Saturday, September 24, 2011
Young men weeping. Two films I have not yet written fully about have in some ways made the most progress in my thoughts - perhaps for that reason. John Shank's progressively dark The Last Winter (pictured at top), about a young man whose family farm in France begins to slide through his fingers when a barn fire destroys his last chances of success, contains some of the most haunting images I've carried with me in the time since. And it also contains the most deeply affecting scene of a person weeping. There is so much to be said about this beautiful film. It hangs and dwells in its silences and shadows and crept into my bones with its autumn palette of colours that glow brightly in the film's early scenes and become progressively brown and black as the film's hero loses ground. Anaïs Demoustier, who appeared also in the festival in Elles (see below), offers the young man love with quiet commitment but even this cannot sustain him. In a pivotal scene near the end of the film, he slides down the wall of a now empty shed and weeps over the loss of his cows. I still weep easily just calling it to mind. The Last Winter is an elegy in a way film rarely is now, not just to a way of life, but to a way of being-in-life. It is an ode to the farmer who experiences that life as a vocational call, and whose reason for life vanishes when it does. The long reflective silences and stark interiors assist in helping us feel the fullness of this tragedy, even as the young man himself holds on to every last piece of it that he can. The film's rhythm and tone is reminiscent of Carlos Reygada's Silent Light which also speaks about moral dilemmas through the emotional language of the land. I wish long life and North American distribution for this poem of a film.
Vocational call is the thematic heart of This Side of Resurrection which I saw on the first day and wrote about then. This first film by Portuguese director Joaquim Sapinho has perhaps gained the most ground in my post-festival reflections. I always liked it, but it was quite different from what I had hoped or expected it to be and I didn't quite recover from that at the time. Since then, however, it has taken hold of me more deeply - much the way Mia Hansen-Love's Le Père de mes Enfants did two years ago. Many images reside in me still of this story of a sister and brother grappling with the losses implied in the brother's agonizing decision to continue living in a monastery. It is his persistent faith that haunts me. I think we often imagine deep faith as that which comforts the believer. Sapinho's film shows how faith can be tormenting when it comes without the capacity for deepest commitment to it. The 20-something monk lives an alternate worldly life as a former surfer, whose daring and skill in the water sets us up to believe he can do anything. When he falls and plunges below the waves his hands come together in prayer as if the turbulence of that place finds affinity with the turbulence of his spiritual world. His sense of futility is measured in the degree to which he subjects himself to penitence. It is a penitence that is real and is never made graphic or sensationalist or raw by Sapinho but nonetheless troubles us, as it does the monastic community he lives with. When the young man weeps, his weeping comes from that place in believers that is so hard to explain, where darkness threatens to extinguish light altogether. The candle on the floor with its single flame holds the inspiration to endurance. I take This Side of Resurrection and The Last Winter with me from this festival, and the image of young men weeping in moments of profound desolation.
(post-in-progress. More coming!)
Friday, September 16, 2011
The kids are all right. Several films I saw at this year's TIFF focussed on the re-sourcefulness of children in overcoming their own circumstances. Of these I have already written about the Dardennes brothers' Kid With a Bike (see below) which remains a favourite. But I was also moved by I Wish, the latest film by master Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu kore-Eda. In this story, two brothers separated by divorce find a way to reunite when they follow up on an urban legend that a wish will come true when made at the place where two high-speed trains cross. Bringing friends along from their respective worlds, they meet in the geographic middle and together shout out their deepest desires while staring down into the nanoseconds of bullet trains meeting. The inevitability of disappointment in the silence that follows tugs at our hearts but just as in Nobody Knows and After Life, kore-Eda surprises us, not by a magic realist finish, but by allowing the children themselves to have confronted their own truths in the meantime. The journey, not the arrival, is what matters. I loved the use of camera language in this film. The young boy whose dog has died continues to check the bag in which he has carried the puppy's body after the 'wish', and in one very long shot, we see him do it yet again as he arrives home. That one shot might just be my favourite in the whole festival: kore-Eda seems to be saying that we continue to wish even after we know the truth is what it is. It is the desire for hope that is the most enduring human emotion.
The kids are not all right, and they know it. Canadian Philippe Falardeau's exquisite Monsieur Lazhar will remain one of my favourite films from this year's festival. Here the children in a grade-school class cope with the traumatic event that opens the film: the suicide of their teacher in their own classroom. Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is the Algerian immigrant who becomes their new teacher and he himself is also recovering from traumatic events. It is predictable that students and teacher learn from each other, but what is not at all foreseen is how subtly and honestly the film deals with grief at all ages. I would be hard-pressed to think of any other film I know that shows children dealing so truthfully with loss. The two young children most at the centre of the story (Sophie Nélisse and Émillen Neron) are the only two to have seen the deceased Martine before they could be protected from that horror. They give beautiful performances as children following very different trajectories of guilt and sadness. In an essay she reads to the class, young Alice says her school is beautiful because it is hers and because she has made a life there. But it is not beautiful because it now holds a death. In one of the most insightful moments, the essay asks why her school punishes violence in children, and yet a teacher's violence is left unadmonished. The rare complexity of expressed feeling and complicated silence have never been so lovingly rendered. This film is winning awards wherever it goes and is proving that Falardeau's two previous gems La moitié gauche du frigo and C'est pas moi, je le jure! were not accidents.
