Friday, September 09, 2011

Where Do We Go Now?

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.

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