Saturday, September 15, 2012

TIFF12 Reviews: Films by Women, Part I: Watchtower, Hannah Arendt, Inch'Allah

Nilay Erdonmez in Pelin Esmer's Watchtower
After the wonderful Laurence Anyways, I went home for two days, returning on Saturday (a week ago now). In some ways it was crazy to be missing two of the most important early days of screening on the Sales and Industry pass, but a medical test left me with no choice. I was lucky therefore, that my first three films back were by interesting and visionary women filmmakers, veteran and newcomer alike, because their strengths and compelling subjects immediately brought me back into festival life.

The Film Library for Industry reps is one of the many great assets of having that pass. Films that fall afoul of scheduling can be screened in this small narrow dark room, provided you book ahead. In past years, I have had important personal moments this way: most memorably, the first time I saw Susanne Bier's After the Wedding. Though some of my most sought after titles were not available in the library (like Susanne Bier's latest film, Love is All You Need), last Saturday afternoon, with a gap of time suddenly available, I was happy to settle for Watchtower, Pelin Esmer's fable-like tale of a guard and a coach hostess whose fates entwine with coincidence while both are fleeing from their own secrets.

Esmer surrounds both characters with a mystery that protects them from being too easily understood. The event that binds them ultimately is one of very beautifully constructed crossroads: (without giving it all away), the very thing which the young hostess wants to be rid of, is that which the guard wants to prevent her from losing. The young woman lives a life that seems modern - she is making her own income and living independently. But it soon becomes clear that her freedom is in fact her prison: escaping an unwanted reality, she tries to live out her very private predicament under the constant supervisory world of men, who do not hesitate to comment on her every move.

Therefore, the guard's unfaltering willingness to put himself on the line to assist her arrives as a kind of salvo for the audience, even if we know he is haunted by his own demons. His perserverence in caring for her is also respectful - even when she appears to be indifferent he seems to understand her deeper motivations. His generosity eventually allows both of them some moments of redemption from past tragedies.

I also enjoyed the mist-enshrouded tower of the guard, and its views over a smoky blue forested part of Turkey I would not have known existed.


Barbara Sukowa in Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt
Margarethe von Trotta has dedicated her life to illuminating the stories of women, both fictional and real. Her films about Rosa Luxemburg (Rosa Luxemburg) and Hildegarde von Bingen (Vision) are at opposite ends of my TIFF 30 year range of experience: I think it was Rosa Luxembourg that first introduced me to von Trotta in the mid-80s and I have followed her ever since. This year von Trotta is back with a biopic of the great German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, in the film with that title.

Hannah Arendt attempts to be a film entirely about thought --- a brave undertaking in a visual medium. Arendt's life would easily fill out a mini-series: her early relationship with the German philosopher Heidegger alone could be three or four segments. Because she is focussed on Arendt's intellectual achievement, Von Trotta chooses instead to drop us into the American experience of Arendt in the post-war era, picking up her story at the time that Arendt served as a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine to cover the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. The famous Nazi war criminal had helped to design and administrate the "Final Solution". The movie covers only the events of the trial in 1961, but there are several brief flashbacks to earlier eras.

Janet McTeer as Mary McCarthy in Hannah Arendt
Several Americans become important in the drama. Nicholas Woodeson plays William Shawn, the then editor of The New Yorker who tries to warn Arendt about the controversy that is coming, and Janet McTeer is back as the American writer Mary McCarthy - her bearing and self-possession reminding me a great deal of her performance as Gertrude Lawrence in the BBC series Daphne. Her defense of Arendt to a group of Princeton intellectuals in a late scene nearly steals the film. She is always a breath of fresh air because she is able to inject humour into what she does, in the same way that Allison Janney does (who would also have been good in this role - much as I adore McTeer and appreciate Woodeson, why are Brits being cast as Americans?). McCarthy's exchanges of "looks" with Arendt over gossip-intrigue among husbands and friends, convey a lovely sense of the intimacy between these two famous friends, where the screenplay otherwise did not have much time for it.