Home is where the heart is…. trapped. Two films I saw this past week were about people enduring house arrest for the sake of moral and democratic principle. The first of these, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This is Not a Film is still troubling me, though I saw it on the very first night (and wrote a bit about it then). I had thought I would write a full blog on Iranian cinema and its changing direction and that may still come, but it seems to need to gestate some more. For now I will say that I continue to be deeply moved by watching Panahi move around his own condominium struggling to act out and explain for us the progress of the film he had hoped to make but which caused him to be first arrested, then detained and now imprisoned. (The imprisonment followed the period this film was made in. Panahi is still in prison and now Mirtahmasb has been detained and banned from filmmaking also.) As a result of these events, the film is a testament to creative bravery but it also brilliantly portrays the ordinary horror of living out a known future in the seeming routine of everyday life. Panahi gets up late and eats breakfast, goes through his day as anyone might, with a big difference - he can't move from where he is. We hear him talk with his lawyer who assures him imprisonment is inevitable - but the ban might be lifted. The absurdity registers: what good is a lifted ban on making movies if one is in prison? The movie's most poignant moments come as he walks through the opening sequence for us of his proposed film describing the confinement of his main heroine. The irony is not lost on him and he pauses, momentarily overcome with emotion. When, in the film's final moments, he follows a custodian out of the basement exit and walks almost to the gate under the cloak of night, the fellow warns him to be careful and go back. Beyond the gate, a fire is burning - and that is our last image: a fire that is blazing uncontrolled. The warning could be about being found outside his home, or it could be about the fire, we're not sure which. But the fire burning on could have many meanings: the fire of creativity; or the fire of political tyranny that destroys that which it should cherish.
Home is where the heart is…. separated from love. The events which led to the home imprisonment of Burma's elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi are now well known to the world. Though Suu Kyi was released in November 2010, she continues to live in the country that her father gave his life for. Luc Besson's film The Lady was written by Rebecca Frayn who began working on the project in the early 1990s after spending time in Burma. She sent it to Michelle Yeoh who then requested Besson. The addition of David Thewlis as Suu Kyi's English husband Michael Aris completes the casting and is critical to its strength. This film might also have been called Portrait of a Marriage - as the union despite separation of the central couple is the galvanizing energy of the screenplay and story. We are not really guided through the ins and outs of Burmese politics and this is wise, as they are too complex for us to follow. Instead, Besson and Frayn focus on the human drama. It is a brave choice as it runs the risk of being accused of western appropriation, instead of a complete celebration of an extraordinary Asian leader within her own context and world. But I support them in this choice: the film is shot in English and many scenes occur in the English home of Michael Aris making it unabashedly an English take on the story. I was deeply moved by Yeoh and Thewlis, whose deeply embedded respect for their characters seems to shine out of their skin. Yeoh is so lovely in this role - perfect even. Her poise, her demeanour, her natural strength and fiery commitment and her moments of great loss are so finely conveyed. As usual with Thewlis you just want to reach into the film and hug him. He has that affable quality in all his movies but never more so than here, where he is also trying to conceal it under the visage of solidarity to his wife's purpose. The film walks the line of romanticizing their relationship - and we sense that there must have been a much greater complexity and suffering than is shown. But at this point in time, with Suu Kyi still alive and Burma still in play, it seems a wholly fitting way to show the lives. If I had to pick a favourite image from this festival, it might be one of the many shots of Yeoh from behind with her hair filled with orchids. These flowers entwined in her hair served visually to underline a deeper and more enduring truth: that delicacy and strength, when they are combined, make the rarest form of beauty.
Gender, revisited. There was once a television film made of the memoir Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson that starred Janet McTeer as his mother, Vita Sackville-West. It was the film that introduced me to McTeer who is possibly one of the world's most underappreciated actors. I found myself suddenly thinking of that performance when McTeer turned up gloriously in Rodrigo Garcia's Albert Nobbs, also starring Glenn Close. The film as a whole suffers somewhat from screenwriting gaffes (including characters who speak out loud to themselves) and a kind of over-direction in places, but when these two actresses are together, it soars. I loved the nuancing and careful sexual politic of the gender bending in the film. Both actors are playing women who are passing for men in a class-defined Irish society of the late 19th century. The two scenes where they each reveal their true gender to the other are worth the price of admission, but I was also moved by the scenes of their friendship outside the hotel where Nobbs (Close) works, in the home that Hubert (McTeer) has made with his lawful wife. This is a rare and beautifully rendered glimpse of what gay and transgendered life might have looked like in the 19th century. There is a wonderful naivete in the character of Albert Nobbs which Close bears out with tremendous acuity and care. She somehow retains her femininity while also convincing us as a waifish, repressed waiter. As she slowly conceives the idea of wooing a maid (Mia Wasikowska) to help her in a dream of opening her own shop, her worry about when to reveal the truth to the woman seems like a simple problem, and not the enormous question of ultimate realities that it seems to us. As always with Close, it is her face that haunts and hunts the truth of a scene, and Garcia seems to know to leave the camera long on her in key moments so that her preoccupied and emotional face registers across a room or up a staircase from where she sits in attendance on her guests. I was astonished by a scene later in the film in which McTeer and Close, now dressed as women, take a walk on the beach. It is a source of humour that their awkward uncertainty as women causes them to now appear like men in drag. It is a signature moment that speaks to the incredible craft of these two actors at the top of their form. I won't be surprised, however, if it is McTeer who ends up gaining the most plaudits as the movie goes forward. She nearly upstages and steals the film. There is no official website for this movie yet - and no trailer - and finding images of Janet McTeer in the movie is almost impossible. But I did find this small clip showing them together. Enjoy. (And I can't resist adding a great clip from Portrait of a Marriage - which is entirely available on youtube - here.) Great performances in good films.
