So I applaud and salute the documentary filmmakers.
One of my favourite documentaries is by Thomas Riedelsheimer – “Rivers and Tides: Working with Time”. He also did another one called “Touch the Sound” which is about the most famous percussionist and she happens to be deaf. Those are two incredible documentaries they’ve shown at the festival but I saw the first one in Germany not long after [Riedelsheimer] made it. I had gone to see a film and the actual film that was supposed to be playing wasn’t playing and they had put Rivers and Tides in its place, so we had no idea what we were gonna see nor that we would be so inspired.
How many films do you think you saw last year?
I saw maybe 75 last year… not as many as I usually see. It was a year that I was also trying to have a relationship so it wasn’t easy to completely disconnect and say goodbye ok I’ll see you in two weeks, so I didn’t see as many films. I’ll probably see close to 100 this year because I’ll be more free.
Do you plan out what films you’re gonna see, or is it a spur of the moment decision?
Both are true. I allow myself to be spontaneous in the moment even though I have a general plan. Basically what happens is there’s a group of people who all see a lot of films – we all have a pass – or volunteers, and we’ve gone to the festival for many many years so we all know each other and we’ve become friends. Some of us are only friends during the festival but some of us stay friends throughout the year. We talk to each other a lot about films – which ones we really liked and which we didn’t like, and of course some of us will like films that others of us really didn’t like.
What films have stood out for you over the years?
I’m gonna name one that’s not a documentary – it’s a film called “The Lives of Others” that came out about 10 years ago. It also won the best foreign film category in the Oscars as well, and we picked out these films before they went to the Oscars. VIFF has audience favourite contests where all the filmgoers can vote on all our favourite documentaries and films, and there’s a prize. So “The Lives of Others” was picked as the audience favourite, and it also won the Oscar the next year. It’s not always the easy to watch films that win our hearts – it’s often the really disturbing films that end up being the ones most talked about and most recommended.
Why do you think that is?
I think it has to do with the courage of the actors and of the director or the person who wrote the film. In Jewish we say it’s the chutzpah which means the courage, nerve, audacity, and spunk to make a film that isn’t gonna be easy to watch but the story will so powerfully impact us. So sometimes it’s not even the most incredibly acted, but the story is great. Last year, there was a film called Room that you might remember – it was a very powerful screenplay and it became even more powerful because the most powerful part of the film was filmed in a very very small space to really give the impact of what it was like for this young mother and her son. It really won a lot of people’s hearts because it was very disturbing and the innocence of this young boy who knew nothing else except his life in this room and he did it with such delight. He was a delightful being that you could just feel despite his circumstances he had so much light. It impacts those of us who have a lot of stuff in our lives that we need to deal with and I think seeing films for two and a half weeks puts a lot of perspective on our personal neurotic stories.
What would you say to someone who’s never been to this festival?
I would say you can pretty much trust your gut feeling if you feel drawn by the synopsis of the film, or the photograph, or the actors, or the director. Or maybe someone’s spoken to you about a film they’ve been inspired by. You can trust that to get a film into this festival it has to pass through a rigorous, ruthless committee of judges. It’s rare that I feel a film is not good – so many of them are just extraordinary.
It’s real holiday time for me –just buying a pass and going to films all day long. As a flight attendant who’s been flying almost 37 years, to spend my paid holidays not flying anywhere where I can actually use a free pass and go somewhere far away, and yet I prefer to spend my time in a dark theatre still going to lots of places – but on the screen. It’s a lot of fun.