Barbara Sukowa is wonderful as Arendt, particularly in a climax scene in which she finally breaks her silence and defends her New Yorker articles by explaining more fully what it means for evil to be 'banal'. The greatest atrocities are committed by those who have abdicated their 'personhood' in order to submit to the machine they are cogs in, she tells us. For Arendt, the abdication of personal responsibility and culpability for individual acts, as they participate in a whole, is more inherently demonic than being the architect of these same plans. In this same scene, a student asks her why she describes Eichmann as having committed crimes "against humanity" and not just "against the Jews". Arendt's response, that a crime against a Jew is significant as a crime against humanity, allows the film to exonerate her, and locate her safely back in the intellectual realm, but it doesn't resolve the dilemma of the controversy. Her quest for people to understand "how profoundly important it is to ask these questions" about the nature of evil, finally emerges here, just as a film about thought should: its intellectual premise gathers shape and form and is born in the moment of her delivery. As a result, the critical scene becomes the arrival of the theory, rather than simply a scene in which she vindicates herself against her critics. This kind of subtle control is what makes von Trotta such a fine dramatist, even if her visual style lacks any distinguishing and memorable characteristics. German filmmakers develop a premise better than any other in Europe - and we are carried along in their capable thinking.


Evelyne Brochu as Chloé (left) in Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's Inch'Allah
There was much I was excited about in anticipating Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's Inch'Allah. One of a number of films this year looking at the Arab Palestinian experience, Inch'Allah works hard to represent the human beings on both sides of the West Bank wall in complexly human light. But there is no question where its sympathies lie. The film's main protagonist Chloé, a Montreal physician, lives in an unnamed part of Israel, but works in the clinic of an unnamed community on the Palestinian side. The film chooses to focus on Chloé's foreign presence amid the conflict, and her resulting naivete becomes the underlying problem and danger of the film. In this way, Barbeau-Lavalette draws us into the web of thinking we know what is going on, and discovering that we don't.

Although I was impressed by how well the film depicted life on both sides of the 'wall'; a problem with the screenplay is that we are not able to see the final impact of her experiences on Chloé. Things start out well: as she begins to take action and make her sympathies and affinities clear, we see how she lacks any real agency within that decision. She is left devastated by the events she has witnessed, and increasingly radicalized, but ultimately the movie is inconclusive about how she is changed. By contrast, in very simply drawn lines and scenes, the film offers very sympathetic and moving portraits of the two young women who occupy Chloé's attention at home and at work: a young female Israeli solider named Ava (Sivan Levy) who hates her job and is occasionally won over by Chloé's desire to build bridges, and a pregnant Palestinian woman named Rand (Sabrina Ouazani) whose husband awaits sentencing and whose unborn child lives in constant danger of ever making it safely into the world. 

The bravery of Inch'Allah comes in its desire to show a wide-range of Palestinian and Israeli personality and experience. Radicals and activists draw Chloé in and there are no clear villains or heros. Having witnessed the death of a boy who attacks an Israeli boundary patrol jeep, Chloé is hardened, but Barbeau-Lavalette prevents us from easy sympathies when the same group of children are seen taunting the pregnant Rand with jeers about her losses. The film seems to be saying there is no winner here, no clear moral absolute, other than the reality that oppression leads to oppression. These are ways that the film shows real strength - by asking us to see the human beings within the conflict, while making clear the central imabalance of power.

A plot element at the very end of Inch'Allah lead me to believe that something is happening which does not actually turn out to be true. Rather than serving as a 'twist' story element, it is in fact an ambiguous problem that takes some of the dramatic punch out of the film's forceful ending. My seatmates in the screening I attended joined me in scratching our heads afterward. "Was she carrying something?", we asked each other. The uncertainty is important because the final action of the screenplay is in the hands of someone other than our heroine. That is a good thing - because when I thought that they were taking Chloé herself to a radical action, I was certain I was the watching the screenplay derail in front of me. But I believe the accidental ambiguity about an interesting choice, also cost the film its due impact.

Inch'Allah is well worth seeing, despite its unevenness. The last shot, of a child whose well-being has been cast into the shadow for much of the film, shows him making a hole in the wall and telling us what he sees. He does so beneath the "Shift+Control+Delete" graffitti (the image is shown in an earlier preview post below), and we are asked to look with him, into a future of hope. The choice reminded me greatly of Banksy's famous painting on the West Bank wall, in which two children are playing with paints and create an image of a wall broken, on the other side of which is paradise. Safi (this child)'s vision is simpler: "a tree, and then another tree above it", leaving us to wonder, who those trees are.

More films by women coming! 

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