Monday, September 12, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Eventually, I tore myself away and made my way to Bloor Street and the Varsity cinemas, still in a daze but vaguely continuing in the day because I wanted to stay near people. I entered a sea of distressed Industry reps all on phones, clustered again, this time around a series of candy counter monitors normally used to show movie trailers and now channeling a live feed of the unfolding nightmare. People wept, talked, tried desperately to get a hold of loved ones. I spent the next hour standing with the late Canadian actress Jackie Burroughs, whom I had once worked with but did not know well, as we shared tears and astonishment and tried to understand what was happening. The word came slowly that TIFF was shutting down for at least 24 hours out of respect to the many Americans present. During that period they would offer resources, support and assistance to as many of those guests affected as they could: I cannot imagine a more appropriate or thorough response made so spontaneously. My mind wandered to all kinds of people I knew and didn't know affected by the events. My cousin lived in New York and I tried hard to reach her all day. Word eventually came that she was fine, but then the story of my other cousin's partner slowly emerged. She had spent much of the day in a rented car trying to figure out what to do next, finally ending up at the family cottage in Connecticut where the family next door knew already they had lost a loved one to the events. Her story was repeated by the many thousands whose paths and lives were irrevocably changed.
Just the day before, I had attended a press conference for Richard Linklater's Waking Life. Staying behind to interview someone, I overheard a conversation between Linklater and a colleague. As they parted, one of them said to the other, "see you tomorrow in the Apple". I wondered where they were now.
This film festival often finds itself at a strange crossroads of political and cultural events. TIFF was minimally impacted by the tragedies of that day, but the artists who were present and those who weren't would eventually mine these realities in the works that would be showcased in the coming decade. From the omnibus 11'9"01 collection that appeared a year or two later to this year's The Love We Make by filmmakers Bradley Kaplan and Alfred Maysles, TIFF has helped to relate how the world lived out the realities of that day and the greater and more lasting impact it has had on communities even beyond the boundaries of New York, Washington and northeastern Pennsylvania. I will be remembering those whose lives were lost, and sending out a prayer that today's artists will continue to reflect on these and other vividly remembered acts and moments of horror, so that we might continue to learn, and continue to strive for a world in peace.
Midway on the Saturday and I have clocked 13 films. I just left the Guy Maddin, which turned out to be a violent and simple pastiche narrative - lacking the whimsy, lyricism and genuine mystery of his recent films like My Winnipeg and Saddest Music in the World and taking way too long to get to Isabella Rossellini. Or maybe I've already started to be tired. It has been a day of disappointments after a thrilling beginning with Albert Nobbs (review coming). I went in late and saw the middle 40 minutes of Jan Zabell's River Used to be a Man, and liked what I saw very much. The film is compellingly visual, with scant dialogue offering a quick view of what it would be like to be a contemporary individual set down with no resources in an African wetland, face to face with tribal communities living modern lives with traditional practices and beliefs. I left this to take in Rémi Bezançon's A Happy Event which had the single great draw for me of being the first film in ages featuring Josianne Balasko in a supporting role. Balasko, who came to fame in the 90s as the 'other woman' for Gerard Depardieu in Trop Belle Pour Toi went on to become a filmmaker herself - directing the fabulously funny indie hit Gazon Maudit about women who find love by accident when one shows up at the door of the other after her truck breaks down. Her next film that she also directed and starred in, Un Grand Cri D'amour, about fading actors who have separated as a couple but are brought back together in a play by a scheming manager, I still think of as one of the funniest films I've ever seen. Alas, in A Happy Event Balasko is fine, but a bit wasted for her comedic genius in a total of about 15 minutes of screen time. Though I liked the unglamorized look at motherhood the film took on, I regretted missing two other possibly exciting films.
The past two days have otherwise been incredibly good. I am still reflecting on Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film, which was introduced in Thursday night's public screening by Cameron Bailey and Panahi's wife and daughter. The story of this filmmaker's detention and imprisonment are well-known, entirely because the film he submitted for approval for production was deemed seditious and was not only declined, but caused him to be detained. This has been the climate of Iranian filmmaking since the elections in 2009 - a very frightening reality. And yet at the same time - that country's cinema is going through an unquestionable shift into new and more specifically adult realities. (More coming in a separate blog review of This is Not a Film and Asghar Farhadi's A Separation.) Bailey told us that night that the film was smuggled out to Cannes on a flashdrive hidden in a loaf of bread. This is how dangerous it can be to make movies in some parts of the world. This is Not a Film collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was himself detained on his way to TIFF, arrested at Tehran airport and forbidden to leave the country. He too is now under ban.
Blogging in the Lightbox Canteen on Thursday night, I lost track of time and was late arriving at Joaquim Sapinho's This Side of Resurrection (pictured), a Portuguese film that looks at a young girl's struggle to understand her brother's decision to become a monk. I waited in line and did get in (when others left) at about the 20 minute mark and saw the remainder. This is a film I had much anticipated for its subject matter. The film takes on a monastic sensibility at all turns - absolutely every moment and gesture is reflective. The depiction of cloistered life stretched my sense of credibility, even as one who has stayed often in a Trappist monastery. It seemed unlikely to me that in a contemporary age monks sleep on bamboo mats and have only one candle on the floor for light. And yet, some research proved my suspicions wrong: the film was shot at Convent of the Capuchos in Sintra Nature Park in Portugal, and the picture I found and inserted here is from the actual convent, not the film. The film is sensuous in its depiction of the gorgeous Portuguese coastal beach and the symbiotic relationship both Ines and Rafael have with the ocean (which participates in family history as well). The film deals bravely and carefully takes on difficult areas like mortification of the flesh as penance - and does this very well. While not a practice I believe in, I thought its complexity was handled well. A film that has slowly grown has time has passed.
On Friday, I started the day with another top seed, Joseph Cedar's Footnote, an Israeli film about rivalry among father and son Judaism professors at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I can't begin to list the reasons why this film was high on my list. As a Biblical studies scholar myself I was a bit dismayed by some glaring inaccuracies in the use of terms of reference and the general vagueness about scholarly achievement caused the film to drop a notch of credibility for me. On the other hand, it is a moving tribute to a great Biblical theme: tribal and familial strife caused by pride and ambition. The film's subject is handled with humour and high style - and the narrative itself is treated like an academic research project, with details about characters and relationships typed out in bullet form paragraphs sometimes on the screen. I wished for some slightly more poignant moments of deeper and more inward reflective longing for relationship among the father and son (played by Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Askenazi). Ashkenazi's character Uriel comes the closest - and his choices in the film are moving. I sense this one too will grow as time passes. Just incidentally, the central title premise of the film, that the father's greatest achievement is to be mentioned in a footnote in a great work written by someone else) seemed highly unlikely to me as being an accomplishment of such importance in a career otherwise illustrious enough to be worthy of an Israel prize. These kinds of things are good examples of the value of story editors…. ! Hmmm….
This next moment is a typical TIFF experience for me: scanning the schedule to find the cinema number of the next film, my eyes fell on another slot with a director's name whom I love: Mia Hansen-Love. I had somehow missed the directing credit when reviewing this film for my roster of picks and the story of failed first love didn't otherwise make the cut. However, running with all my bags, I was able to get into the film about five minutes underway and see Goodbye First Love (Un Amour de Jeunesse). Two years ago, Hansen-Love's Le Père de mes Enfants became possibly my favourite film of that year - a moving homage to the many indie film developers in the world who suffer personal financial ruin for the sake of the art they believe in. It was a beautiful debut feature (read my review here and forgive the broken picture links - I need to fix those). Goodbye First Love is a gentle follow-up but carries forward similar themes of uncontrollable depression and sadness that come out of one's own inability to reconcile lost dreams. The two young leads, Lola Créton and Sebastian Urzendowsky are luminescent as the torn lovers - whose passion cannot outrun their immaturity and unreadiness for full relationship. Even years again when they meet up, the same problems exist, though we sense in the manner of a Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, that the story is not over for these two even at its conclusion. Some loves just simply last forever.
The French dynamic duo known as the Dardennes brothers seem to have developed a unique capacity for shining light on the horrific collateral damage caused by average and casual failures of moral responsibility. In Kid with a Bike (pictured at top), which I also saw Friday, they have told the story entirely through the eyes of a child, in a way that is reminiscent of the early masterpieces of the great Iranian filmmakers like Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami and Panahi. The difference with this film is that the focus has shifted from their usual pessimistic portrait of contemporary apathy. Instead, we have here a fable of enduring goodness in the face of failed and redeeming love. Cyril, the young boy whose father doesn't want him, falls easily into the hands of predators and redeemers alike. We ache for him and hang in suspense in the great way of movies, waiting to see who will win. The ins and outs of that narrative don't seem to matter: it is a character drama where the young hero, against all odds, must choose the right path himself. It is a brutal cliff-hanger as a youngster is a youngster despite how good they are at heart. Damage is pervasive when pain is as searing as that experienced by this character, and yet this is a film marked by transcendence. The ubiquitous bike becomes a metaphor of Cyril's dilemma: always on the verge of being stolen, its continued partnership with our hero somehow encourages us to believe that all shall be well. See the film and find out for yourselves. Of all the Dardennes films, this is my favourite to date.
I ended Friday with the first Wavelengths programme, meeting up with a friend and former student. I spend so much of my festival alone (meeting and seeing people around the festival, but in screenings alone) that it was a real pleasure to have that company and to talk about the films afterward. I never tire of singing the praises of programmer Andréa Picard but what other programmer walks the rush line counting heads to see how many can get in and then has to prove her credentials to the volunteers as she tries to re-enter the theatre? Her modest introductions are entirely about serving the filmmakers, most of whom she tells us, have been deeply impacted by the shutting down of major film processing houses like Soho in London. The theme of the evening was Analogue Arcadia - and these filmmakers are mourning (in spirit if not always directly in theme) what they experience as the slow death of film stock. My friend Sofia had some great observations about the way in which this programme championed the relationships of art as finite finished work separated or somehow in static relationship to its creators. Tacita Dean's Edwin Parker seemed to evince this as we observe the master artist Cy Twombly in average moments of uncertainty completely unrelated to artistic practice while around him sit half-finished and finished pieces of sculpture and paintings. For much of part of this film an empty 19th century frame (startling similar to one around a family portrait that is in my living room) sits astride the artist who has his back to it. Dean makes these casual observations all the time simply by letting the camera rest on the subjects in relationship to space. The rest of the films had much to say about space that no longer has function, from Nick Collns' Loutra/Baths, set in abandoned Roman baths in England to the empty shop in Sophie Michael's 99 Clerkenwell Road to Ben Rivers plating factory in Sack Barrow. Joshua Bonnetta's American Colour is what Sofia called an 'ode to Kodachrome' - in an ingenious shuffling of coloured panels that in his words prepares us for the saturated look of the images shot on its fading stock. While I enjoyed all these films, I was most impacted by the shortest one, Raya Martin's one minute Ars Colonia (pictured here) which offered hand-coloured animations of a conquistador who survives war. Perhaps this is the note I wanted most to reflect on, a tiny bell of hope that resonated vibrantly amid the sadness.
Friday, September 09, 2011
Yesterday turned out to be a five film day. I put the review of Pina to bed at 2:30 am so the rest of the films had to wait - but that is a good thing. Movies, like good food and wine, need time to savour and reflect on them - an increasingly rarer tradition in film criticism. Arriving at the second theatre yesterday, I ran into an entourage exiting the cinemas - that turned out to be Roger Ebert and his wife surrounded by a number of support people from TIFF. For many years in many ways the presence of this giant critic at TIFF irritated me beyond words. I can recount at least two experiences I had of him at P & I screenings that left lasting negative impressions: one involved a ranting that went on at TIfF volunteers because he was being turned away from a full house. Another occurred when I overheard him describing how he had influenced a major studio into changing the ending of a controversial film. These bad impressions fought with an otherwise fairly simpatico sensibility with him about movies themselves - we often agree on likes and dislikes. I have never actually met him and that's important to say. However, in the recent events of his life, and in the courage he has shown, there is no question that his whole manner and demeanour (in TIFF terms) have changed. I was moved by seeing him accepting assistance and gracious to those around him. So far this festival has invited me to 'reframe' some of my prejudices about places and people!
My second film of the day yesterday was Nadine Labaki's Where do we go now? I loved her first film Caramel, and there is no question that this lovely Lebanese actor and director is a wonderful new voice in Middle Eastern cinema. Where Caramel confined most of its storytelling to a women's salon, the new film seems to explode into the country itself, locating its narrative in a small unnamed village in a remote area cut off by a destroyed bridge that links it to the world of conflict. Its isolation means that its Christian and Muslim inhabitants can get away with living in relative peace and harmony. Magic realist or metaphysical moments (blood appearing in a baptismal font for example), seem likely to set off ancient tribal feuding instincts. These unexplained incidents, however, act as catalysts to the efforts of the local priest and imam who conspire and collude to help each other. Though they are important figures, just as with Caramel, Where Do We Go Now? belongs to the women, whose single purpose in life is to prevent the kind of war and chaos that has claimed so many of their loved ones.
Labaki navigates this territory with appropriate gravity but also with a tremendous amount of humour and fun. The feminism of her work is so deeply implicit and is so clearly at its heart that it seems obvious to mention it. These women empower each other, gift each other, mourn with each other and in the end come up with an ingenious solution that only they could pull off. Nadine Labaki appears in the film as the owner of the small cafe at the centre of the village who seems to be in love with a man who loves her. Though they are prevented from coming together by their differing faith traditions, they seem to manage ways to communicate with each other their feelings. One of the things I loved about this film was the way that it avoided all kinds of predictable story traps - one of them which might have been to resolve or conclude this love affair. Labaki could have followed many tangential and traditional story arcs to complete or fulfill in the classic sense the patterns of narrative we have come to expect. Her strength is that she resists doing so. Life is not so conclusive and yet this story remains fulfilling. The focus is not on her character or on any one character: the focus is on the community of women and how they work to sustain the spirit of peace and love that undergirds both their faith traditions. They do it from a place of faith, but in complete solidarity with each other. There is a Fellini-esque bit of surrealism when a travelling band of Russian burlesque dancers is co-opted by the women into the village to distract the men from fighting: even these women are eventually drawn into the plan.
