Saturday, September 10, 2011

This is and is not film

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.

No comments: