Thursday, August 04, 2011

TIFF '11: Docs and Buenos Aires

Without question, the two most exciting films named this past Tuesday did not belong to any of the programmes being released that day, but instead are two more in the Masters line-up still largely yet to come. Of these, I am thrilled that TIFF will give me the opportunity to see Wim Wenders biopic of German dance theatre genius Pina Bausch, in Pina. It boggles my mind to imagine the one aesthetic being brought to bear on the other but I am certain only pleasure awaits, especially since the film takes the excerpted dance works into the outdoor environment of Wuppertal, the town in Germany where Bausch's company lived and worked. A tremendously exciting entry. Equally compelling will be Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's poignantly titled This is Not a Film which made me cry when I first saw it, alongside the first filmmaker's name. As most people are aware, Panahi has been under house arrest and banned from filmmaking in Iran for almost two years because of that country's disapproval of the subject matter of his films, which often break the taboo on showing adult relations and political realities in very powerful ways. Assisted here by Mirtahmasb, he has nonetheless brought another project into the world which both chronicles his own house arrest and profiles the current realities of Iranian cinema. These two films soar to the top of my list as absolute musts.

There are programmes that define the festival-goer. Among these, Midnight Madness offers a chance to live out the violent and surreal in sophisticated ways in films made by often master story tellers. Alas, however, it is not for me. I'm more of a Wavelengths girl myself - a programme which is usually the first out of the gate in the announcements, since its experimental and avant-garde context speaks perhaps to the smallest number of interested people. The festival press office doesn't create much buzz of suspense around what programer Andréa Picard has done each year, despite that her programme is held highly within the festival staff itself, and I often devote an entire blogpost to it.

Similarly, Vanguard, the edgy new programme that emerged in this last decade, offers films that challenge us to go outside our comfort zone. But aside from a handful that I have loved, I tend to find the real 'edginess' elsewhere. Comfort zones exist as much in our expectations of cinema as in the content of films. I find
The Tree of Life one of the edgiest films in recent times, because it defies almost all North American film conventions, pushing the poetic over the linear, the timeless over the sequential narrative, the impressionistic over the progressively logical. That is a very brave film in my mind, cast into the world without the director's presence anywhere nearby to lend a helping hand in understanding it. That said, this year's speight of Vanguard films do hold promising entries.

First of these is a film which at first glance strangely echoes events of recent weeks entitled Oslo, 31. August by Norwegian director Joachim Trier. A closer look, however, reveals a much more thoughtful and less violent film which chronicles a day in the life of a young drifter eerily named Anders as he attempts to reconcile his own past mistakes and future possibilities in a single night of encountering friends in the nation's capital. Lou Ye's Love and Bruises, has a title that hints at the crises in store for a young Chinese woman who falls in with a French youth in the suburbs when she moves to Paris. This newest work from a fascinating Chinese filmmaker may have interesting things to say about gender and sexuality when they are both located and dislocated from culture and community. Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio offers a story set in the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami affecting that country last year, with The Year of the Tiger. A convict is both freed by these events and left to face their consequences to his own life.

Otherwise, of the films announced on Tuesday in the Vanguards, Midnight Madness, TIFF Kids, City to City and Real to Reel programmes, my remaining picks cull from the last two. The city being featured in this year's festival is Buenos Aires, likely to be a much less controversial choice than last year's Tel Aviv. The uniquely Argentinian street performance culture of Murga is featured in Alison Murray's Caprichosos de San Telmo which looks at the multi-cultural aspect of this new form. Pablo Trapero's Crane World looks interesting, about a man whose life as a crane operator in the city's construction industry promises a very different take on the city from its glamourized music and café traditions. Santiago Mitre's The Student is billed as a thriller set in the crumbling world of the University of Buenos Aires and uses a corrupt student political life as a model for the larger world around it. My strongest bet in this programme, however, is Nicolás Prividera's Fatherland, which explores the more recent history of Argentina through the voices of writers that emerge from Buenos Aires' Recoleta Cemetery.

In recent years, I have found the Real to Reel programming very disappointing, perhaps reflecting a trend in less innovative work being made. I am thrilled to be much more optimistic this year as emerging voices of the documentary form like Jessica Yu run alongside old festival favourites like Nick Broomfield. Broomfield's latest chronicles the obvious in Sarah Palin: You Betcha and there is much to look forward to and be on guard for here. I find Broomfield's style very strongly prejudiced (more so than even Michael Moore) without much room for nuance, but then it will be hard to resist seeing that brought to bear on the famous Tina Fey-mimicked politician. I'm not sure if I will make it through all of Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: an Odyssey which pulls together 15 hours of compiled footage on the history of film and includes rare and important interviews and clips from the films that have helped shape our film consciousness, around the world, - but I want to and should. Gary Hustwit's Urbanized completes his trilogy that observes the way cities integrate the innovative design of their leading architects and planners. Costa Botes has made a film about one man's attempt to save Eskimo dogs from extinction through private breeding and care in The Last Dogs of Winter. Corinna Belz's portrait of the famous artist in Gerhard Richter Painting sounds like it might be a poetic reflection not only the artist but on the paintings themselves and is billed as increasing our understanding of "the art of seeing". Jonathan Demme's I'm Carolyn Parker: the Good, the Mad and the Beautiful profiles a woman whose younger years in the civil rights movement gave her the voice and strength needed to lead the movement for the rights of those affected by Hurricane Katrina to return to their homes and rebuild when city officials had deemed it too dangerous and impossible. In a similar theme to Tree of Life, Ron Fricke's Samsara is a "non-verbal, guided meditation that spans the globe on a journey of the soul." I'm game for that journey.

My two top picks in this category, however, are Atia Al Daradji and Mohamed Al Daradji's In My Mother's Arms and Jessica Yu's Last Call at the Oasis. The former profiles Hasham, a man who rescued 32 children from warzones and has cared for them, who nonetheless is forced to find new lodgings with them when threatened with eviction. A rare opportunity to see behind the scenes on the Iraqi side of this ongoing war, it promises an important reality check on the true picture of civilian casualties caused by it. Jessica Yu's film explores how North Americans stay oblivious to the profound water crisis soon to affect us all.

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