Labaki seems to delight in the behaviour of this incredible community of women: the opening sequence where they move toward the communal graveyard, half-singing and dancing, is perhaps the most iconic image the film offers us of its heart. Coming right after having seen Pina, this sequence made me feel like I had never left, and that somehow the spirit of Wuppertal had landed in Lebanon. This often happens in the TIFF experience, where the themes and moods of one film blend into another.
It has been an exciting first day. But before I get to that, I have to I start my TIFF blogging with an apology. For the last few years I have been ranting about the Lightbox - its corporate leadweight on the festival, the way it symbolizes the increasingly corporate profie of TIFF that has changed it from an alternative art-house salon into a marketplace. But now that I am attending movies in it, I have to say that it is a great screening house. The cinemas are ideal movie spaces - and it only takes a quick walk up the street to the loathsome Scotiabank to feel the gratitude deepen. TIFF's P & I screenings are split this year between the Scotiabank multiplex and the Lightbox. The LB screens are exquisite (and my first film was made all the richer by its cinema space). The building also contains the feeling of "museum" in a way that is entirely appropriate. I will have to get used to the many suspended walkways and glass railings that feed my vertigo, but the building works and is a pleasure to be in.
My first screening was Wim Wenders' Pina, and it was thrilling to be handed my 3D glasses. Waiting for the lights to go down I listened in on a conversation behind me: two men talking about Lars Von Trier's Melancholia which they had just seen. I had hoped so much to arrive in time today for that screening, but couldn't manage it. I learned much however from their intelligent, insightful discussion which included relating it to von Trier's wider work.
Pina's gorgeous lines are borne out of Wim Wenders ability to adopt Bausch's eye for the inspiration born of environment, from an industrial complex to open mountain side to the graceful gliding of the monorail through Wuppertal like a dancer itself. The decision for 3-D works, though I wasn't sure at first. 3-D offers a separation of space that feels like CGI and takes a while to adjust to as having been generated in true action. The advantage here is that it simulates the way we experience dance in the theatre and Wenders seems to intuit that - with shots that play with the concept of a theatrical 'house' - where the heads of those like us are visible in the frame watching the dance. And yet in many other ways the film seeks to break the fourth wall. It made me think of the work of my friend and Canadian filmmaker Moze Mossanen who has been doing this since the 1980s with his films about dance. I can't wait for Moze to see this film and assess the 3D aspect. Which wall are we breaking with the third dimension? It seems to be about depth of field and there are moments when the dancers seem to be coming right toward us. There is a layering of the theatrical sets that also works well.
Wenders' respect for Bausch is perhaps the most moving thing about Pina. It is an homage, from one German master to another, speaking across forms but with a tremendous amount of suspended ego. Their styles seem to blend. When Pina Bausch died two years ago, I wrote a piece on her then. (Go here to read it.) I wrote there about Café Muller and how haunting it is to watch Bausch perform it. Wenders uses that footage of her performance in a wonderful way, nestling it in the centre of a sequence that approaches the piece through the reminiscences of her collaborators, who then perform the work again. The film seeks to lift its participants' voices out of the body by allowing us to simply watch them, as we hear their voice. It is a clever device. In the end it is the dances themselves which transfix the image and memory of Pina in our hearts. Lovingly performed by an otherwise sorrowful company, still adjusting to her departure, they lift out of even three dimensions into a weightless undefinable reality.
Wednesday, September 07, 2011
Saturday, August 20, 2011
So I cannot possibly put together a final "list" because we are still waiting on Discovery and most of Masters. Assuming there will be some late-breaking heavy-hitters among them, I am going to list only 33 of what will eventually be (next weekend) the top 50 picks. (Yeah, I know - those Wavelengths and Short Cuts Canada entries look like five and four - meaning nine screenings, not 2!) The ranking is entirely subjective --- and is not a reflection of what I think will be the "best" films. They are just the most anticipated. And they are linked to the TIFF online page. I'm hoping that the full programme book descriptions will also land on these linked pages on Tuesday, as they have in years past. Don't let us down, TIFF!
Where Do We Go Now?
This is Not a Film
This Side of Resurrection
Wavelengths 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
A Simple Life (pictured)
Martha Marcy May Marlene
In My Mother's Arms
Last Days in Jerusalem
Pink Ribbons Inc.
Last Call at the Oasis
Oslo, August 31
Woman in the Fifth
Chicken with Plums
The Deep Blue Sea
Short Cuts Canada 2, 4, 5, 6
Story of Film
Future Lasts Forever
More next week!
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Almost there: CWC, Wavelengths, Future Projections, Visions and some Galas and Special Presentations
One of my most excited moments in Festival prep comes with the announcement of the Wavelengths line-up, which often includes the smaller masterpieces of the masters of many genres of filmmaking, besides just the experimental genre. The wit of programmer Andréa Picard is part of why she is one of TIFF's best programmers. Consider this example, in the description of Wavelengths Programme 1: "As celluloid threatens to disappear altogether, Wavelengths launches with a celebratory and elegiac programme comprised of doomed desire, vanishing worlds and a love of analogue." Alongside Wavelengths, TIFF made significant programming annoucements including all the Visions and Future Projectons titles, as well as some additional selections in the Galas and Special Presentations. Here is a rundown.
