Day 1. Pouring rain. Pouring cats and dogs, and speaking of which, I miss my hana! My festival began today with soaking feet and a yogurt tin that burst in my brand new festival bag. There was cursing on Bloor Street. Wet hair, and Leather-bound puddles for feet.
Then the sun came out, the lights went down, and the Toronto International Film Festival flickered to life.
They were all there again.
Filing into this morning’s first screening at 9:00 a.m. were the familiar faces, a little older, a little greyer. Badges swinging on designer strings, coffees firmly in hand. The dialogue of the industry screening room chatter would never make it past a first draft. Too repetitive:
Just get here?
From Venice. Stopped in London for a meeting.
Just got here?
Yeah, from Venice.
The only thing that changed was the connecting city.
My colleagues have a wide range of accents and the same fatigue. Like true junkies they are ready for more. Venice, by all accounts, was great. Toronto’s looking even better.
I love a moving camera. I teach editing theory that the moving camera brings us into the emotional world of a film while a static camera pushes through story. The close up and the POV belong to both worlds. To characterize Day 1 is to talk about the moving camera: the fluid,twirling of Danis Tanovic’s camera swirling down from above in L’Enfer. The gentle push-ins on the face of a haunted child in Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Firehorse, and the reverse tracking shots around fast corners as little Chuiya runs through an Indian market after... yes, her runaway
puppy... in Deepa Mehta’s Water. In every case, the moving camera was the path into the soul of the filmmaker.
And what souls they are!! The feature debut of Canadian Julia Kwan took on the imaginative religious life of two Asian Canadian sisters in the 1970s. The deep yearning for spirituality meets the desire to cope with loss and death and make sense out of laws and superstitions. Both girls are Buddhists who become Catholic zealots, hoping to change the course of luck in their family through good deeds. The imaginative Eve, born in the year of the fire horse, is much more drawn to the dancing buddha and goddesses of her native faith. Her sister Karena prefers the comfort of a Biblical Jesus. Both girls get caught up in the superstiton and unexplainable laws that often frame religion. Julia Kwan, cites French Canadian filmmaker Lea Pool as her “director consultant” and the movie has much in common with Pool’s films in the raw edge of chaos that exists under the surface of moral righteousness. Memorable moments include Jesus and Buddha dancing in the living room - pulling Eve into their arms. The best moving shot of this film,however, is a slow tracking shot in on a hospital window, where the grandmother of Eve’s obsession stands, gently waving to the girls on the street below. Still alive, but on the threshold of death.
The astonishing Water, by Deepa Mehta, is simply one of the best films I’ve seen in recent memory. Only a skillful filmmaker could turn a story about a widowed child-bride forced to live out her life in a widow’s ashram in India, into something hauntingly beautiful. Her new family are complex and deeply drawn, cruel and kind, exercising a range of emotion merely to get through a day. Child-widow Chuiya, 8 years old, spends the movie bending her naturally exuberant will into the severe and stricken lifestyle of her new world. The performances, particularly by Sarala as Chuiya and Seema Biswas as the middle-aged faithful Didi, pack a punch that is only really understood at the movie’s finale, a soulful sequence that brings the two characters into the path of Mahatma Ghandi, whose philosophy and promise of change hover over the film’s storyline as its only breath of hope. Mostly ignored by the characters, he is their salvation in the end. Careful, finely observed emotional lines, take us to a 7 hanky ending, but not a sentimental one and not one forseen. The tenderness in the generosity of the characters is only a razor thin line away from the capacity for cruelty or indifference. Mehta walks the line like a blind tightrope walker, confident in the net of vision underneath her.
Blindness is the subject of Eric Khoo’s Be With Me. Teresa Chan, the Helen Keller of Asia, has written an autobiography that is here interwoven with three separate stories of love gone astray. A teenaged lesbian flirtation, an overweight security guard’s attempts to write a love letter on rose stationary to a woman and the grief of an old man at the loss of his wife, slowly interweave and dynamically become a part of the memoir, though Chan meets only the old man. Most of the film is shot MOS, with scoring or empty ambience. There is little dialogue and instead a brilliant use of an alternative to voiceover: visual text messaging, and the subtitled, but unspoken biographical text of a blind-deaf woman. It is Chan, playing herself, in her last years, who holds the emotional threads of the film together - the most sublime moment comes when she meets the
father of her translator, who has been cooking for her. Feeling the tears on his face, she draws him into an immediate embrace. It becomes clear that broken love is what causes suffering.
Broken love is also the definition of Danis Tanovic’s L’Enfer, or Hell, the sequel to Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, and the next in the trilogy of themed films written by Krysztof Kieslowski and long time writing partner Krysztof Piesiewicz prior to Kieslowski’s death in 1995. The three scripts were in varied stages of readiness but each filmmaker who takes on the projects, seems to want most to homage the great Polish filmmaker who would have directed these films. Like Tykwer’s Heaven, a constantly moving camera explores, often in spiralling motions, the hell of psychological and emotional anguish caused by broken love or broken faith. Philosophical, deeply reflective and emotionally taut, the story of three sisters playing out as adults the deep and long lasting damage of a shared childhood traumatic event, leaves us feeling like we have been trapped in a whirlpool. Swirling water, a theme of the day, takes the form of rain in Hell,pulling the characters ever downward.
The one misfire of Day 1 was the only commercial North American feature - Shopgirl, directed by Anand Tucker. Based on Steve Martin’s book, the story of a glove counter Saks saleswoman (played by Claire Danes) trying to find love in two unlikely places, sought out every possible cliche in the first twenty minutes — and found them! I would like to know at what hour of the clock on what day of what year did quirkiness of character become synonymous with depth. A character’s zaniness can be insightful but something deeper must allow us to connect in a more meaningful way. Shopgirl was like chewing on cold french fries – conjuring the guilt and disappointment of unnecessary calories and failed anticipation.
Luckily, the rest of the day was like piping hot, freshly salt and malt vinegared frites. A dream indeed, for someone stuck on the South Beach diet, who hasn’t eaten a potato in weeks!
To bed, to dream. Of water in all forms - rain, holy water, deep ocean containing the spirits of drowned horses, and more rain. At 11:30 as I write this, even my shoes are still a little damp.