(Films are grouped by TIFF into five screenings)
WL1: Analogue Arcadia (wins the programme title of the year award) As usual, the curating of the Wavelengths programmes brings forward a nuanced sensibility for the ways in which films speak to each other across form and format. I am drawn to all seven shorts in this first night of screenings: Loutra/Baths - Nick Collins' "mesmerizing study" of an ancient Roman bath; Edwin Parker, Tacita Dean's portrait of Cy Twombly, one of my most favourte contemporary aritsts (pictured above). Renowned Vietnamese filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who was discovered and launched at TIFF during this past decade with remarkable feature films, offers Empire, a "beguiling miniature of an enchanted grotto". Also looking forward to Joshua Bonnetta's American Colour about the glories and demise of Kodachrome film stock."Vibrant ecology" is featured in the next of Rose Lowder's bouquet series: Bouquets 11-20. The North African bosphorous is conveyed in Jonathan Schwartz' Preface to Red. T. Marie (whom I always find exciting) is back with Optra Field VII-IX, described by the alliterating Picard as "pixel paintings for perceiving perception, and moiré to the max."
WL2: James Benning's Twenty Cigarettes is about the same pack of ciggies being shared by twenty people from around the world. That's enough smoking to make up its own entire screening night!
WL3: Serial Rhythms
Nine films participate in this series. Of these, highlights include legendary Canadian visual artist Joyce Wieland offering Sailboat, a "vaguely ominous haiku on the high waters." Similarly, John Pride's Sea Series #10 looks like it considers visually the way we perceive oceans after disasters like Fukushima. Alina Rudnitskaya's I Will Forget This Day is a black & white meditation on waiting. This film may be a good example of the crossover values of Wavelengths and Visions, especially as Picard this year takes over the entire Visions programming (including Future Projections, assessed below).
WL4: Space is the Place
Six films participate in this screening slot, including Mark Lewis' Black Mirror at the National Gallery which experiments with Dutch landscape painting and the interacting roles of camera, mirror and artist. Blair Williams' Coorow-Latham Road (pictured) takes on Google Streetview and its ways of conveying perception of space. Austria, Algeria and Japan are the settings of three remaining films by Ute Aurand, Neil Beloufa and Eriko Sonodo.
WL5: The Return/Aberration of Light
This final programme focusses on only two films. A master of the form, Nathaniel Dorsky's The Return meditates on life and memory. In Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure, Sandra Gibson, Luis Recoder and composer Olivia Block collaborate on an "improvised live cinema performance." Not sure just yet what that will entail but is worth trying on spec.
As a teacher of film and new media, the Future Projections programme offers a terrific richness of ways to see the increasingly indelible blend of these two forms of expression. This year's slate shows much possibility for provocative critical thinking. Here are some highlights:
Of the 11 programmed events, none will be more controversial than that of Mr. Brainwash, the film documentarian and Banksy sidekick turned modern visual artist. Exit Through the Gift Shop takes a satiric look at MB's opus, often criticized as well by others for its slapdash, unconceptually developed forms. I am not sure what the programmers are up to here, but a first glance at his pervasive presence might suggest that the marketing end of TIFF (increasingly aggressive and in danger of trivializing that which TIFF seeks to preserve, the 'essence' of cinema) may have had some input here. MB is apparently going to assist in the fall curation of the Grace Kelly retrospective in a "unique" way, and his spray cans will be outside RTH. This feels to me like marketing and exploitation of the media presence MB has enjoyed since the film came out. And his installation, which remains untitled (not surprising given how last minute his work is according to ETGS) has been defined so far as only "multiple piece". There's a big "we'll see' next to all this, in my mind. The installation will be at Gallery One, 121 Scollard.
Much more exciting fare awaits in Peter Lynch's Buffalo Days, which looks at how European colonization impacted the Native North American aesthetic sensibility, in a video and environmental sound installation. At the ROM's Institute of Contemporary Culture, 100 Queens Park.
James Franco and Gus Van Sant's Memories of Idaho, is essentially two films presented sequentially that reflect back on the making of My Own Private Idaho as a seminal moment in Van Sant's career and life. The films are entitled My Own Private River and Idaho, one focussing on River Pheonix and the other a Super 8 tribute to his original conception for the film. To be screened at TIFF Lightbox.
Some Canadian artists come into the foreground in these installations with impressive projects.
David Rokeby's Plot Against Time will show, in the words of the press release, "gannets swooping off the coast of Newfoundland. Brilliantly suggesting abstract-expressionist precedents from Whistler to Pollock, Plot Against Time’s interest in kinesis is as sociological and technological as it is philosophical and painterly." I couldn't have said it better myself. At the Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen West. Nicholas and Sheila Pye (whose film The Encounter is also being screened in the Short Cuts Canada programme) will present Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board, inspired by the children's game. At Birch Libralato, 129 Tecumseth. Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation's whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (2009-2011) takes its cue from 'paranoic sci-fi noir' and particularly Tarkovsky and Godard. At the NFB Mediatheque 150 John.
American photographer Gregory Crewdson's Sanctuary roams the empty ruins of the great Cinecitta studios where Fellini and Scorcese and others have shot films. At CONTACT gallery, 80 Spadina. UK Director Duane Hopkins' Sunday takes us back to the West Midlands of his chldhood in what is promised to "capture the ennui, sadness and beauty of isolated adolescence in painterly tones and colors that recall the British Romantics, while twinning and reconceptualizing his landscapes to evoke the brooding, twitchy surrealism of the ever-encroaching contemporary world." At MOCCA, 952 Queen West. Ben Rivers' Slow Action takes four real locations and imagines them as futuristic communities. At TPW, 56 Ossington. And David Lamelas' Time as Activity (Buenos Aires) meditates on how we conceive time while looking at the landmark Plaza Congreso in Buenos Aires. It is billed as having "tranquil elegance, economy and ostensible simplicity". Programmers are unendingly adept at this kind of prose!
Of all the installations, however, I am most drawn to and excited by Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky's Road Movie, which looks at Palestinian life in the West Bank in a six-sided installation at O'Born Contemporary, 51 Wolseley. (pictured)
The last of the three programmes grouped under the heading "Visions" is the actual Visions programme itself. Of the 20 titles announced here, here are my picks. Looking very much forward to Joaquim Sapinho's This Side of Resurrection (pictured), which looks at "sibling love and faith" when a young woman discovers that the brother she thought was backpacking around the world has in fact become a monk. Helvecio Marins Jr. Clarissa Campolina's Swirl profiles an 80 year old woman tackling the ultimate questions in life after the death of her husband in the beautiful landscape of northern Brazil. I want to be excited about Jan Zabell's The River Used to be a Man, but the description has a vagueness that worries me, despite my interest in its themes of 'divination, memory and traditional belief'. It is perhaps the 'existential fog' of the main character that sounds like this work may be more puzzling than satisfying. Similarly, Debbie Tucker Green's Random about a Black British woman on a day of family violence, sounds like it has a powerful premise, but its monologue structure has me cautious. The "shot entirely in long shot" is equally a caution about Ruben Östlund's Play, which is "based on an actual incident in Gothenburg where a group of black kids manipulated other teenagers, mostly from "ethnic" backgrounds, into surrendering their valuables", but here I am more willing to take the risk. You see how subjective film selection is!
Matias Mayer's The Last Christeros offers a theme of enduring commitment to Christian faith that appeals to me, even if the story and landscape otherwise don't. Christian themes also lace Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.'s Fable of the Fish, which examines the mixture of belief systems that constitues the faith life of many Filipinos. Also from the Phillippines and also dealing in part with contemporary Christianity is Lav Diaz's Century of Birthing which follows two stories, one a filmmaker's attempt to complete his work, and the other an Evangelical leader's challenges in a rural region. Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler, all German filmmakers, participate in a three-part film series, each with the preliminary title Dreileben which follows an escaped murderer from three different angles. From the country that gave us Run Lola Run.
To the already much discussed line-up of galas, is added Christophe Honoré's Beloved (pictured) with Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve. It presents a mother/daughter adventure in love from the 1960s to the present day. I confess I will take this in if I can, at the very least to quietly enjoy the divine loveliness of the two leading ladies. Tanya Wexler's Hysteria starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy about the invention of the vibrator looks like it could either be eccentric and frivolous or funny and pithy - though of course it may also be neither! Page Eight, David Hare's latest film focuses on a British agent who faces down the compromises of the government, with Rachel Weisz in tow. (Is there a film being released in 2011 that does not have Rachel Weisz? She seems to be everywhere, including at least three films at TIFF.) Jennifer Hudson takes the title role in Darrell Roodt's film Winnie which tells the story of Winnie Mandela, with Terrence Howard.
Emmano Olmi's Cardboard Village is about a deconsecrated church and the new missional purpose it fulfills when immigrants find sanctuary within it. Very much looking forward to this. Nathan Morlando's Edwin Boyd about Canada's notorious bank robber set in post-war Toronto stars Scott Speedman. Gianni Amello's First Man recovers the steps of a French Algerian returning to his childhood home in this adaptation from a work-in-progress of Albert Camus before his death. Much ballyhoo will be made of the new Bollywood romance by Pankaj Kapur, Mausam, starring Sonam Kapoor and Shahid Kapur. Australian novelist Julia Leigh has made an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty which looks like an interesting contemporary adaptation that comments on some of the inherent preconceptions of the well-known fairy tale. And Emanuelle Crialese's Terraferma takes place in that southern part of Sicily that has seen a huge influx of North African immigrants.
However, of all the announced new SPs, most compelling to me is Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, about holocaust Jews hiding in Polish sewer systems. Though she has made a number of films now about this era, her sharply observed sense of human drama offers always a fresh take. Equally exciting is Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights which looks to be brave and bold as only this Scottish auteur can be. Unknown cast and stark imagery are hallmarks of her work and would seem by the photographic evidence in full effect here.
Finally, in the I Need to Revisit a First Response Department: George Clooney's Ides of March now looks more fun than I thought it would be, with supporting actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei offering likely opportunity for nuanced comedy and all around strong performances.
Coming soon: revised Top 50 film list.